Colin Kaepernick was on-site in Ann Arbor for Michigan’s spring game last weekend. He threw passes. He made a pitch for his return to the NFL. He was named an honorary captain.
Kaepernick’s presence, despite much of the criticism surrounding it, was far more than pandering or a publicity stunt for Michigan. After all, it was Jim Harbaugh who coached Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers to their Super Bowl appearance in 2013. Further, Harbaugh has been a mentor to Kaepernick throughout his career.
Though Harbaugh has had no shortage of attention-seeking moments (a sleepover at a recruit's house, climbing a tree, and doing pushups with a walrus are three examples that come readily to mind), his partnership with Kaepernick could hardly be counted in this category. Harbaugh has always been a progressive coach, and his commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion has played a prominent role in his coaching philosophy through the years.
Case in point: Just last month, Harbaugh hired Milan (Mimi) Bolden-Morris as a graduate assistant. With the hire, the former Boston College/Georgetown basketball player became the first woman to coach in a Power Five conference.
Speaking on the hire, Harbaugh said, “I have always believed in providing opportunities for individuals who are passionate about football and Mimi is someone who has shown that drive to become a football coach.”
The hire is particularly timely given the change to the NFL’s Rooney Rule last week, which was expanded to include women. Bolden-Morris could be the first woman to rise through the coaching ranks in such a “traditional” way starting as a graduate assistant, with more and more doors opening as her career continues.
Harbaugh’s hiring of “unexpected” is nothing new, which, again, drives home the point that the hiring of Bolden-Morris in a coaching role is rooted in an actual game plan and not a PR stunt. On the field, this translates to a high-risk, high reward scenario which we’ve seen play out several times in Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan with mixed results. Harbaugh gave a young, unproven Mike Macdonald a shot at defensive coordinator, which he used to catapult himself back to the NFL. Josh Gattis got his payday in Ann Arbor after his time working under Nick Saban.
In an interesting twist, neither coordinator is sticking around this season. While I’ve written previously about their departures as a sign of dysfunction and of Harbaugh’s eccentricities (if only Harbaugh had not entertained ideas of NFL coaching roles…), there’s another factor at play: Harbaugh sets his proteges up for success.
Harbaugh certainly values personal connection. He brought Kaepernick to spring camp because the pair go way back from their time with the 49ers organization. Macdonald was an assistant under John Harbaugh.
We’ve seen this play out before with coaches like Urban Meyer, but that often translates to the “old boys club.” Harbaugh turns that idea on its head by continuing to give opportunities to talented personnel who don’t fit the mold.
It’s not just Harbaugh, though. While he’s had his share of publicity for the wrong reasons this year, the Wolverines’ hire of Juwan Howard as men’s basketball coach has been a wild success — despite the initial hire being marked with skepticism and, in some cases, called a PR stunt of its own. At the time, Howard was the only Black head coach in Big Ten men’s basketball.
Now, Howard is one of four Black men’s basketball head coaches in the Big Ten. It should be noted that the other three — Penn State’s Micah Shrewsberry, Minnesota’s Ben Johnson and Indiana’s Mike Woodson — just started with their respective schools this past season.
Even Michigan’s women’s basketball program has backed this reputation this season with its play on the court. The Wolverines made a run all the way to the Elite Eight before falling to Louisville. It was the most successful Big Ten team in the NCAA Tournament — a tournament, moreover, that’s seen boosted ratings, increased sponsorship and a lot more attention. Michigan stood to benefit by virtue of being in the tournament longer.
The University of Michigan and its athletic department haven’t been without their fair share of controversies as of late, most notably the firing of former president Mark Schlissel over an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. There was also, as alluded to earlier, that time when Howard hit a Wisconsin assistant coach, leading to Howard’s suspension at the end of the regular season this spring.
However, what the athletic department has done is made waves in areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion that have not been matched by other schools in the Big Ten — including Ohio State.
That’s not to say that Ohio State is doing a poor job. The football and men’s and women’s basketball staffs are generally diverse (though there are obviously no women on Ohio State’s football staffs). Gene Smith was a leader in forming the football alliance between the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12, which also aims to work together to support diversity, equity, and inclusion for student-athletes. And for one, brief game, Larry Johnson became the first Black head football coach in Ohio State history when the Buckeyes routed Michigan State 52-12 in Dec. 2020 after Ryan Day tested positive for COVID-19.
Ohio State might be meeting the bar for expectations when it comes to DEI. What Ohio State is not, however, is groundbreaking. Michigan is.
From a pragmatic perspective, the question is how much Michigan’s position as a first-mover in many areas around diversity, equity, and inclusion will offer it an advantage. First mover advantage is a real thing, and it positions Michigan in a way that is unique and memorable but, at this stage, divisive. (Sadly, there are still people out there who think women can’t be football coaches.) For some players, being part of a program that repeatedly breaks glass ceilings could prove important. For many hopeful coaches — especially those coming from diverse backgrounds — Michigan might be a destination of sorts, where they can be evaluated based on their abilities, and given a shot when others still might not.
Of course, a rising tide lifts all boats, and (hopefully) it’s only a matter of time before we start to see even greater diversity and recognition of the importance of DEI on Ohio State’s staff. And if beating Michigan is motivation enough to get there, so be it.