Niyo: Stress is tie that binds Jim Harbaugh’s staff

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Don Brown and Jim Harbaugh

Ann Arbor — On the field, it’s a daily stress test. The kind of chaos only a football coach would enjoy.

In the meeting rooms, though, it’s something different for Michigan’s staff under Jim Harbaugh. It’s a “special” kind of collaboration it embraces. And as his assistant coaches try to find some order in a young, talented roster in the middle of fall camp, with the Wolverines’ season opener against Florida less than three weeks away, this is what they keep stressing.

“Everybody’s important,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a team effort. Everybody does a little and it adds up to a lot.”

That’s true just about everywhere, but there is something unique about this Michigan staff, which boasts three assistants making more than $1 million each this season — a first in college football. And it’s something Greg Frey, one of two new coaches on offense, was talking about Monday inside Schembechler Hall. Something that Frey, who’d been an assistant head coach and co-offensive coordinator at Indiana, says he felt immediately when he returned for a second stint in Ann Arbor.

“It has been awesome, it really has,” said Frey, who was UM’s offensive line coach under Rich Rodriguez from 2008-10. “All of us have our own backgrounds, all of us have our own ideas. Everybody has their own style of how they feel football should be played. And we’ve all been very successful.”

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Yet it doesn’t become territorial. It’s all tutorial. That’s the trick play that Harbaugh has drawn up here, encouraging outside-the-box thinking while insisting that it can’t just be the players who are forced out of their comfort zones.

“So it all becomes good group discussions,” Frey said. “It’s, ‘Whoa, time out. What about this? What about that?’ It’s ‘What do you mean by that?’ or ‘Why wouldn’t we do it like this?’ And the egos aren’t there, so it works. Because you can be yourself.”

And know that you’re in good company.

Leave your ego behind

Pep Hamilton, Michigan’s new passing game coordinator, left an NFL job where he was an assistant head coach to come back to college last winter. He joined a staff that includes two other former coordinators, along with Harbaugh, for whom he’d worked at Stanford. Frey didn’t have to come to Ann Arbor, either. And he says he might not have if that initial conversation with Harbaugh, who’d actually recommended Frey to his brother, John, the Baltimore Ravens head coach, before making the call himself, hadn’t gone the way it did.

Pep Hamilton walked away from the NFL to guide Michigan’s passing game.

“Because it wasn’t about egos or titles or how much I’m getting paid,” Frey said. “It was about, ‘Hey, we’re gonna try to make these guys the best players we can.’ …

“I like the environments where we’re all working together. I mean, I was an offensive lineman. That’s what we’re all about. And I think the best staffs, that’s how they operate.”

And it’s interesting to watch this operation unfold, from the inside out. Even comical, at times, as it was last year when assistant Jay Harbaugh stumbled upon that odd 10-man I-formation the Wolverines made famous — the “Train” quickly became a fan favorite — while watching high school game film from Colorado. Or as it is now, with Frey laughing about the younger Harbaugh exposing him to new ideas in office furniture, working at one of those stand-up desks.

Frey, one of only two UM assistants without NFL coaching experience, said he spent countless hours over the years studying the way Stanford utilized tight ends in the red zone or the way Harbaugh handled short-yardage situations with the San Francisco 49ers.

“So to walk into the room now and find out why and what and how, it’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “And I can honestly tell you I haven’t been disappointed, where I’m saying, ‘Huh? That’s it?’ ”

But that’s the idea, really.


As Harbaugh says, “We’re always learning things as coaches.” So maybe it’s Frey bringing in a new perspective after spending most of the last decade in a high-tempo, shotgun spread offense at Indiana. (And perhaps Michigan finally can find some success running outside zone plays to complement Harbaugh’s gift for the gap.) Or maybe it’s new offensive analyst Scott Turner, brought in from the Minnesota Vikings, adding a few wrinkles to Michigan’s third-down offense. Or maybe it’s simply Hamilton, who coached Andrew Luck in college and the pros, coaxing more out of Wilton Speight and the rest of the quarterbacks.

Whatever the case, when Frey mentions that old adage — iron sharpens iron — he’s quick to point out that applies to the coaches here, too.

Tim Drevno and Jim Harbaugh

Michigan’s defense practices what coordinator Don Brown preaches, and facing his aggressive, blitzing schemes every day in practice, “It’s a stress situation,” Frey says.

Likewise, while some coaches stress the value of continuity — Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, for one, as he sticks with same group — it’s probably not an accident that Harbaugh’s staff keeps churning. We’re entering the third year of Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan and less than half of his original coaching staff is still here with him. That’s partly a product of success — D.J. Durkin’s now the head coach at Maryland, for instance — but it’s also another sign of the head coach’s relentlessness.

Last year, it was three new assistants on the defensive side, including Brown, who’d gotten Harbaugh’s attention by building the nation’s No. 1-ranked unit at Boston College. This year, it’s a couple new faces on offense, with Hamilton replacing Jedd Fisch as Michigan’s passing game coordinator while Frey, who’s coaching the offensive tackles and tight ends, is responsible for the running game under Tim Drevno.

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There’s a cost attached to that, obviously. Only Ohio State spent more on assistants’ salaries in the Big Ten last year, and both schools are now coming close to the SEC powers when it comes to coaching payrolls. But that’s Harbaugh’s mantra, after all: More is more.

“And, I mean, when you get guys that are really good at what they do, with their expertise, I think when you collaborate and come up with different ideas, you just become stronger,” Drevno said. “Great coaches are great coaches. You can’t have enough of ’em.”