This excerpt comes from Chapter 12, “Student-Athletes,” in bestselling author John U. Bacon’s latest book, Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football, which comes out September 3. That day, Bacon, BA ’86/MA ’94, will appear at Hill Auditorium at 7 p.m. to give a talk, answer questions, and sign books.
Brains and brawn
Student-athlete. Is it an oxymoron?
The answer depends entirely on where you look.
Michigan Athletics’ Director of Academic Services, Steve Connelly, BA ’97/MA ’08, was raised by a single mom who qualified for welfare — but declined it. Based on Connelly’s high grades and scores, Michigan offered him full financial aid in 1993, and he eagerly accepted. He has worked in the athletic department since graduating from Michigan in 1997, and rose to director of football academic services in 2010. He now leads a staff of six full-time counselors and learning specialists for all athletes, and five interns.
Two years before Connelly took over the division in 2010, The Ann Arbor News ran an investigative piece, sparked by comments from Jim Harbaugh, BA ’86, when he was at Stanford. The News reported that almost 80 percent of the scholarship players on the 2004 team — the most recent available with four years of data — were pursuing a bachelor of general studies degree program. Offered through the University’s main college of Literature, Science, and the Arts, the BGS is similar to conventional majors, but doesn’t require a concentration in any one discipline, or a foreign language. And second, 48 football players had taken at least two independent study classes, with nine taking three or more.
What should Michigan do about this?
“Let me be clear from the outset,” Connelly said. “I have no problem with students taking any of our majors, including the BGS. We don’t have any phony diplomas here.”
Michigan’s BGS alumni include Rick Snyder, BGS ’77/MBA ’79/JD ’82, the recently retired governor of the state, who also served as Gateway Computer’s CEO; Jim Hackett, BGS ’77, the former Steelcase furniture CEO and U-M interim athletic director, now the CEO of Ford Motor Company; and current athletic director Warde Manuel, BGS ’90/MSW ’93/MBA ’05. (Both Hackett and Manuel played football for Schembechler.) In short, the BGS major is not an escape hatch to avoid real study.
“But,” Connelly added, “when you see 80 percent of any team in one program, it’s worth looking into. Are the counselors doing some steering? The Ann Arbor News story suggested the counselors too often told the players to take this or that class, and major in this and not that.
“Since 2011,” he told me, “the football team has never had fewer than 25 different majors, minors, and degree programs among the 60–70 upper-class students who’ve declared a major — a very healthy spread. In the fall of 2018, the football upperclassmen were pursuing 31 different degree programs.
“We now strongly recommend, before a player can take an independent study with a professor, the player has to have already taken another course with that same professor at least once. So, by and large, the ones who enroll in an independent study now tend to be seniors who have some electives left. Since we put that policy in place, we’ve never had more than 10 players [out of 140], and typically significantly fewer than that, enrolled in independent studies at any one time. Independent studies are not safeguards for staying eligible.”
You could argue that, years before Harbaugh returned to Michigan’s campus, he had already brought about many of the improvements he had suggested — though he was not likely to get credit.
Harbaugh’s sincerity would be tested when Hackett hired him to become the school’s 20th head football coach on Dec. 30, 2014.
“Since I’ve been in academics, Harbaugh is my fourth head football coach,” Connelly said. “I’ve been fortunate that all four were serious about academics, and none of them even hinted about cheating. But we’ve never had a head coach who’d been an Academic All-Big Ten athlete here, either, who knows what it takes, and no one who took academics to the level Jim has. From the start, he wasn’t just interested in his guys doing well academically. He was adamant about it.”
Walking the walk
On Jan. 2, 2015, just three days after Harbaugh accepted the job, he met with Connelly. Harbaugh said that every new coach introduces a team-building exercise so the players get to know him, so they were going to do a team study table in the athletic department’s Academic Center, a 38,000-square-foot complex completed in 2006 for $12 million. Every player and every coach would attend the two-week program.
Connelly readily agreed. Two weeks became six weeks, with Harbaugh there every single night, doing his own work alongside the players.
“He wanted to send a very clear message that he would be prioritizing academics, and he meant it,” Connelly said. “Once you set that up, you separate the players who are sincere about studying from those who aren’t. Some guys ‘opted themselves out’ of the program and transferred.”
