Sophomore Aisha Sainristil spoke with University of Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh for over an hour on the morning of March 18, the second day of spring practice for the Wolverines. Their conversation ranged from general advice for high school students to the specifics of this year’s Wolverines, including some early thoughts on her brother, true freshman Mike Sainristil.
This is the story of a former NFL quarterback and coach, who has now dedicated himself to being a father and mentor to others.
On March 19, I was fortunate enough to sit for a phone interview with University of Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh. I had this opportunity because of Harbaugh’s relationship with my brother, Mike Sainristil, who recently accepted a scholarship to play for the Wolverines. Despite our connection (we have met in person a handful of times), I was surprised and appreciative when Harbaugh gave me 1 hour, 20 minutes of his time – literally squeezing me in between press conferences – on the second day of spring football practice.
We discussed several topics, from education to athletics to life in general. Harbaugh revealed that football wasn’t always a passion, but it was hard to avoid while growing up with a coach, Jack (an assistant at Michigan and Stanford, among other stops), for a father.
Jim Harbaugh barely survived his third day of youth practice, in fact.
He was lined up for the “Oklahoma” drill, where a ball carrier and a tackler essentially have at each other. He was shocked when he realized that he would be paired up with the biggest, toughest and meanest third grader in the Ann Arbor (Mich.) Junior Packers program.
“Ralph was about 6-foot tall, weighed about 143 pounds,” he said. “He had a five o’ clock shadow, almost a beard. Where most people have two eyebrows, he only had one. I said a prayer to myself right then and there: ‘Dear Lord, please when I recount this, do not let Ralph be number seven in the running line. I know I haven’t done everything perfect, but I haven’t been that bad, either. I promise I will never do another bad thing if, when I recount, Ralph is not there.’ I counted and it was still Ralph. I decided right then and there that I was going to quit football.” Of course, Harbaugh did no such thing.
He went on to star for the University of Michigan before playing 14 years in the NFL, starting for the Bears, Colts, Ravens and Chargers. In 1995, he was runner-up for the MVP award when he led Indianapolis to the AFC Championship, and despite losing that game in the final moments, was named to the Pro Bowl and won Comeback Player of the Year.
He found similar success in coaching, guiding Stanford to an Orange Bowl victory before joining the San Francisco 49ers in 2011. He led the Niners to three straight NFC Championship Games, including an appearance in Super Bowl XLVII. He lost that game to his older brother, John, and the Baltimore Ravens, but their appearance as coaches and siblings went down in the history books.
Despite his success on a football field, Harbaugh struggled in high school like we all do.
“I wanted to fit in, to be liked,” he said. “I struggled with confidence, or thinking I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be. I wasn’t as good-looking or popular. When I think back to high school, fitting in and finding my place were the two things I struggled with the most.”
As a result, he had some very pointed tips for high schoolers – athletes or not – who similarly face those issues on the way to achieving their goals.
“Education after high school is the key,” he said, “striving to put the plan of success in (place) for yourself and work hard at school and learning…Dedicate yourself to learning and also (having) a passion for something. Just developing the passion will lead to having drive. You’re pursuing something because you love it and you really want to be good at it. Human beings can be good at anything they choose to be, and it comes down to one word: practice.”
Just as crucial as education, though, is having morals and a personal code of ethics. Harbaugh said that he takes tremendous pride in the fact that his Wolverines have never been disciplined for NCAA rules violations (as many other powerhouse programs have). That honesty began as a player, where his work ethic remained constant whether he was a Pro Bowler or a backup.
“I’ve gone through a career, both as a player and coach, where I haven’t cheated anybody,” he said. “I haven’t stole from anybody. I take a lot of pride in that fact. It’s a sport where ill-gotten gains can be had, and had pretty easily. I’ve learned that those ill-gotten gains eventually are found out, and it brings a person (to a place that is) worse than they would have been had they not got those gains.”
That emphasis on character is part of what helps Harbaugh bond with players, and it’s a responsibility that Harbaugh, a father of seven, takes very seriously.
