The general public seems curious to see what the Michigan football team looks like -- personnel, scheme, talent, swagger, everything -- under new coach Jim Harbaugh, and that includes former U-M players.
Everyone will get a chance to see the Wolverines on Saturday during the noon spring game at Michigan Stadium. The event is free and open to the public, and also will be carried live on the Big Ten Network. It is unclear what the crowd numbers might be, but the forecast is for 51 degrees and no precipitation.
Bob Stites, an Ann Arbor-native and president of the UM Letterwinners Club, played linebacker at Michigan and was a teammate of Harbaugh under legendary coach Bo Schembechler. Stites sent correspondence to those who played football at Michigan to visit this weekend for a reunion dinner Friday night and the game, and the response has been impressive.
Stites said about 300 former players from different eras are making the trek to Ann Arbor.
"The call went out, and they're all coming back," Stites said Thursday. "It's a huge list. It's impressive who's coming back."
Without a doubt, Harbaugh is a main reason for the draw and also the fact no one has seen the Wolverines on the field since the loss to Ohio State in the regular-season finale last fall. Brady Hoke was fired after the 5-7 season and Harbaugh was formally announced as the new coach, after four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, on Dec. 30.
"He's one of our own -- that's the draw," Stites said. "That's the first thing I told him, too, I said, 'Thanks for coming back,' and he said, 'It's the right thing to do.'"
The alumni flag football game that had been played before the final spring practice the last several years will not be held this year. But the former players will have dinner Friday night and during a "team meeting" they will discuss improving communications and information sharing among ex-Wolverines. This is part of Harbaugh's efforts to create an association for former players.
But the weekend also is about seeing the Wolverines and observing their progress over 14 previous spring practices.
It appears the last real Michigan spring game was in 1998. Michigan did not have a spring game in 1997 and went on to win a share of the 1997 national title. The Wolverines held public scrimmages in 1999 and 2000, and then-coach Lloyd Carr said he hoped to play a real game in 2001, but it also was, essentially, a glorified scrimmage.
Injuries have always been the main reason why the team hasn't held games, because there simply aren't enough players. Turnout for the final public spring practice hasn't typically been impressive, although there were an estimated 50,000 in 2010 when the Wolverines were coached by Rich Rodriguez. Weather, which can be dreary here in April, also has been a reason.
But Harbaugh has brought back the spring game between the Maize and Blue teams. Offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin are the coaches, and they drafted players last Saturday.
Former Wolverine Jeremy Miller, a long snapper under Carr, played in the 1998 spring game and said participating in a game versus a practice that's held at the stadium is an enormous difference.
"It gets you acclimated to how they do game days," Miller said. "It's the first time you really prepare for a game and you think, 'Wow, I'm actually going to be out there.' It was a good warm-up before you headed into summer workouts and preseason camp."
After 14 grueling practices – Harbaugh has run four-hour practices – Miller said a game brings the competitive level among the players that much higher.
"The game is better because everyone wants to win, and you want to make everything a competition," Miller said. "It was nice to have the banter, saying, 'We're getting steaks, you're getting the hot dogs.'"
That typically was what was on the line for the players in the spring game.
Food rewards aside, the spring game felt like a game day.
"We used both locker rooms when it was a game," Miller said. "You had the Maize team and Blue in separate locker rooms. It felt like a game with the band there.
"The (final public) practices were cool, too, because the fans were there and you signed autographs. But to me it didn't feel like the game-day experience, and you didn't have the clear winners and losers."