Such turnover can put a temporary dent into a team’s Academic Progress Report (APR) score, a formula the NCAA uses to reward and punish teams for their performance in the classroom. The APR gives one point for each scholarship athlete who stays in school and another for being academically eligible. That number is then divided by the points possible, then multiplied by a thousand to produce sums that typically fall between 900-1000. (The walkons, usually among the team’s best students, are not included in this number.)
But in the long run, weeding out indifferent students and attracting the committed ones paid off.
“I think the word’s gotten out to the recruits,” Connelly said. “If you’re not going to take academics seriously, you’ll be better off going somewhere else.”
But merely focusing on those who want to be Wolverines, and are willing to work in the classroom, isn’t enough to guarantee success.
Connelly recalled Harbaugh backing up his commitment from the first team meeting, when he made it clear that academics were going to be a top priority.
“Our rules are simple here,” Harbaugh told me. “If a practice or a meeting conflicts with a class, we tell them to go to the class. They can’t make up the practice, but they can make up the meeting.
“You think about a guy like Noah Furbush, just how hard it must be to be an engineer and play football here. They have labs, and you usually can’t reschedule those. So we let them go to the lab — and we have 16-20 engineering students on the team, depending on how you count it. One thing we discovered, when an engineering student misses a practice, they don’t miss much. They’re smart, they pick it up fast, and they work hard to catch up. They’re fine.”
But the policy also applies to freshmen taking their first college classes over the summer, just after they graduated from high school and before the all-important “fall camp” begins in late July. Harbaugh meets beforehand with football’s director of academic services, Claiborne Green, who reports to Connelly, to see how his guys are doing. If anyone is in danger of flunking a class he gives them time off practice to study. That might sound like a break, but to the players it’s a punishment. They don’t want to miss fall camp, when depth charts are established, so the policy also serves as a motivator: If you fall behind in the classroom, you won’t see the practice field.
Connelly knows he and his staff are in the middle of a bigger battle.
They work with students who often don’t have the advantages many Michigan students enjoy. Likewise, the team’s racial makeup is very different from the student body’s. Among the university’s 15,252 undergraduate males, only 531, or 3.4 percent, are African American. Eleven percent of those, or 57 total, are on the football team, where they comprise 42 percent of the squad. So an African American man can start his day in the weight room, where almost half his teammates are African Americans, then walk to class where he might see two African American males in a 100-seat lecture hall.
It can be a jarring experience, especially if they’ve come from schools with very limited resources, overwhelmed teachers, and little support, where AP courses, long term papers, and sometimes even regular homework assignments are rare.
If the football recruits get a wake-up call in their first Michigan practice going against dozens of fellow all-staters, it pales in comparison to the shock of competing with the cream of the academic crop in the classroom — top students who can study all weekend and pull all-nighters if they need to.When I asked former Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, who took his classes very seriously, what he would be if he wasn’t a football player, he thought about it, then said, “An ‘A’ student.”
“This academic center wouldn’t exist if we expected every student to come in with the same preparation as everyone else,” Connelly said. “Oftentimes their identities are so tied into their sport that they need to build their confidence in the classroom. It’s not about sliding by with a 2.5, it’s about embracing the challenge, and excelling. And that’s Jim’s emphasis. When it all works right, they start caring more and more about their own academic success.”
So how can these students catch up and compete? In his 20 years working with athletes Connelly has learned the importance of giving the students the resources they need, while expecting a sincere effort on their part. That means providing support, not handouts — an approach that is not only easier to defend but produces better results.
“And that’s the key,” he said. “It has to be yours! If a student is making his own choices and taking responsibility, he’ll do better work. Our job is not to tell them what they can or can’t do but have a backup plan if their dream of engineering or business school doesn’t work out. We want them to get out of this what they put into it.
“We do our part, but if the coaches don’t bring in the right men, it doesn’t matter what we do. We can’t save them. And Jim backs that up: ‘If you miss your appointment with Steve, you lose access to Steve.’ The resources here are pretty incredible, but they’re a privilege, and if you take them for granted, you’ll lose them.
