For 34 years, Greg Harden has been Michigan student-athletes' 'miracle worker'

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

As Greg Harden talks about his career, he deftly shifts the conversation away from himself and begins to share stories of former Michigan student-athletes, some well-known, others less so, he has helped along the way.

He rattles off countless names, including superstar athletes like Tom Brady, Desmond Howard, Jalen Rose, Michael Phelps. But for Harden, it didn’t matter if the student-athlete was a walk-on volleyball player or a quarterback frustrated by his situation. Danielle Williams, Blake Sloan, and Michelle McMahon were all student-athletes at Michigan who sought his help, and Harden holds them all in the same esteem.

Greg Harden, Michigan associated athletic director of athletic counseling, stands inside the tunnel at Michigan Stadium on the campus of the University of Michigan. Harden is retiring after over thirty years at the University, having been hired by Bo Schembechler.

They talked, he listened. He empathized, but never coddled or sugar-coated as Harden led them down a path to develop the mental tools and capacity to understand themselves and become better athletes and, more importantly, strong individuals.

“He’s a miracle worker, I swear,” said McMahon, a former Michigan volleyball player who is now a sports broadcaster on the Big Ten Network. “Something channels through him when he speaks to somebody.”

To understand Harden's influence is to hear from the student-athletes with whom he has worked. As a student-athlete counselor, he worked, as he says, to make people experts on themselves. Along the way, the learned to embrace his favorite saying, "control the controllables." To be sure, Harden is an expert on himself, but he won't tell you that. How meaningful would it be, after all, if he told everyone how special he is?

“He is one of one,” said Williams, a two-time Michigan women’s basketball captain who began working with Harden during her freshman year. “There’s no one like Greg."

Making an impact

There is no shortage of people who want to pull back the curtain and explain just how Harden helped them find their purpose while athletes at Michigan. He he has worked there since 1986, when football coach Bo Schembechler brought him to campus as a counselor for his athletes. He is retiring Tuesday. Finally, he jokes. He’s tried to retire twice before, always reeled back in to work his wonders.

Harden is writing a book, he will continue work as a motivational speaker, and there’s golf, a lot of golf ahead. But now is time for Harden, or “Michigan’s secret weapon,” as he’s been known, to move on after decades of work as associate athletic director of athletic counseling.

“I've been blessed beyond comprehension to be able to know that I have influenced somebody's happiness, changed the way they see themselves,” Harden said. “When you are young and you're hoping to have a life that has purpose and meaning, I’ve had purpose and meaning.”

How’s this for purpose and meaning? Numerous athletes have said they wouldn’t have made it through Michigan, they would not have emerged from their inner struggles and accomplished goals they had set for themselves had it not been for Harden.

Former Michigan quarterback Tom Brady called Greg Harden, Michigan associate athletic director for athletic counseling, "very empowering and inspirational."

Undoubtedly, Tom Brady would not have remained at Michigan if Harden had not stepped in and helped him strip away Brady's "I'm a victim" mindset. The what-if game is tempting to play. What if Brady had never consulted Harden? Would he be the person and athlete he is now?

“Greg came into my life at just an incredible moment,” Brady said in an interview with The Detroit News. “Obviously, I had moved from California to Ann Arbor choosing to go to school at Michigan. It was a lot of tough competition and I really had to grow up. I think Greg recognized the state of mind where I was thinking, ‘Is there an easier path for me?’ Greg helped me realize that the path that was best for me was to learn how to take on the obstacles I was facing and to do the best that I could.

“He’s very empowering and inspirational, and I think for a lot of guys who step away from their homes for the first time, they want to be the best they can be. They’ve got to understand the tools that are necessary to do that, and if you don’t have those tools developed, I think Greg was someone that could help develop those in you. I had a work ethic, and I had the desire. I needed a clear direction and I had to learn to deal with things when they didn’t go right, when they didn’t go the way I wanted them to and not to be a victim. Stop complaining and start doing. Focus on what I could do and not what I thought was holding me back.”

During a lengthy interview on The Howard Stern show in April, Brady singled out Harden and briefly choked up as he emphasized how this “amazing influence” helped adjust his entire approach.

“It’s not a measuring of influence,” Brady told The News of Harden’s effect on his life. “I know for certain he had a huge impact on me as an athlete, as a person. He was a great mentor at this very vulnerable time of my life where I was questioning a decision I made, ‘Was this the right place for me?’ Greg said, ‘It’s right because you made it, and you’re going to make the best of it, that’s what you’re going to do. And you’re going to do everything you can and you’re going to be proud of what you do.’ He looked at everything that came my way as an opportunity for me to grow. Whether I ever amounted to anything on the football field, he saw something in me that he wanted to work with, and I’m forever grateful to him.”

Greg Harden, Michigan associate athletic director of athletic counseling, first arrived at Michigan on a track scholarship. He stands here at Ferry Field.

