ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Gwen Bush wasn’t looking for a job in January when she entered the phone number with a 650 area code that she hadn’t dialed in more than four years. She needed some advice. But the owner of that number had changed jobs twice and moved. Bush wasn’t optimistic about connecting.
Yet when the phone rang, Jim Harbaugh answered.
Harbaugh had just gotten hired at Michigan. He hadn’t talked to Bush since he was recruiting her son, Wayne Lyons, while he was the head coach at Stanford. There was an entire San Francisco 49ers tenure between this conversation and their last. Still, Bush had two questions. The first: Did Harbaugh think Lyons, a Cardinal cornerback, was ready to make the jump to the NFL? The second: Would Harbaugh potentially entertain the notion of Lyons transferring from Stanford to Michigan after completing his architectural design degree out in Palo Alto? That stopped the conversation cold. “[Harbaugh] said, ‘If you want to seriously consider him coming here, we’ve got to stop talking right now,’” Bush recalled.
Later, after Bush and Lyons completed the necessary steps to discuss their options with Harbaugh, they began a process that ended last week when Lyons was officially accepted into graduate school at Michigan and he was announced—on purpose this time—as a member of the 2015 Wolverines. By then, Lyons wasn’t just reuniting with Harbaugh. The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native would also rejoin his mom. During the early stages of working through the transfer, Harbaugh had an idea. He had a job open on his staff that would involve acting as a liaison between the players, their parents and the coaches. Answering Bush’s constant questions had reminded him of what he learned while recruiting Lyons for Stanford: No parent was more thorough than Bush. She could be the ideal resource for the parents of the Michigan players—if she wanted the job.
When news leaked in February of Bush’s hiring and the potential transfer of Lyons, the natural response was cynicism. Was Harbaugh hiring Bush in an attempt to get a season out of Lyons? If he’d wanted to do that, there is no NCAA rule preventing it. In basketball, schools face restrictions when hiring coaches or family members of prospects. No such rule exists in football. Earlier this year, Ole Miss brought on Sean Patterson as its associate director of recruiting operations. The Rebels also received a commitment in February from Patterson’s younger brother, Shea, one of the top quarterback recruits in the class of 2016.
Florida State hired Mario Edwards Sr. as its director of player development in 2012. This made sense because Edwards is a former Seminoles player. It also made sense because the program signed Mario Edwards Jr., who at the time was one of the top recruits in the country. That Florida State situation is similar to another one this year at Michigan. Harbaugh hired ex-Wolverines star Tyrone Wheatley in January as his running backs coach, which would have made perfect sense even if Wheatley was childless. But he is not. In February, star tight end/defensive end Tyrone Wheatley Jr. chose the Wolverines over Alabama, Oregon, UCLA and USC.
But in the case of Lyons, Bush and Harbaugh insist the order of events doesn’t match the cynical assumption. Lyons, Bush said, was either going to Michigan or the NFL. Those were the only two options he was considering. When Bush learned Lyons would have to obtain permission from Stanford for Harbaugh or any other coach to discuss a transfer, she moved quickly. She had already done preliminary research on graduate transfers in November, so she had a head start. She called the NCAA office on Jan. 5 to make sure she and Lyons understood the necessary steps. The next day, Stanford gave Lyons the required permission and paperwork landed in the Michigan compliance office. If Lyons and Bush could finish that week reasonably assured Michigan would accept Lyons as a graduate transfer—that process is handled by admissions, which doesn’t operate on football time—he'd plan on heading to Ann Arbor after graduating from Stanford. If not, Lyons would put his name into the NFL draft and play in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl on Jan. 17.
In the clear to discuss a transfer with Harbaugh, Bush peppered the coach with the same kinds of questions she did when Harbaugh was recruiting Lyons to Stanford out of Fort Lauderdale’s Dillard High. The banter gave Harbaugh flashbacks to the lengthy questionnaire Bush asked all the coaches recruiting her son to complete in 2010. It also gave him an idea. No parent he’d dealt with had studied the recruiting process as thoroughly as Bush. “Some people don’t take the time to really learn the process,” Bush said. “They just let it happen.” Bush wouldn’t allow that for her son. Inspired by St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) High tailback James White, who sent coaches brief surveys before committing to Wisconsin, Bush and Lyons designed a 50-question exam for coaches to complete before they could recruit Lyons.
Plus, Bush now also had the experience of a parent whose child had played high-level college football while completing a demanding degree program. As a bonus, she had worked in the Broward County school system in a variety of positions for 27 years. She had administrative experience. She would be perfect for Harbaugh’s version of the director of player development position. “With her credentials in the educational system, I thought she’d be a tremendous liaison to academics and also a voice for the moms,” Harbaugh said. “In the recruiting process, the mothers get very little airtime—even throughout the entire college experience.”
