Wojo: Harbaugh lifts Signing Day bash to new heights

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
UM coach Jim Harbaugh plays catch with the crowd at Wednesday’s glitzy Signing Day festivities at Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium. “I wanted to do something awesome. It was awesome with a capital ‘A.’”

Ann Arbor It was audacious and entertaining and slightly bizarre, a spectacle that bounced from flair to Ric Flair, with special appearances by Tom Brady and Derek Jeter. It was a name-dropper’s delight, unlike anything anyone had ever seen, not just at Michigan, but in college football.

And after all the video highlights and playful banter, it was a statement, the boldest one yet from Jim Harbaugh. He’s changing the way people think of Michigan, the way people view recruiting, and doing it with such frantic energy, it’s hard to keep up. And that’s pretty much his strategy — challenging his program and his players to do more, and seeing who can keep up.

It’s working for Harbaugh, which doesn’t mean it will work elsewhere, or even should be attempted elsewhere. The “Signing of the Stars” event at Hill Auditorium Wednesday was packed, and it felt like an abstract awards ceremony, with presenters reading their lines as a star-soaked class was revealed.

It capped a stellar recruiting season, with Michigan landing a group likely ranked in the top six in the country, and also raised money for the Chad Tough Foundation to fight pediatric brain tumors. And of course, it trained a bright spotlight on a program shaking off nearly a decade of doldrums. Just as the two-hour show was ending, word came that the nation’s top player, defensive tackle Rashan Gary of New Jersey, had committed — the first time the No. 1 player in ESPN’s rankings had chosen Michigan.

Who needs subtlety?

The event was a success, no matter what you think of the excess — and no matter what you thought of Lou Holtz and Jim Leyland dabbing to the roar of the crowd. Some might sniff that Michigan doesn’t do things like this. Some might counter that Michigan doesn’t win Big Ten titles like it used to either, not since 2004. Harbaugh has employed all sorts of recruiting tactics, from the unorthodox to the ruthless, and admitted afterward he made some mistakes along the way.

But in case everyone didn’t get the message after Michigan went 10-3 in his first season, there’s nothing subtle or shy about Harbaugh — and nothing subtle or shy about how the Wolverines want to play. The event featured Brady, Jeter, the famed wrestler Flair, Lou Holtz, Mike Shanahan, Todd McShay, Denard Robinson, emcee Randy Sklar and others. Hey, Harbaugh somehow even got Super Bowl-winning coach John Harbaugh to appear.

Nation�s top prospect puts final touch on UM�s class

“I just wondered, how can we do something that’s fun and a celebration?” Harbaugh said afterward. “I’ve been watching this process for a few years myself, and the coach pulls a fax out of the machine and stands up and talks about the player and usually says kind of the same thing. I wanted to do something awesome. It was awesome with a capital ‘A.’ ”

Rivals in the Big Ten might utter different words that begin with a capital “A,” which won’t faze Harbaugh. This will make Michigan more of a target, on the field and in recruiting, as Harbaugh’s staff was relentless, even signing three players originally committed to Penn State.

Asked if he was concerned about any criticism of the flashy event, he shrugged.

“I think people would do something similar, or they’ll criticize it,” Harbaugh said. “It was wonderful for us, and why not? We’ll be back to work at 2:30 (Wednesday afternoon), so why not have some fun, why not celebrate all wins? And these are huge wins for the families and the youngsters.”

A trend-setting move?

Some call it pushing boundaries. Harbaugh calls it innovation. And you can bet a few more high-profile programs will contemplate similar events. He stirred it up last year with his satellite camps across the country, and he confirmed he’ll be taking the Wolverines to Florida this spring break for practice — and also for swim meets and putt-putt tournaments.

I don’t know if Harbaugh is a crazy football coach or a goofy camp counselor, but I know he has people paying over-the-top attention to Michigan again. He landed recruits from Florida to New Jersey to Alabama to Georgia to California, topping it off with four-star tight end Devin Asiasi from Concord (Calif.) De La Salle. It’s funny, because as Harbaugh pushes new ideas, he sticks to old-school principles of the sport, leaning on tight ends, fullbacks and physical play.

Jim Harbaugh has a big laugh Wednesday at Hill Auditorium.

“It’s all good, because it’s a transition to the new recruiting era,” said former Heisman winner Desmond Howard, also in attendance. “We take pride in setting standards here, and this is thinking outside the box.”

Several early-entry recruits were introduced to the crowd, and afterward gushed about the experience. Quarterback Brandon Peters could scarcely believe he was chatting with Brady. Receiver Ahmir Mitchell laughed and said his favorite part was when Flair shouted, “I’m Blue baby, I can’t stand Ohio State! Wooooo!”

These moments connect with young people, just like all the gaudy uniform designs. But they only make lasting connections if the program wins and does what it says it’ll do. Harbaugh stirred some controversy when a long-time commit, Erik Swenson, claimed Michigan inexplicably pulled its offer two weeks before signing day. Several other players decommitted, either because they preferred other opportunities, or no longer felt welcomed by Michigan.

That’s an unfortunate side to recruiting, and an area Harbaugh and his staff can improve. He said it was understood that prospects would have to meet performance requirements — on the field and in the classroom. Apparently, that must be communicated better, and perhaps Harbaugh should be more judicious with early scholarship offers.

“I’ll say this, we did our best,” he said. “There were mistakes made. I take full accountability for them, but I don’t apologize. And we keep forging on.”

‘Just having fun’

The show goes on, whether it’s Jeter (who once planned to attend Michigan) sponsoring it through his Players’ Tribune website, or actors such as Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn delivering taped messages on the big screen.

It was eclectic, clever and sometimes awkward, and it fit the man orchestrating it. All those strange recruiting stories, from the sleepovers at recruits’ houses to tree-climbing? All pretty much true. And the original sleepover prospect, top kicker Quinn Nordin, indeed signed with Michigan.

“Just having fun,” Harbaugh said, adding he did four or five sleepovers. “If people criticize that, then so be it. But we’re enjoying the heck out of it. We’re out there looking for nuggets of gold, and that will remain our objective.’ ”

You never know where you’ll find the next nugget, or how you can coax it to commit. But it’s dramatically clear by now, Harbaugh won’t be looking in all the ordinary places.

Nation�s top prospect puts final touch on UM�s class