Pursue purpose

During a speaking engagement last year, Harden told the crowd that when he was young, an uncle asked him what he hoped to do when he got older. Harden said he wanted to be different. He has spoken many times about his difficult path. He left Detroit to attend Michigan on a track scholarship. That lasted a year. He was angry and disillusioned, so he left to, as he has said, get his “Ph.D. in Streetology.” He returned to Michigan in 1975 determined to be different and earned a degree with a focus on sociology and communication.

“I was taking unnecessary risk fueled by anger and emotions and adolescence and foolishness, but at 25, I knew life had some purpose,” Harden said. “All of a sudden, I had to figure out what was it. I’m like, ‘OK, I’ve lived to see 25, there must be something I'm supposed to do. I need to figure it out.’ Well guess what my first purpose was? To pursue my purpose. And that is the simplest way to help people who are lost. I don’t have a purpose. Yes, you do. Your first purpose is pursue, examine, test, investigate, experiment, stumble and fall and get back up and try different things to figure out what fits.

“All I knew is that I wanted to not be typical. I didn't want to be average, because I was not really impressed with the average man's mindset, and average man and woman were living lives of quiet desperation.”

He knew he didn’t want that life Henry David Thoreau had described. His professional calling has been to help others remove themselves from that very path.

We often see college athletes as having it all. They’re in the prime of life, at top universities across the country, and they’re playing sports they love.

“And what they keep turning out to be, which really disappoints a lot of people, is human beings and not robots and mutants,” Harden said. “They turn out to be real, living breathing people who are trying desperately to make their lives work.”

That's where Harden has stepped in time and again. Often, he has helped athletes who must learn to adjust to lives without their sport after a career-ending injury.

Warde Manuel arrived in Ann Arbor from New Orleans in 1986 recruited to play on the defensive line. He started during his sophomore season, and a professional football career was his very reachable goal. But the next season, he started to deal with neck injuries.

“I’m working hard to come back, best shape of my life, strongest I’ve ever been, and it just starts, the same thing comes back,” Manuel said. “I don’t even have pads on, just a helmet, butting heads.”

Manuel spoke to his coach, Bo Schembechler, and the realization set in. His neck issues were too severe. He had to retire from the game.

“I’m just devastated,” Manuel said. “I was in my bedroom, it was morning, and I’m just crying and upset. Greg had gotten a key from my roommate Vada (Murray). Vada was in camp and Greg must have asked him about me. And he just walks into the room and gives me a hug and just tells me, 'It’s going to be all right. If this is the worst thing that happens to you in life, you’re going to be a lucky man.'

“That is representative of his level of commitment, understanding, outreach. It’s a reflection of how deeply he cares about our student-athletes and people. I don’t think I’ve ever told that story publicly. At the time it was the hardest thing I’ve gone through. Every milestone up to that point I had achieved in my life in terms of athletics and developing, and here I am at the most vulnerable point in time, he gets a key, walks in the house, walks up the stairs … it’s just is a reflection of who he is and how much he’s helped me along the way.”

Manuel changed direction. He threw himself into becoming an athletic department administrator and earned a master’s in social work from Michigan and a master's in business administration from the Ross School of Business. In 2016, he became Michigan’s athletic director and a main reason Harden stayed on after his second attempt to retire.

An expert on yourself

Greg Harden, Michigan associate athletic director of athletic counseling, says he always stayed focused on a simple formula, to "make people the world’s greatest expert on one subject: themselves."

Harden always stayed focused on a simple formula, to "make people the world’s greatest expert on one subject: themselves." 

Often, he has worked with athletes who have tumultuous inner dialogues, self-defeating attitudes and behaviors. His goal was to show them that with or without the sport they played, their lives would be amazing.

“The nuances are what kind of person do you want to be. What kind of man, what kind of woman what kind of person are you?” Harden said. “And my job is to convince somebody if they are a better person, we increase the chances that they’ll be a better athlete, instead of focusing just on athletics, because athletics is not going to really explain who you are. So who are you?”

Williams wasn’t sure who she was when she arrived at Michigan. She had moved from Arizona and her twin sister was playing basketball at UCLA. She was quiet and introverted, which was not her behavior before heading to Ann Arbor.

“I think people thought I was a little off and strange, understandably so,” she said.

Her freshman year, an assistant coach suggested Williams see Harden. Williams declined more than once.

“She mentioned it and mentioned it again and I finally was like, ‘OK, I’ll go,’ like, check the box, leave me alone.”

Meeting with Harden changed Williams’ career at Michigan and her life.

“It’s not like a psychologist. It’s very different,” she said. “Being able to identify what the actual root of the cause of the problem is or where things stem from as opposed to just looking at the problem from the surface level. He sees past the deceiving façade, absolutely.

“I can honestly say, my experience at the University of Michigan would not have been the same without Greg. I honestly don’t think I would have graduated. I really can’t imagine my University of Michigan experience without Greg Harden.”

