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‘Conquering’ Rome: Michigan’s “Priceless” Experience Was Good For All

The trip lived up to the hype, and then some.

The final scrimmage beneath Roman statues in Olympic Stadium

When Michigan announced their Spring Rome trip in January, one the biggest stated reasons was for the educational/cultural experience for the student-athletes and the opportunity to share American football in a new continent. So how did they do at these goals?

Breathing in the History and the Culture

Michigan’s staff did a remarkable job with logistics and packing so many activities for the players into a few days. They visited the Colosseum and the Pantheon, spent time with refugees, viewed the Borghese Gallery (featuring paintings by Caravaggio, who had more scandals than the Michigan State team), played paintball, toured the Vatican and even met the pope (we’ll see if papal intervention gets us a key 4th down call this year).

In talking to the players and coaches, they were all blown away by the experience. There was a wide range of answers as to the favorite activity on the itinerary. But going to the Vatican and seeing the pope was probably the top pick, with one player noting “I’m not even Catholic, but that blew me away”. A couple of players also mentioned having the final scrimmage at Olympic stadium. Sunday’s article touched on what happened on the field, but being surrounded by Roman statues (originally built by Mussolini, no less) was certainly a highlight as well.

In terms of expanding perspectives and world views, it was an amazing educational opportunity, reflecting the best of what the student athlete experience should be. As Coach Harbaugh said, “the bang for the buck here, the educational experience, it’s priceless. It really is."

When In Rome, Play a Totally Different Type of Football

Maybe not maize and blue, but these Wolverines drove 7 hours from Milan to watch practice

Italians are used to a very different type of “football”, with “soccer" being their number 1, 2 and 3 favorite sport. Their fans show a passion for their teams that rivals American college football, and Serie A league players are treated like royalty. However, their football players are relatively short in stature, so the sight of 80+ Wolverines walking around the city certainly made an impression.

At the practices themselves, there was a good smattering of Italians who came to watch this other brand of football, alongside the diaspora of Michigan alums. There were only about 100 people at Friday’s open practice, and around 500 came to Saturday’s invite-only event, which was coordinated with the Federazione Italiana Di American Football. A highlight from Friday was a team that drove seven hours from outside Milan to watch the practice. They are also named the Wolverines and presented Coach Harbaugh with a helmet after the practice (they do not use the winged helmets).

At Saturday’s scrimmage, the fans cheered for the good plays (although a long field goal by Quinn Nordin got the biggest cheer), clamoured to meet the players after the game and even joined in a decent rendition of Hail to the Victors. There was even a local cheerleading squad that joined the festivities. My daughter noted that they didn’t real kick in unison, but they tried hard and had fun.

Wilton Speight signing autographs after practice

Further Building the Michigan Brand

The event also was a magnet for alumni in Europe to re-connect with the team and for families of the players who wanted a broadening experience as well. It was inspiring to see all the different countries the alums represented: Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, the UK, Spain, Poland and Slovenia. And there was a family that made the trip from the Florida just for the practices.

Overall, the trip appears to be a success on so many dimensions. With Harbaugh’s declaration that this trip is the first of many, it should serve as another differentiator of what he is trying to build with the program. Just as Michigan already lands many athletes based on its academics (DPJ for the med school!), this program should also serve as a decent self-selection mechanism to attract student-athletes who are looking to expand their world views and take full advantage of the Michigan experience.

As Paul Finbaum of ESPN, who was notably critical of last year’s IMG practices, said “I think this is one of the most positive and maybe the best story of the year in college football. This is what a college experience should be about."