INDIANAPOLIS — Soon after Michigan was routed by Illinois on Jan. 11, senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr. walked into the office of Michigan executive associate athletic director Greg Harden. The loss dropped Michigan to 11–6, 1–3 in the Big Ten and on the outside of the NCAA tournament conversation. “He was pissed to the highest level of pissivity,” Harden says with a laugh.
Walton ranted and raved about what Michigan needed to do to save its season: “This is totally unacceptable, he told Harden. “I’m going to call a team meeting.” Harden took Walton’s desire to lead singular focus on change as a harbinger of good things for Michigan.
Walton brought the Wolverines together in a hotel room a few nights later on the eve of a home game with Nebraska. He laid out a vision to his teammates and made it incumbent on himself that he needed to shoot more, think less, and be the dominant offensive player Michigan lacked. Two months later, No. 7 Michigan has improbably advanced to the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament, where they’ll face No. 2 Louisville on Sunday afternoon. In that span, no player in the country has undergone a more dramatic transformation than Walton Jr., who revived Michigan’s postseason hopes and led the No. 8 seed Wolverines to the Big Ten Tournament title in the aftermath of a scary plane accident. There’s no hotter player in the country than Walton, who has scored 25.6 points per game—10 above his season average—in the past three games. “John Beilein told him that he needed an alpha dog,” Harden says. “The alpha surfaced and started biting folks in the ass.”
The emergence of Walton as one of the elite players in college basketball can be linked to another success story for Harden, who for three decades has served as a mentor, confidant and advisor for all of the boldfaced names in the Wolverine athletic department. He came to Michigan in 1986 at the request of Bo Schembechler, who valued Harden’s background in social work to address alcohol and drug problems. Since then, Harden has worked with everyone from Desmond Howard to Tom Brady to a volunteer assistant swim coach named Michael Phelps. Harden’s hair is far more salt than pepper, and in his 31 years at Michigan the 67-year old has shared blunt advice and deep bass laughter with everyone from Glen Rice to Mike Hart to Tim Hardaway Jr. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today without having Greg Harden in my life to help me with development,” said Warde Manuel, Michigan’s athletic director who arrived on campus with Harden in 1986. “There’s hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of student athletes—both men and women—who feel that way.”
Derrick Walton is the latest and one of the greatest transformations of the man coaches refer to as “The Whisperer.” He refers to Harden as his “life coach,” the latest in a gilded line of Michigan athletes to seek and grow from his advice.
Before Desmond Howard won the Heisman Trophy in 1991, he was a frustrated sophomore who wanted to transfer. He’d just switched positions from tailback to receiver and Howard sought out Harden. Instead of coddling, Harden told Howard that transferring would only be a “geographic cure” to his problems. “Who cares? You haven’t done anything here,” Harden recalls telling Howard. “If you are serious about leaving, you are going to go somewhere and sit out for a year and find out the coaches are the same people in different (school) colors.”
Brady walked into Harden’s office early in his career after losing 25 pounds to acute appendicitis and found himself buried on the depth chart. “He was miserable, negative and depressed when I met him,” Harden said. Brady sought help because he knew that wasn’t who he is. Harden told him he couldn’t do anything about him becoming the starter on the field. “But I can help you believe that no one is more qualified than you.”
Harden helped guide Phelps, a volunteer assistant swim coach, through his rebellious phase when he worked for Michigan swim coach Bob Bowman in the mid-2000s. Harden explained that since Phelps spent his childhood with a singular focus on Olympic success that it only made sense he’d eventually rebel against his surrogate father. Harden wasn’t afraid to tell Phelps: “‘As good as you are, we still don’t know how good you are. You still haven’t given 100% for 100% of the time. I can only imagine what it would be like if you weren’t rebelling.’”
As Harden tells the stories in an empty dining room that doubles as his office on the second floor of the team hotel, he edges closer to a reporter when getting excited about a point. On four occasions, he gently smacked the reporter’s leg to hammer home a point. One joke was punctuated with him jumping out of his chair and sprinting about 10 yards to the other side of the room. He’s won a national title with Lloyd Carr, crossed paths with Jim Harbaugh as both a player and coach and served as the sport administrator for water polo and swimming and diving despite barely being able to swim. The hearty laugh and easy demeanor make it easy to see why students and coaches are drawn to him, as Manuel refers to him as a “secret weapon” behind the scenes.
“He keeps it real with kids, and they love that,” Beilein said.
Soon after Walton arrived at Michigan, he told then-assistant coach LaVall Jordan that he wanted to have a 20-assist game. Walton played for his father, Derrick Sr., in high school at Chandler Park Academy outside Detroit. He could always score, but he prided himself more on passing, averaging 10 assists per game.
When Walton Jr. arrived at Michigan, he deferred to talented teammates like Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson Jr., and the pass-first mentality didn’t shift until midway through this season. Compelled by the urgency of his season and collegiate career slipping away, Walton finally took the advice Harden had been giving him for years. His issues revolved around being a perfectionist, overthinking and deferring. If Walton started a game missing his first few shots, he’d stop shooting. As Michigan appeared headed toward the NIT, something needed to change. If the Wolverines wanted to make the tournament, they needed Walton to carry them.
“What type of man you want to be remembered as?” Walton said Harden would ask him. “(What’s) your legacy and how do you want to leave things and walk into new things?”
This Michigan team’s legacy, no matter how long its NCAA tournament lasts, will be rooted in its recovery from a plane accident on the eve of the Big Ten tournament in early March. The Wolverines' team plane slid off the runway after high winds forced an aborted takeoff. Walton got clipped by an emergency door and needed five stiches on his knee. He called his mother, Angela, to tell her that he was OK. “Mom, there’s been a plane accident,” he said, and then the phone went dead. “That was terrifying,” she said, learning a few long minutes later that everything was OK.
When Manuel heard about the crash, among his first calls were to Harden. Michigan’s athletic department has four mental health professionals, including Harden, on its staff. Harden worked to orchestrate the staff sports psychologist, two staff social workers and the counseling professionals on campus to meet with the players, band, cheerleaders and staff to make sure they were provided adequate support after such a traumatic event.
“Derrick was shook,” Harden said. “He was in pain. He had stitches. He had some serious thinking to do about whether he wanted to get on the plane. He and his teammates decided. The coaches didn’t decide, the administrators didn’t decide. Those kids decided what they wanted to do.”
Michigan’s players forged ahead, flying in on the morning of the Big Ten tournament and dispatching Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin in four consecutive days. Walton personified the alpha dog, averaging 20.5 points, 6.3 assists and winning Most Outstanding Player as Michigan won its first Big Ten tournament title since 1998. “The two best things that have happened to this team are the Illinois loss and the plane crash,” Harden said. “You talk about an amazing transformation.”
And that’s the perfect way to describe how Walton defeated his biggest opponents—self-doubt, unselfishness and a lifetime of being taught to lead by example. In a few weeks, he went from a solid but unspectacular Big Ten player to a player carving a deep legacy in Michigan basketball lore. Harden gives all the credit to Walton, another satisfied customer who visualized and achieved greatness. “In the last 30 years, when you talk about someone who is invested in the mental game,” Harden says of Walton, “he’s at the level of Desmond Howard and Tom Brady.”