Harbaugh asked Bush to consider visiting Ann Arbor. He didn’t know that for the past two years, the empty nester had been preparing for a still-undecided next stage of her life. She had sold her house and moved in with a friend. She had rolled over her retirement account. Every time she left for the airport to fly to one of her son’s games, she joked with her coworkers that she might not come back. This seemed like the new adventure she sought. Bush agreed to visit on the first big official visit weekend of Harbaugh’s tenure. She ordered a pair of maize and a pair of blue block “M” earrings before making the trip.
Bush now buzzes through the hallways of Schembechler Hall most days wearing those earrings with a Michigan jacket and a pair of maize or blue pants. Her job is multifaceted. She guides recruits and their parents who visit campus. She reviews transcripts. She helps administer a job-shadowing program for current players. (If a player wants to be an engineer, for instance, she would arrange a few days of him shadowing an actual engineer to give the player more information before he picks a major.) She serves as a liaison between current players and their parents. Harbaugh also hopes his players will trust Bush enough that they can come to her with issues they feel uncomfortable addressing with coaches. And when recruits’ parents want to know the same things she did when Lyons was getting recruited out of high school, Bush has the Michigan-specific answers for all 50 questions of her questionnaire at the ready.
The hire of Bush was immediately met with questions of motive, but Harbaugh doesn’t care. He didn’t hire Bush to get Lyons. Lyons was already coming, pending approval from the admissions office. Harbaugh hired Bush because talking to her during Lyons’s application process to Michigan reminded him that she was exactly what he wanted in that player development position. That it gets him one year with an accomplished defensive back and an employee with a deep list of contacts in talent-rich south Florida is a bonus. “People may see that the way they want to see it, but there’s a much grander vision,” Harbaugh said. “Selfishly, that’s to get the best people in the organization.”
If Bush’s hire helps Michigan get and keep better recruits, don’t be surprised if others begin to scout former players’ mothers as potential employees. Every great team needs a great Team Mom. This one happens to be on the payroll.
A random ranking
To honor last week's opening of Mad Max: Fury Road, here is a list of movie franchises in which the second installment was better than the first.
1. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. From the opening scenes on Hoth to the despair as Han Solo is encased in carbonite and taken off to a still-unseen—for those of us whose first experience was the original trilogy—Jabba the Hutt, this is the movie that cost millions of nerds their chance to have girlfriends in high school. Star Wars was a fine but simple morality play. Empire was the one that launched our obsessions. There was another installment—and another and another and another and now three more—but this one will always be the best.
2. The Godfather Part II. This is a better overall movie than Empire, but it falls to the second spot in these rankings because of the strength of its predecessor. Empire stands head and shoulders above Star Wars, but the first Godfather is a nearly perfect movie. Godfather II inches closer to perfection by filling in the backstory of Vito Corleone with an Italian-speaking Robert De Niro and by following Fredo’s betrayal to its logical conclusion, but it can’t create much space from the first one because the introduction to world of the Corleones is so superb.
3. Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The first Terminator is wonderful. The second Terminator has liquid metal. Checkmate.
4. Aliens. Sure, the creature bursting from John Hurt in the original is one of the most iconic scenes in film history. But the second installment produces more screams that no one can hear in space.
5. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. The original Mad Max has been on cable lately. It does not hold up, which is telling because one post-apocalypse should be as good as another. But the original was an excellent little movie for its time—if not for its budget. The Road Warrior took Mel Gibson's Max and elevated him into the pantheon of great action protagonists.
1. Last week wasn’t so great for another one of Harbaugh’s more creative hires. Jim Minick, the retired Marine Corps colonel—and childhood friend of Harbaugh—who is now Michigan’s assistant athletic director for football, was suspended indefinitely after being arrested May 9 on suspicion of drunk driving. Minick essentially serves as Harbaugh’s right-hand man, so it will be interesting to see how the coach handles the situation. Pittsfield Township, Mich., officials are awaiting the results of a blood test before deciding whether to charge Minick with operating a vehicle while impaired.
2. The Wolverines are constantly in the news under Harbaugh. While the news of Minick’s arrest obviously wasn’t planned, Harbaugh and passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch knew they’d make waves when they announced their plans to host Ann Arbor’s Aerial Assault quarterback camp on June 20.
The camp will feature San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, newly minted Tampa Bay Buccaneers selection Jameis Winston, former Wolverines Denard Robinson and Elvis Grbac and other experienced quarterbacks as counselors. The concept is similar to the Manning Passing Academy, except this camp will take place on a college campus and not in neutral territory. Harbaugh has done a lot of stakes raising without ever coaching a game at Michigan, and if this camp draws the nation’s best quarterback prospects to Ann Arbor, it will force other coaches to reexamine how they staff their camps.
4. Keep the Purdue football family in your thoughts. The Boilermakers lost strength coach Doug Davis last week from complications to pneumonia. Davis was only 33.
5. Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi would love to see college football utilize a communication system like the one NFL teams use to allow coaches to talk to the quarterback and middle linebacker in between plays. Narduzzi believes allowing radio communication might help tilt the game back toward the defense a little.
