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Falk returns to UM, for 'as long as Jimmy needs me’

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Jon Falk will fill in as Michigan's equipment manager during the team's spring break trip to Florida.

For most of his life, Jon Falk has been a major part of the fabric of Michigan football.

And while he retired after the 2013 season following a 40-year career that began under legendary coach Bo Schembechler, he had never drifted far from the program.

These days, Falk has taken to calling himself “the emergency manager” as he will fill in as Michigan’s equipment manager this spring now that Brad Berlin, who had replaced Falk, has moved on. Falk already is in Bradenton, Fla., unloading the equipment trucks at IMG Academy where the Wolverines will spend next week practicing four days.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has always had a strong relationship with Falk, dating back to when Harbaugh was a little boy running around the football building with his brother, John, while their father, Jack, was an assistant for Schembechler.

During a recent stop at Schembechler Hall to see Jim Harbaugh, the coach had a request.

“I went into the building to visit Jimmy, and he said, ‘You know, Jon, we have an equipment problem. What are you doing?’” Falk said Saturday morning in a phone interview with The Detroit News. “I told him, ‘My wife (Cheri) and I are going to Corpus Christi with our dog.’ I said, ‘Jimmy, I promised her a trip.’ And he said, ‘She’s going on a trip, it’s just going to be to Florida.’

“When Jimmy asked, I said I have to call my wife, and I told her, ‘Jimmy and Michigan football need help,’ and she said, ‘If they need help, you better go back.’”

Falk packed the car with Cheri and their pooch and drove to Florida.

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“I call myself the emergency manager,” Falk said, laughing. “Now, as the emergency manager you come back and luckily they all knew me. When you walk into it as an emergency manager, there’s a system in place and the workers are using the system that is in place. Now, that system may not be what you have done, but you do what you have to do to get the day-to-day going. But you’re working on some of the things that in your heart you know you have to do a different way.”

How long will Falk remain on the job?

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what’s ahead for me. I work for Michigan football day-to-day.”

While Berlin was equipment manager, Falk shied away from being too present in that area of the building, allowing Berlin to do the job the way he chose. But since Harbaugh’s arrival, Falk has made frequent visits to the football offices, and he and Harbaugh talk about the program and its history.

Harbaugh invited Falk to join the team on the trip to Minnesota last fall to try to win back the Little Brown Jug, a trophy that has always been near and dear to Falk’s heart.

“I cried when they won it,” Falk said. “I’m 66 years old, and I cried. The players who knew me before I left put their arm around me and said, ‘Big Jon, we got that jug back for you.’ I said, ‘No you didn’t. You won that for Michigan.”

Harbaugh had Falk take a picture with the players and the jug.

“The respect he showed me has been beyond belief,” Falk said. “I’m dedicated to Jim Harbaugh.”

And that’s exactly why Falk jumped at the opportunity to go on this trip. Falk has kept the records of every bowl trip he has packed and used the Sugar Bowl list from 2011 for guidance. While packing the trucks last week, he said it felt like a bowl trip.

Jon Falk watches over the Little Brown Jug during Michigan's 29-6 win at Minnesota in 2008.

“I guess it’s like riding a bicycle,” Falk said of preparing the trucks and organizing.

Before Falk left for Florida, Harbaugh had him speak to the team.

“I told them, ‘Men, let me tell you one thing -- when Michigan football calls for help, you come back no matter what. That’s why I’m here,’” he said. “That’s what I was taught in 1974, when Bo said he wanted me in locker room talking about the passion, desire and dedication needed to play for Michigan.”

Falk was around Harbaugh when he was a kid, when he was a player at Michigan and now as a coach. He said he marvels at Harbaugh’s unique approach, like this trip to Florida.

“That’s the thing I’ve noticed with Jim -- he’s made football fun here at Michigan,” Falk said. “The players love it. They love to be together and play football.

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“I’m really proud of Jim Harbaugh and I’m proud of what he’s done for Michigan. This is a good time because we’ve had some tough years. They believe Jimmy brought us back. Look at last year. We had 10 wins last year.”

While Falk isn’t certain what role he might play going forward at Michigan, he does know he will always be devoted.

“I don’t know what the future will bring, but I know I’m helping Jim Harbaugh and helping Michigan football,” he said. “When Bo Schembechler hired me, he said, ‘You do whatever you can to help the Michigan football coach.’ Every football coach, I went in and said I was always there to help them and Michigan football.

“As long as Jimmy needs me, I’m willing to do that for the University of Michigan.”

angelique.chengelis@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/achengelis