“Jim is as sincere a human being as I’ve ever met. That’s who he is. He has not got any façade. You’re going to know where you stand with him, like it or not, and I can say definitively I’ve never had a personal interaction with him or with his players or my staff where he has not prioritized academics. At this level, that’s rare.”
It’s all in the stats
Put it all together, and they get results. After the football team finished the 2008-09 academic year with a school-low Academic Progress Report of 897, due partly to a spate of transfers after Rich Rodriguez started in 2008, the Wolverines teetered on the verge of NCAA academic sanctions if they fell under 925 again. They easily cleared that in the 2009-10 year with a 946, then — with Connelly now in charge — set a school record the next year, 2010-11, with a 984, just 16 points off a perfect 1,000, and followed it up with APR scores of 981 in 2011-12, 985 in 2012-13, and a flawless 1,000 in 2013-14, which would have been bumped to a 1,006 after points from two delayed graduations landed in Michigan’s account, but the NCAA does not recognize any score higher than 1,000.
The total inspired Connelly to coin a phrase that makes Michigan’s rivals cringe: “There’s good, there’s great, there’s perfect — and then there’s Michigan.”
Michigan’s football program maintained these high standards the past three years with single-year APR scores of 985, 997, and 974 in 2016–17. Their multiyear APR scores, which combine the four previous academic years and is the figure the NCAA uses to rank programs, have come in at 990 in 2011-15, and 993 in 2012-16, finishing third nationally, two points behind Air Force and Northwestern at 995.
In 2013-17, the most recent data, Michigan football’s APR slipped a little, thanks largely to the transfers who left when Harbaugh arrived in 2015, but still finished at 990 — sixth place out of the 128 BCS football teams, behind only top- ranked Northwestern at 997, Air Force and Vanderbilt at 993, and Duke and Navy at 992. Once again, Michigan beat Stanford, which finished tied for 12th, with a very respectable 985.
Under Harbaugh, Connelly asserts, Michigan has had only a few students in eight years who completed their eligibility (who didn’t transfer or jump to the NFL) and failed to graduate. Because they now go to school year-round, even those who leave early for the NFL usually graduate within a year.
“Everyone says to me, ‘Your favorite day of the year must be graduation,’” Connelly said. “No, that’s boring. I’m proud, but they should graduate. For me, the best days are when you see the light go on, and they get it. They understand what you’re telling them, and they see the value of studying, the importance of education, for themselves. And they see they can do it.
“I know I’m biased, but I’m convinced we see as much or more growth from our students here in athletics as any other group on campus, and that usually continues after they leave. They have a different trajectory, and will do more to make the world a better place because of where they’re from and what they’ve seen. Now they have the power to make a difference.”
“Are we ahead of Stanford?”
While it’s undeniably true that most of Michigan’s players get scholarships and a high level of academic support because of their athletic prowess, and Michigan football has a self-interest in keeping them eligible, it’s also true that both sides take academics far more seriously than they need to if the goal were simply to play football that weekend.
“I’m proud of our students, and what they bring to campus,” Connelly said. “Diversity is more than just race. It’s geography, politics, socioeconomics, and life experiences. I believe they’re a valuable asset to the institution as a whole.”
For all the noble reasons to run a program this way, Harbaugh’s innate competitiveness plays a role, too.
“Every year I brought him the APR scores, the first question he asked, always, before he even opened the envelope, was this: ‘Are we ahead of Stanford?’ ”
And the answer, every year, has been yes.
In Harbaugh’s case, his innate competitiveness has not tempted him to cut corners academically, but to do the opposite: crank up the academic standards to beat his rivals in that field, too. To his way of thinking, much like his father’s and Schembechler’s, once you’ve cheated, you’ve conceded that you do not believe you can compete fairly and win. And, therefore, you’ve lost. Following the rules does not run counter to Harbaugh’s competitive instincts but is an expression of them.
“It can be a rallying cry around here,” Connelly said. “Yes, we lost, but we don’t cheat. If we cheat and win, we didn’t win. To me, integrity is not flexible. It’s hard to maintain it, but it feels worse when you don’t.”
This is a principle with a payoff, one anyone who has ever achieved something competing honestly can appreciate.
“There’s nothing better,” Connelly said, with a chuckle, “than beating a team you know is cheating their asses off.”