Harden did not know much about hockey. He referred to skates as those little steel things and credits Sloan, a member of Michigan’s 1996 national championship team, with teaching everything he now knows about hockey.

That was a small exchange of knowledge for everything Harden helped Sloan realize and understand.

“Can you imagine (former UM hockey coach) Red Berenson saying, ‘You need to get this kid to tone it down?’” Harden said, with his raspy giggle.

Sloan was intense. A perfectionist. He need to hit the reset button.

“He’s just got a really unique and fascinating way to really put things in perspective for me,” said Sloan, who went on to play for three teams in six NHL seasons. “His ability to re-frame things in my mind and just get right to the root of what the heck was happening in my brain was phenomenally powerful.

“There’s this pressure of playing any sport at the collegiate level, let alone you’re playing a sport at the University of Michigan, and he had this ability to break that down, ‘Yeah, you’re playing at Michigan, so what? It’s really no different than playing anywhere. Your ability to take that pressure and prioritize what it is that’s important — you’ve got a fantastic group of friends, you’re getting a terrific education from one of the premiere universities in the nation.' And when you start to build those things up on one hand, the sporting thing doesn’t seem like it’s the No. 1 be all, end all. It’s a complement to what you’re doing.’ And for me, that was really powerful. At the beginning it was like, there’s hockey and there’s everything else. Well no, it’s not hockey and everything else. It’s this full circle. Everything feeds off the other thing and that’s entirely true.”

Sloan remembers telling his housemates he was seeing Harden to talk things through. They didn’t make fun of him, but this wasn't the sort of thing tough hockey players do. Handle it on your own.

“But at 18, no, I couldn’t,” he said. “You think you have all your emotions in check, but you don’t, so it was a great solace to me and life-changing to be able to have that opportunity to have someone to bounce things off and re-frame things in my mind that were a little bit off.

“There’s a presence about him like very few I’ve ever met. He’s a terrific person and someone that I had a faith and trust in just talking things out with.”

'Secret weapon'

Greg Harden, Michigan associate athletic director for athletic counseling, spent 34 years at Michigan.

Harden was featured on 60 Minutes in 2014 as “Michigan’s Secret Weapon.” Desmond Howard said he wouldn’t have won the Heisman Trophy in 1991 without Harden’s help. Harden referred to Howard and Charles Woodson, Michigan’s 1997 Heisman winner, as two of the most “sophisticated cats” he has worked with. He can’t say enough about Jalen Rose, who, after his NBA career, has built a television career and given back to Detroit by founding a charter school.

But then there’s McMahon, who went to see Harden during her freshman season as she struggled to find herself. She was a walk-on volleyball player.

“He saved my life. No exaggeration in any way, shape, or form,” McMahon said. “He for sure saved me from going down a path that mentally was not sustainable to live in that head space. I was going down a dark, dark path.”

McMahon is smart, vibrant and outgoing. That's the surface. Harden’s strength is looking deeper to help the student-athlete find his or her way.

“You can’t see somebody’s mental struggle,” she said. “You can see when they break their leg, when they break their arm. That’s something you can see. ‘Oh, yeah, they broke their arm, that must hurt.’ You can’t go inside somebody’s brain and be like, ‘Oh yeah, that looks like it hurts.’ That’s the struggle in mental health.”

Even now, McMahon calls Harden and she says he puts her “back into alignment” mentally.

That, perhaps, is his secret to successfully helping so many Michigan student-athletes navigate their way. He listens. He hears them, but he doesn’t tell them what to do. He asks questions and their answers are the pieces that he helps them fit in the life puzzle.

“He’s one of those guys who knows where you’re going to get to and he leads you down the path, and there’s only been two or three people in my life that I’ve found like that,” Sloan said. “They’re seven or eight steps ahead of you and they’re just waiting for you to catch up, and Greg is one of those guys. He knows where I’m going to get to eventually. He would not force where he wanted me to go, but allowed me to get there on my own and in my own time. He’s really profound in that way.”

And now Harden is going his way on his own time. He has been mentoring Darryl Conway and Abigail Eiler at Michigan, two of the best he said he’s ever worked with, and they will take over counseling the student-athletes.

Harden reminisces about Brady and says he was never trying to be a superstar, he just wanted to be the best on the field and win for his team. Harden never set out to be a superstar, either. He just wanted to be … different. Ultimately, he became a difference maker.

“When someone influences you and it works so well in my career, my personal life, when people talk to me, I spread a similar message, because, obviously, I don’t have all the answers, I can just offer things that have happened in my life and choose to try to inspire others to get the most out of themselves just like Greg really did for me,” Brady said. “So it’s really amplifying messages that we worked on together, that we were able to learn together, and I certainly learned so much from him.

“He’s just had an extraordinary effect on my life.”

Twitter: @chengelis