South Africa or Rio? Harbaugh plans for next year's trip

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on Saturday said he felt he, his staff and team were innovators and pioneers and plans to take his team abroad next year.

Rome — Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh stood at the Stadio dei Marmi on a gloriously sunny day where he was about to begin the team’s final spring practice and soaked it all in.

It was at the Wolverines’ last practice of the spring and final of three in Rome, culminating a ground-breaking idea to take a football team abroad for an educational experience that Harbaugh said he felt he and his staff and team were innovators and pioneers.

Harbaugh was so flushed with pride the program had accomplished this bold venture, underwritten by an anonymous donor, he said there are plans for another overseas trip.

“We're going to do it again next year," Harbaugh said Saturday. "We'd like to either go to South Africa, possibly Rio. 

"We'll get together as a team and decide. I'd really like to go Cape Town. I’d really like to go to Johannesburg. One of those two.”

Harbaugh was so blown away by the experience, he said he'd play a game overseas. 

"Yeah, definitely consider that for sure,” Harbaugh said. “It would be great to have a football game here, the stadium or the new AS Roma stadium. Think it opens up a lot of possibilities.

“The AS Roma people folks have been so great, we’d love to partner with them in any and every way. With their new stadium coming out, I think that would be a natural for Michigan to play a game here when it opens.”

AS Roma officials attended practice and beforehand gave Harbaugh a special jersey with his name and No. 4 on the back that he wore the rest of the practice, and gifted jerseys to some of the players, as well.

The week has been a blur of sightseeing and team-bonding activities as well as three practices the last three days. The team arrived and immediately visited the Borghese Gardens and museum where they interacted with refugees, they engaged in a spirited speedball event, toured the highlights of Rome for nine hours, learned to cook at the Cordon Bleu cooking school, attended the opera, went to Gladiator School, and last Wednesday were part of the general audience with the Pope. Harbaugh and wife, Sarah, were able to meet the Pope and handed him a Michigan helmet and Jordan shoes.

“They’ve had their socks knocked off the entire time they’ve been here,” Harbaugh said. “They can’t even find their socks. It’s been one spectacular good time and also so enlightening. They’ve learned so much. Rome is mesmerizing. Every day just keeps getting better. Don’t want to leave.”

Many of the players have plans to backpack for several days through Europe and others are heading off to three-week study abroad programs.

Quarterback Wilton Speight said he’s in awe of the experience.

“I really tried to do that (engage the entire trip) starting with the refugees and all the activities yesterday,” Speight said. “We’re from 18 to 22 year olds and to be on this earth, for me personally 22 years, and looking around at things that are over 2,000 years olds, that kind of blows my mind. I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around this. That’s probably the coolest takeaway for me.”

During spring break last year, Harbaugh broke the mold and took his team to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where they held four practices and the players got a chance to venture to the beach and hang out. That trip drew the ire of rival conferences, particularly the ACC and SEC – after all, Harbaugh had taken his team to their recruiting turf and high school coaches were allowed to attend practices. The NCAA no longer allows that sort of trip.

On Saturday, Harbaugh felt like he and Michigan had really done something innovative that he encourages others to do with their teams.

“The week has been phenomenal,” Harbaugh said. “Every day has been A+++, one right after the next. Today, again, just a culmination of the whole trip to be here at this historic venue for athletics in the shadows of the Olympic stadium where Muhammad Ali won a gold medal in boxing and the great Wilma Rudolph won (three) gold medals in track and field.

“For us to be playing here, for the first time we really feel like the innovators. This feels special and big and can’t thank the Italian government, the city off Rome, AS Roma, the Vatican. Everybody has been so welcoming, everyone has welcomed us with open arms. We really feel a brotherhood with Rome.”

Now that Michigan has laid the groundwork for such a trip, Harbaugh believes it will be easier for other programs to follow this blueprint and shape a trip that works for them.

“I feel like this is something that should be done by others,” he said. “I think people should see we’ve done this and just how good it’s been for everybody concerned. And it should be experienced by others. Once people see somebody do something then they know it’s possible and that there’s a path to do it.

“This is a good way to spend our resources. Investing in the players, investing in the youngsters in this educational type of way because all learning is not done in the classroom. Not all of it’s done on the football field. It’s done in connecting. Can’t close ourselves off. To connect with the rest of the world, from this experience it’s been amazing. We’re all similar, we’re all part of the same team, the human race. When you throw out a ball, a soccer ball, a football, a pelota (Spanish for ball), there is no language barrier anymore. Everybody is speaking the same language. We do feel like innovators, we feel like pioneers, and for the good. Innovators for the good. I encourage as many people to do this.”

Harbaugh believes a program’s resources are best served serving the athletes in this way.

“Health and safety for the players and education for the players is the two places we focus on putting our resources,” he said. “The bang for the buck is here, the educational experience, it’s priceless. It really is. Happy to be involved in it. Happy to be experiencing it.”

Will other teams or the NCAA try to squash this idea? Harbaugh certainly hopes not. His goal all along, he said, was to put the college back into college football. He has seen the sport consume the athletes 12 months a year, and this was a way of letting them feel like a normal college study

“I think it should be embraced, I really do,” Harbaugh said. “Why close ourselves off? Why not open ourselves up. Why not connect and on a grand scale, because sports has the ability to do it, right? The ball — everyone is speaking the same language. It’s so good on all levels. For us to come together and do sports is an avenue, it’s a path to do that. A reward, but the whole month of May, I just wanted them to have options.

“Just saw that it had gotten 12 months a year and do this, do that, do this, this is the time of the year you do each thing whether it’s fall, winter, spring or summer. I wanted them to have a way to have an option. Now they have an option to come here. They have an option to study abroad afterwards, they have an option to do internships in Europe, they have a chance to internships back in Ann Arbor or New York or the United States. They can take classes in the spring, they can go home and spend the month of May at home, they can get a job. There’s like eight, nine different things they can do. Have options like other students do, like most human beings have. This is a great way to kick off the month of May and their options. It’s been a really dynamic learning experience.”

Harbaugh brushed off being called a marketing genius. He said this trip has been about team-building, education and being free to say what you please. Harbaugh, for instance, had an operatic burst after practice on Friday and later at the Gladiator School, stuck his head in a cutout of Russell Crowe, who starred in the movie “Gladiator” and began to recite lines from the movie.

“Working together I’ve found is the genius,” Harbaugh said. “So many people have come together to make this a productive, healthy experience. Maybe that’s the simple genius of it, just connecting with people and working together with people. It’s been amazing. That’s been the wonderful part. That’s been the real genius of all this is how well everybody has worked together and enjoyed working together.

“People like it. Things have gotten so … people are afraid to do anything, afraid to say anything, afraid to be criticized. It’s refreshing that everybody can just be themselves. Say what you think, say what you want to say, be able to have some fun. So many people have gotten so worried about what they say and how they say it and what they do and how they do it. It’s been refreshing just to do what you want to do. Express the way you want to express yourself, learn what you want to learn. Participate how you want to participate. And it’s been together. It’s been as a team.”


Twitter: @chengelis