‘Overtime’ excerpt: Equipping Michigan football team an expensive, painstaking process

John U. Bacon
Special to The Detroit News
From helmets to shoes, Michigan equipment manager Gary Hazelitt and his assistants make sure everything is right for the players and football staff.
"Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football," comes out on Tuesday.

This excerpt is from John U. Bacon’s latest book, “Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football,” which comes out Tuesday, the same day he will appear at Hill Auditorium at 7 p.m. to give a talk, answer question, and sign books. Bacon is a former Detroit News sports reporter.

Five decades ago Jack Harbaugh managed to run a winning high school football program with only two footballs, but such austerity is not a recommended way to succeed in the modern Big Ten.

Michigan equipment manager Gary Hazelitt works with two full-time assistants and 24 student managers, who must survive a rigorous tryout process. Yes, they have tryouts for volunteer equipment managers, and plenty don’t make the cut. They need all those people to set up and take down equipment for drills, load and unload the truck for games, and organize and maintain thousands of pieces of equipment, tailored to the players’ needs and preferences.

Hazelitt keeps 250 helmets in stock to custom-fit 140 players, using old-fashioned tape measures. Some programs use multiple helmets, “but Coach Harbaugh and I are both a little old school,” Hazelitt explained, “and prefer one helmet.” That has the added benefit of familiarity: players can quickly identify any problems.

Hazelitt and his staff change each face mask every two to three weeks, the hardware and most chin straps every week, and repaint them all every Friday night. The famed wings are not stickers but maize paint, painstakingly applied. Since Harbaugh returned, Hazelitt said, they have tried to match the current helmet’s colors and decals to those from the Bo Schembechler era.

Every season they also supply the players and staff with 1,500 shoes, which come in different styles for lifting, training, practicing on grass, practicing on turf, playing games on grass or turf, and traveling. Likewise, they give out 2,000 pairs of gloves in five different styles, based on weather, position, and other factors.

The program also buys about 300 footballs each year, which the staff methodically breaks in with wax, buffing machines, “and good old- fashioned elbow grease,” Hazelitt said. It takes a solid two weeks to break in a new football to a quarterback’s liking, which is why the equipment staffers are constantly rubbing footballs during practice. They whittle down the 300 new balls to the best 48 game balls, from which the quarterbacks and kickers choose 24 to start the season.

Even the footballs compete for their positions; the managers cringe during games every time a ball misses the net and ends up in the hands of fans playing keep-away with the security guards, or worse, throwing it out on Stadium Boulevard. When they age the game balls are demoted to practice balls, then fodder for the Jugs machine, which fires them out to receivers during practice.

To clean all the socks, shorts, pants, shirts, jerseys and sweatshirts the staff uses four 60-pound washers and four 80-pound driers to process 20 huge loads each day, including 300 bags of workout clothes, 140 jerseys, 140 pants, and some 600 towels. For home games the equipment staff arrives six hours before kickoff to set up the locker room, the showers, and the sidelines, then tape every jersey tightly to the pads to give the opponents as little to grab as possible. For road games they pack a 53-foot semitruck Thursday morning, which drives all night to the next campus.

The packing list runs more than 50 items, most of which get their own trunk, from uniforms, rain jackets, parkas, sideline capes, and hundreds of towels, to equipment for the videographers, trainers, strength staff, and even the cheerleaders’ megaphones and flags.

They also pack signs to signal plays, and directional signs for the visitors’ locker room— which most players will use just once in their careers— to point people to the showers, training room, coaches’ room, equipment area, meeting spaces, and the field.

“And of course,” Hazelitt added, “we pack the portable GO BLUE sign to hang up over the exit door so the players can slap it on their way out.”

They start putting everything back in the trunks during the third quarter so they can leave as soon as the players are showered and dressed. When they return they begin the process all over again, starting with laundry— which is a whole lot harder when they play on grass at Penn State, Michigan State, Purdue, or Northwestern, the last of the Big Ten’s grass fields.

“Field turf is the best thing ever invented,” Hazelitt said.

When each recruit finishes his tour of the facilities, Hazelitt and company fit the prospect in Michigan gear head to toe, including the player’s preferred number. The prospects invariably put those pictures on the internet in about three seconds. If they decide to play for Michigan, they probably won’t get their preferred number, but they will get a full set of perfectly fitting shoes, clothes, helmets and gloves, because Hazelitt keeps all the measurements from their recruiting visit on file.

“No other head coach appreciates the work done by the support staff the way Coach (Harbaugh) does,” Hazelitt said, “and he takes care of all of us.”

They, in turn, take care of everyone else.

All the people working in Schembechler Hall and everything they work with — from food to footballs to defibrillators — cost money, and it adds up. The 2018 football team’s operating budget came to $11.6 million — and that does not count the athletic department staff across the parking lot in Weidenbach Hall, nor the help the team gets from people on the Hill. It also does not count the $226 million renovation of the stadium, the $36 million to renovate Schembechler Hall again in 2018 (including $1.3 million for training equipment), or any other fixed costs, nor does it include personnel, academic support, medical care, athletic department career center services, and mental health and performance counseling, all of which the players receive without charge.

Divide that $11.6 million by 137 players, and it comes to $84,672 each, this year alone — and that’s just your starting point.

The department’s single biggest cost is tuition. Contrary to popular belief, the department does not get “free passes” for its scholarship athletes, but pays retail — no discounts — for every athlete. Fifty-seven of Michigan’s 85 scholarship players are out-of-state, and most of them go three semesters per year. In 2018-19 the athletic department will spend $26.3 million for athletic scholarships — its biggest operating cost —with $6.4 million going to football scholarships, or $74,294 per scholarship player.

Put those two numbers together, and Michigan spends $159,966 per scholarship player per year — or a few bucks shy of $800,000 for their five years on campus. If you included all the expenses devoted to athletes excluded above, you could probably get to $1 million per five-year out-of-state player pretty quickly.

This brings us to the second-hottest topic in college sports, behind only concussions: pay the players, or not?