Narduzzi isn’t worried about hurry-up offenses moving faster. The signals from the sidelines for such offenses are so streamlined and the plays are packaged in such a way that it isn’t physically possible to move much faster. But Narduzzi believes the defense, which must get its alignment, its coverage and its decision whether to blitz from the sideline on every play, might be able to move faster and avoid tipping off offenses. “They could [go faster], but we could go quicker, too. And they can’t steal our signals as much,” Narduzzi said. “If you’re the offensive coordinator and you send a play in, I don’t know if it’s a real play or a fake play. I have no choice. I have to send the real one. I can’t send a fake defense.”
It’s relatively easy to discern defensive signals that are given in front of thousands of people, so offenses can wait at the line of scrimmage for the defensive call to go in and then look back to their own sideline for a play that better counters the called defense. Narduzzi thinks that a play relayed to the middle linebacker—who would then relay it to the rest of the defense—would allow defenses to mask blitzes and coverages more effectively, even against faster offenses.
6. Alabama coach Nick Saban worries the College Football Playoff is going to hurt the other bowl games. “But what I was most fearful of is college football is unique,” Saban told AL.com last week at a golf tournament in Birmingham. “A lot of young men get a lot of positive self-gratification from being able to go to a bowl game and that’s always been a special thing. That by having a playoff we would minimize the interest in other bowl games, which I think is sort of what happened and I hate to see that for college football.”
Apparently Saban missed the news that, in spite of the playoff, the NCAA has approved new bowls in Austin, Tucson and Orlando, and the Pac-12 and Mountain West are discussing the creation of a new bowl game in Australia.
7. Arkansas AD and playoff selection committee chair Jeff Long was asked about Saban’s comments last week during an appearance on Bo Mattingly’s radio show, which is syndicated throughout Arkansas. Long, in a much more diplomatic way, also pointed out that Saban must have missed the news that a bowl game is being planned in freaking Australia. “Well, I think sometimes coaches, particularly those at the highest level, I’m not sure how aware they are of what’s really going on out there in the real world,” Long told Mattingly. “You know, bowl games, they keep adding bowl games. And I think the television interest for the games is higher than ever before, so I think that's not only the College Football Playoff, but as we’ve gone through some of those bowl games. So I’m not sure it’s having that effect.”
8. If you follow as many college football players on Twitter as I do, then you know Cincinnati is pushing the correct buttons with recruits by touting Nippert Stadium’s proximity to a Chipotle.
9. Following a university investigation, the Stanford marching band has been suspended for all road games for a year. Judging by the list of infractions, the band’s greatest crime was having college students as members.
What’s eating Andy?
I was steamed about the Mad Men finale (spoilers ahead) for about the first five seconds of the “I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke” commercial. Then I got it. Ding!
What’s Andy eating?
Ron Swanson made an awful lot of sense on Parks and Recreation, but the most accurate words to emerge from Nick Offerman’s mouth during the show’s run came in the episode when Ron and Rob Lowe’s character, Chris Traeger, hold a taste test to decide what burgers the cafeteria will serve. Chris presents his Traeger Turkey Burger, which is carefully sourced, perfectly seasoned and free of most of the artery-clogging qualities of red meat. The assembled panel is impressed.
Then Ron presents his entry. “It’s a hamburger,” he says. “Made out of meat. On a bun. With nothing. Add ketchup if you want. I couldn’t care less.” Naturally, the plain beef burger on a mass-produced bun destroys the turkey burger. Then Ron utters one of the greatest truths ever told on network television. “Turkey can never beat cow, Chris,” Ron says. “Sorry.”
The preceding two paragraphs represent the long-winded version of an ultimate truth: If you’re going to mess with the time-tested formula that is the classic hamburger, you’d better bring something decadent. Slater’s 50/50 in southern California understands this perfectly. The mini-chain creates a patty with 50% ground beef and 50% ground bacon. The proprietors of 29 South in Fernandina Beach, Fla., also understand the only way to improve upon the burger is to make it more gluttonous. That’s why they mix their beef with foie gras and top each patty with Brie cheese, Benton’s country ham and a fried egg. Foie Gras isn’t something I usually seek out. It’s a rich meat made with the liver of overfed geese or ducks. It’s typically served at places that don’t have a burger on the menu.
A diner who had attempted to eat the burger the previous night had warned me that he considered it too rich, and it probably was from a your-brain-is-telling-your-stomach-it’s-time-to-quit standpoint. The place offered a glazed doughnut bread pudding dessert that came with coffee ice cream, and I was too full to order it after the burger and the lobster corn dog appetizer. (This was a small lobster tail fried in tempura batter. I’d have been more impressed with actual corn dog batter, but hey, fried lobster tail.) However, the flavor didn’t overpower my taste buds because the saltiness of country ham cut the fullness of the beef and foie gras mixture. The foie gras made the texture of each bite more luxurious. Few things can improve on bun-burger-(optional cheese and/or bacon)-bun combination, but this did. The mixture of beef, liver, cheese, ham and egg may as well have been a celebration of man’s place atop the food chain tucked between two buns.