First-year Michigan assistant Al Washington was on the outside looking in last year, but he couldn’t help but admire Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s plan to take his football team to Rome for a week that included three days of practice, along with plenty of sightseeing.
Michigan is preparing for its second straight overseas trip and leaves Thursday for Paris, where the Wolverines will spend a week taking in the sights, including a visit to Normandy. It is an optional trip for the players and it is paid for by an anonymous donor. The cost of last year’s was close to $800,000 but should be lower this year without the expense of transporting equipment for practices.
Harbaugh has spoken frequently about, in his terms, putting the “college” back into college football. This type of trip is, in part, how he hopes to achieve that.
“It’s an educational opportunity,” Harbaugh said. “(We all) connect. Not all learning is done in the classroom or on the football field.”
Washington was on staff at Cincinnati last year when Harbaugh and Michigan went to Rome, a year after he took the Wolverines to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., over spring break.
He sees nothing but positives from the experience.
“I think it’s awesome,” Washington said. “It’s a guy taking advantage of his opportunity to impact people. People have opinions about (it). People think it’s a waste of time. I think it’s a great team-building activity and a great cultural activity.
“As a player, I never had the chance to go anywhere. You’re kind of handcuffed. Scholarship athletes are very fortunate. They get their tuition paid. But there are a lot of times you can’t do things that normal students do. When you leave football or when football leaves you, sometimes people have a hard time adjusting because they haven't had that experience.”
Linebacker Noah Furbush said the players drew a lot from the trip to Rome last spring. There were plenty of team-bonding exercises, like paintball and cooking school competitions.
“One of the things that experience brought to a lot of the guys on the team – it gave them kind of an outsider’s view of who we are as Americans being abroad,” Furbush said. “Taking yourself out of your comfort zone and where you’re used to in your normal surroundings. That’s something a lot of guys wouldn’t have gotten otherwise if not for that trip. Right away, that was one of the biggest things we got from it as a team.”
Running back Karan Higdon will not make the trip because he’s graduating.
“I’ve got to walk (at commencement Saturday) and make my momma proud,” he said. “That’s what I came here for. So unfortunately I’ll miss Paris, but I’ll get there one day.”
Receiver Tarik Black said he debated whether to go, but his mother had a significant say.
“I wouldn’t say it was an easy decision,” Black said. “Part of me wanted to go home and see my family, but my mom wanted to go to Paris, so i was like, ‘All right, I'll go to Paris.’”
Michigan opted to hold all of its spring practices in Ann Arbor and will use the Paris trip to learn about the city and visit the top sightseeing attractions like the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral.
“I’m excited with doing it one way last year and doing it this way this year,” Harbaugh said. “It will be fun to see how this works.”
Michigan practiced three times in Rome, including the last held in the Stadio dei Marmi ringed by marble statues portraying athletes that perform various athletic disciplines.
“It’s a little disappointing because I remember at the Olympic training facility, the Olympic stadium and gosh, it felt like you were a Roman gladiator out there,” Furbush said when asked about not practicing in Paris. “You had all those marble statues around looking at you and people in the stands. It was unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced before. As a kid, I grew up at least wanting to be a Roman gladiator and fight in the Colosseum and I finally got an opportunity to go there.”
Washington believes other programs will start taking their teams overseas.
“They’re trying to prepare you on top of being an elite athlete,” Washington said. “You can do both. I think it’s a trend that will probably catch on at other schools. I know a lot of schools scoff right now, but if they had the ability to do it, they’d probably do it.
“When my son gets old enough, I want him to be around somebody that’s going to take care of him in all totality. I want to go to Paris really because of the team element. I’m a new coach, but even if you’re an older coach, those times are special because come fall, that relationship has got to be (about football), so it’s a great opportunity for me to catch up.”