Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner hosted a barbeque at his home this offseason. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)
Chicago – Expectations are high at Michigan, that goes without saying, so when the Wolverines string together lackluster seasons, something has to change.
The Wolverines are coming off a 7-6 season. They were 8-5 the year before. Bottom line – 11 losses in two years isn’t what the players want to endure.
During this offseason, there has been a strong focus on leadership training and team bonding. That has taken various forms with speakers -- like Chris Herren, the former professional basketball player who now speaks around the country about how he overcame drug abuse -- to team barbeques and outings.
Senior defensive lineman Frank Clark, speaking to reporters during the final day of the Big Ten Media Days on Tuesday at the Hilton Chicago, beamed as he spoke about his “brothers” and the amount of respect shared among the players. He made clear there has been a concerted effort to eliminate cliques that often form within teams.
“You can feel it in the atmosphere, in that locker room,” Clark said. “There’s not a group of guys over here when you’re having a team dinner, not a group (over there).”
Strength coach Aaron Wellman has been integral in helping the players bond, Clark said, making a point to encourage offensive and defensive players, and black and white players, hang out together at team dinners or as they arrive or leave strength training sessions.
“Coach Wellman says, ‘Let’s make Oreos, baby,’” Clark said, laughing. “You’re sitting there and you walk out, it’s not about a black or white thing at the end of the day.”
Not that the Wolverines needed a massive attitude change after last season. That hasn’t been it at all. It’s been about getting to know each other and bonding and sharing mutual respect.
But the 7-6 season, undoubtedly, has been a catalyst for this emphasis of team togetherness.
“When you go 7-6 -- when you lose that many games two years in a row, you start to sit down and think like something’s gotta change around here,” Clark said. “That’s one of the changes we had to make. We’ve done a lot of leadership things, a lot of team bonding things, just to bring us together closer as a team, and it’s really been helpful.”
Senior linebacker Jake Ryan, a captain last season, organized a team paintball excursion earlier this month in the Ann Arbor area, while senior quarterback Devin Gardner hosted a barbeque at his home for his fellow offensive players.
“We did a lot this offseason from meetings to setting up paintball, which was great,” Ryan said. “It was made up of a lot of different teams, and everyone got into it. It was a lot of fun. Just those little bonds that guys have now, it’s awesome. The more the merrier – it makes that much of a difference.”
Since Brady Hoke took over at Michigan in 2011, he has taken the senior classes to southern California to go through training with the Navy SEALs and to see the Rose Bowl. But this year, he opted not to have the smaller senior class make the trip, instead having the entire team focus on leadership building with representatives from each class meeting to help guide the team.
Gardner said the players more than made up for not going to California by coming up with their own ways to build camaraderie.
“I don’t feel like we’ve done anything before like the paintball and the barbeque I had,” Gardner said. “I don’t think we’ve had things like that. Chris Herren was a great speaker – it was great to see him and get that perspective of a guy who lost everything. It puts a lot in perspective. There are other things and other struggles than football.”
He has seen a noticeable difference.
“Everybody’s clicking together,” Gardner said. “I feel we’re as close as we’ve been since I’ve been there. Everybody hangs out with everybody, but the thing is, when we’re on that football field, everybody competes just as hard, so I feel like that helps our team tremendously.”
For Hoke, having a team blend effortlessly is a huge step toward having the players play as a cohesive group.
“There are some mindset things you want to make sure your team has,” Hoke said. “The more we know about each other, the more we care about each other. It’s important.”