Thomas Wilcher is the head coach of one of the most talent-rich high school football programs in the state at Detroit's Cass Tech High School. Several of his players were in attendance at the Sound Mind Sound Body football camp in Macomb, Michigan on Thursday and Friday.
"Any time you can gather young men and you can improve their lives, make them feel better about themselves and give them the opportunity to challenge themselves and compete to win a prize, not just a prize of monetary value, but a prize of joy, the prize of respect with their friends, it means a great deal to me to see something like this happen," Wilcher said. "To have kids excited about the stuff they wear, the way the look, the Adidas gear from head to toe, stuff they never had the opportunity to have before or couldn’t even afford to purchase sometimes.
"It’s great to see kids happy, because I know they look forward to compete and they get the chance to hear somebody great speak, like a Jerome Bettis, Jim Harbaugh or Urban Meyer. They get the chance to hear all of these guys speak and it’s a great thing. So I just hope that every kid here has an opportunity to feel good about themselves and that every kid here had a great experience. I know for a fact they had a chance to be touched by all of these great coaches (on Friday)."
The event is more than just a place for players to showcase their skills and coaches to recruit. It is a place where life lessons are taught and programs from all across college football teach kids how to be elite both on and off the field.
"Let’s nurture the kids athletically and spiritually," he said. "Let’s cultivate their minds and give them something they want to hear and give them something else they haven’t heard. That’s always happening here at Sound Mind Sound Body."
There's a new sheriff in town in Ann Arbor with Jim Harbaugh calling the shots for the Michigan Wolverines, but it is a familiar face for Wilcher, as they were teammates that played for the program under Bo Schembechler. He is looking to build a different relationship that will benefit both moving forward.
"It’s been good. We played together in college. Now he’s coaching," Wilcher said. "It’s a good relationship. I'd like to build a relationship with him. I like to build a relationship with Michigan and keep things going. I always like to go back to my alma mater and feel good about it. That’s what it is."
A new regime usually means wholesale changes for a football program. In terms of the message Wilcher gives to his players about Michigan, nothing has changed.
"There’s no difference. Michigan is Michigan," he said. "There are kids growing up loving Michigan and wanting to be at Michigan. If Harbaugh is coach, they want to go to Michigan. When Brady Hoke was the coach, they wanted to go to Michigan. When (Rich Rodriguez) was the coach, they wanted to go to Michigan.
"All I’m trying to say is that kids still love Michigan because it is a hometown school. Kids love the schools in Michigan, period. They love Michigan, Michigan State, Central Michigan and Western Michigan. They love Ferris State and Grand Valley. They love our Michigan schools and it’s good that our kids want to stay at home and be here and be seen by their parents.
"But if it all doesn’t work out, it’s great when your kids can go somewhere else and be peaceful and joyous and feel good about themselves and their parents do not mind traveling to see their kids. It’s great to see that happening, also."
For better or worse, Harbaugh, Meyer and Dantonio are the faces of the Big Ten now. With these charismatic personalities recruiting many of Cass Tech's players, is there a chance that any of them can pull away and claim the Cass Tech pipeline as their own? Wilcher does not think so.
"There’s a school for everybody," he said. "Who knows where a kid might want to go? He might want to Florida or USC. We have kids at LSU. We have kids going to different places.
"I just want the kids to go wherever they are happy and wherever they can find peace and where families can say ‘Hey, I’m glad he’s going there.’"
Regardless, Cass Tech has sent several players to Michigan over the years and the school has always been a solid pipeline of talent for the Wolverines. Four-star 2016 offensive lineman Michael Onwenu (Detroit, Michigan) committed to the program last week as the latest blue-chipper from the program to end up in Ann Arbor. Wilcher briefly explained to us what he will bring to the Wolverines.
"He wants to be the best," he said. "He wants to prove that he’s the best. And he works hard at it and wants to stay dominant."