Spring practice for Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines is rapidly approaching. The majority of players on the 2015 team are there because they were recruited by Brady Hoke and his staff. If the 2014 season was an indication, their football and athletic ability to play solid Big Ten football this year is in question. It’s true that Coach Harbaugh added freshman to this year’s team. I have no doubt that Jim Harbaugh and staff can evaluate football athletic ability. I am curious as to the character or intangibles of both Harbaugh’s and Hoke’s recruitments. Hopefully, the mortar has the right ingredients for a solid base. Of course that answer is to be determined.
A complete change of coaching personnel brings me back to 1968, when Coach Bump Elliott was fired. In 1968, Coach Elliott’s team compiled an 8-2 record. We knew that Elliott’s team was athletic and had football ability. Elliott also had the gift of evaluating the intangibles or character of college-age men. For example, a couple of players from Ohio come to mind-Dan Dierdorf, Tom Curtis, Jim Betts and Jim Mandich from the 1968 squad.
These Ohio athletes had terrific careers at the University of Michigan. Honors included being All-American; Michigan’s all-time interception leader; being selected to the all-time Michigan team; being team Captain; and being drafted to play in the NFL. Curtis and Mandich have Super Bowl rings, and Dierdorf is in the NFL Hall of Fame. So much for their football talent.
Coach Elliott also recruited Frank Gusich and Thom Darden from Ohio and Jim Brandstatter, Mike Keller and Reggie McKenzie from the state of Michigan. Keller, Darden and McKenzie were drafted, and played in the NFL. Both Darden and McKenzie were all pro with the Browns and the Bills respectively. Keller played for the Cowboys, and was then hired to be in their front office. All told, Keller had over 38 years of football experience as a player, scout, front office staff and CEO. It is clear that coach Bump Elliott knew how to recruit football talent and the intangibles.
While interviewing Mike Keller, one of the questions I asked him was to construct a football “robot “with the qualities necessary to reach the highest heights in the professional game. Some of his thoughts included: 1. Competitiveness- which he defined as a player that hates to lose, never quits on plays. And, every play is most important in the game. 2. Being a team player. Keller talked about the individual who was willing to sacrifice his own personal glory for the sake of the team. The thinking was” I’m one of 11 or I’m one of 40.” The player doesn’t subvert all of his personality, however; he knows if the team is going to be successful, then Individual players are also going to be successful. 3 . Intelligence. For Keller that meant the player had to make quick decisions on the field. He thought it could be called instincts which was making good decisions, avoiding mistakes, and knowing how to react in battle when the opposing player is coming at you as in combat. The players know something bad can happen in a game, but they are trained to do their part and make good decisions under pressure. Another example might be engaging the enemy in trash talk, and motivating ones teammates on the line. Keller played on the line at times. 4. Mental toughness. This meant, according to Mike, being able to differentiate between pain and injury. Players are expected to play with pain and pain tolerance is a major component and part of the game. This “game” is about current performance, not what the player did yesterday. Another aspect of mental toughness was ability to focus. The player has to focus and put out of his mind outside factors such as personal issues and still play the game at 100%.
Hopefully, Jim Harbaugh has Incorporated, some of Mike Keller’s [recruited by Bump, played for Bo] wisdom and experience. When you put together the physical statistics along with the intangibles the potential is there for a terrific team. Let us see how long it takes for Jim to further develop his young recruits and turn them into Michigan men, as Bo taught him. Jim Harbaugh is a Michigan man, true and true.