For 40 years perhaps no one knew more about the inner workings of the Michigan football program than Jon Falk.
A former assistant equipment manager at Miami (Ohio), Falk too made the move to Ann Arbor to accept a position as the Director of Equipment Operations under legendary coach Bo Schembechler.
Throughout his tenure with the Wolverines, Falk was granted the opportunity to work with Jack Harbaugh, an assistant coach on Michigan’s staff in the late 70’s, giving Falk a unique perspective on Harbaugh’s son and current San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.
“First of all when I came to Michigan back in ’74…of course his dad was coaching here, and Jimmy, John and Joanie were all little children at the time,” Falk said. “When we went to bowl games, they’d be running around, including at practice. Of course Jimmy had this love fest for Rick Leach.”
And that love for Leach, as well as his connection to Michigan’s program, was enough to lure Jim Harbaugh back to Ann Arbor for his college career after transferring to a high school in Palo Alto (Calif.) when his father took an assistant coaching position at Stanford.
An accomplished quarterback at the high school level, Harbaugh was commanding recruiting interest from several schools but according to Falk there was always a quiet confidence he’d end up at Michigan, a confidence Schembechler was dead on with.
“Jimmy of course moved away and I think he was looking at Miami of Ohio,” Falk said. “I went in to see Bo and I said, ‘Hey Bo, this Jimmy Harbaugh is looking at Miami of Ohio.’
“Bo said, ‘don’t worry about Jimmy Harbaugh Jonny, he’s coming to Michigan. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s coming to Michigan.’”
Now 2014, it appears Harbaugh is headed back to Michigan one more time.
Reported Sunday morning, sources indicate to GoBlueWolverine’s Sam Webb, Harbaugh is expected to be named the head coach at the University of Michigan in the days to follow.
Knowing Harbaugh as a worry free kid playing for the Ann Arbor Packers in a junior football league and as a star quarterback at Michigan Stadium, Falk is keenly aware of just what the Wolverines will be getting should Harbaugh come galloping through the door.
“Jimmy is the type of guy, and I describe him as, he is a stallion,” Falk said. “I’ll tell you why. He loves to run, jump, yell, scream… but when he’s in the field, everybody knows who runs the field. And that was Jimmy Harbaugh.
“With a stallion, you never want to break them down, you always want a stallion to do what he does best because that’s what makes him good. If you look at any player or any coach, he’s going to be the center of attention on the field. And that was Jimmy. He had command of the field, command of the players and he was a true leader.
“Of course in 1984, when he tried to recover the fumble against Michigan State, he got his arm broke. He found out when a guy gets injured no matter what, the train is going on down the tracks, you’re just not riding on the train any more. Jimmy had a very hard time with that.”
The hard times were plentiful between Schembechler and Harbaugh during their time together at Michigan, a player/coach relationship that evolved into a love and appreciation that clearly lingers to this day.
Harbaugh was never going to love every single thing his coach shouted at him in practice daily, but that same hardball approach prowls the sideline in khaki’s and a long sleeve shirt, a coach known for being tough on his players.
“Bo always said that every player wants to have a foot up his rear end,” Falk said. “Every player wants to be told what to do and how to do it. At the time, they didn’t like it, but at the end they’d be the first to say that Bo taught me discipline. Those guys taught me how to live and how to live right and do things right the first time.
“When you talk to Jimmy, that’s the first thing he’s going to say to you. He’s going to talk to you about how many things Bo taught him and how he is using the things that Bo taught him today as he is coaching the football team. That’s what’s so great about great leaders and how you take them and teach them.”
In 1986 Harbaugh came up with the idea to buy Schembechler a custom plaque to commemorate his 166th victory as Michigan’s coach, the most in program history.
After collecting money from teammates and assigning Falk the duty of heading out to make the purchase, Michigan went on to lose 23-20 to Minnesota that Saturday. The loss spoiled what would’ve been a memorable post game plaque presentation, but it also lead to a comment Michigan fans would remember about Harbaugh forever.
“I went in to see Bo sitting in the locker room where he was by himself,” Falk said. “I said well Bo did you hear what Jimmy said today. He guaranteed that we’re going to beat Ohio State next week. Bo looked up at me and laughed and said, ‘That’s my boy.’
“Jimmy will tell you I’m going to beat you and then you know what he does, he goes out and beats you. That’s who Jim Harbaugh is. He’s going to tell you he’s going to beat you and then he’ll beat you.”
Michigan beat Ohio State 26-24 in Columbus.
When Harbaugh arrived at Michigan as a player in 1983, the Wolverines’ program was rolling under Schembechler, a powerhouse in college football once again.
Now heading to Ann Arbor following seven years of bitter humble pie under the control of Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, Harbaugh enters a peculiar situation and a crossroads for a storied program.
“I’ve always said this, to beat the team across the field, you’ve got to beat the game first,” Falk said. “In other words, when you’re struggling, the game will do everything it can to bring you down. Mistakes, fumbles, interceptions, referee calls – the game turns against you. What you’ve got to do first is beat the game, and then once you’ve beaten the game then you can beat the team across the field.
“I promise you that Jimmy will bring the coaches in here and he’ll teach these kids to beat the game first.”
Story by Kyle Bogenschutz
Interview by Sam Webb