“Outside of football, I enjoy friendships with players, similar to the one between a teacher and student, a parent and a son,” he said. “I want to be the person that gives you advice and wants your trust and respect, and I will give you that respect back and thensome. If you give grief, then you’re going to know what hits you. That’s no different than what I say to my own flesh and blood children. They may not always like what I’m telling them, but they are gonna get the truth.”
As the end of the academic year approaches, he offered some advice for soon-to-be college freshmen who will be attending college in the fall.
“I call it the ABCs of choosing a college,” he said. “A is academics. Where can you go to get the best possible education for yourself? One, do your own work, and two, do it sober. For B, my thing was football. It could be something like music or acting or writing. Whatever that passion is, you want to say, ‘Where can I go and be successful doing my passion?’…C is college environment and experience. Where can you go and feel most happy? Where can you go be the most comfortable and have an experience that you like being there the most?”
When I asked Coach Harbaugh about some of his greatest accomplishments, he was open and honest.
“When I played there were people that cheated,” he said. “They used steroids, took shortcuts. They did things that made them better, but in the long run they were found out and labeled cheaters. They’re hard to beat. They have an advantage, but their integrity eventually is washed away…The best way to gain success is to practice. Get really good at something and be above reproach when it comes to breaking rules and lying and cheating. Then all the gains you get cannot be taken away.”
Harbaugh said that he enjoyed playing football more than coaching, but his passion teaching others is almost as strong.
“Nothing was better than playing to me,” he said. “Every muscle in your body is being trained and you’re tired; there’s sweat, your muscles ache and you’re sore. You go to bed at night and fall right asleep. When I was playing football, all I thought about was scoring a touchdown. I didn’t think about any other problems I had in life, or friends, or being popular or unpopular. Nothing distracted me…I loved that.
“Coaching is the next best thing. You still get to compete, to contribute to a team effort, the winning and trying to fix the losing. The other thing I’ve found is that – by having 7 children and I just had a first grandchild – when I’m watching my kids play, I get the same feelings I did when I played myself. It’s like getting to play again, which was the most fun of any time in my life.”
One of Harbaugh’s latest projects is the development of my brother, Mike Sainristil. Mike enrolled at Michigan and became a full-time college student in early January, as part of a group of seven mid-year freshmen who graduated from high school early. So although Mike is already a Wolverine, he will return to Everett in June to walk the stage in the graduation ceremony for his final high school memory.
“He’s doing great,” Harbaugh said of my brother. “What I saw in him was God-given talent and ability. I saw somebody that was a willing competitor, and I was impressed that he was a serious student. I felt like he came from a very good home, where he was loved and esteemed in the house from an early age. He was taught the values of hard work, perseverance, humility, and also confidence and pride in the different jobs that he would have to do. He took pride in his own behavior.”
Part of what drew Mike and my entire family to Harbaugh is the way he views life: everything is a learning experience. He said he believes that you take all your mistakes, embrace them and learn from them. Most importantly, maintain focus on your education because it is the only thing that can you really take you far in life. Speaking with him for as long as I did, it would be wise for all the students and student-athletes at EHS to take Coach Harbaugh’s advice to heart.
“I learned that if I do this everyday, then I’ll get better each day,” he said, “then that will lead to success and where I ultimately desire to be as a football player and a student. Rather than wishing or hoping or fronting about why I wasn’t as good or as popular as I thought I should be, I learned that if I concentrated more on improving instead of wishing, I would have better results.”
More on that first interaction with Ralph at youth football practice:
“The whistle blew. I got my first step in the ground. I got my second step in the ground. I hit Ralph with everything I had. I rolled my hips and I shot my arms. The first thing I felt was his knee come driving up through my chest. I went straight up into the air. I was off the ground. I lost all my power of reducing angles, which the coach had told us about, and then the next thing was that my head hit the back of the ground. Then his knees were driving and his legs were pumping and he was using my shoulder pads, plowing through the ground like a till. He just kept going and going. I don’t know how long he kept running, maybe 20 yards or so, and then he finally went down to the ground. I don’t know if he stepped in a hole in the ground or he just got tired or what happened. I realized that he was on the ground. I got up and I remember very distinctly checking my body parts, making sure nothing was broken. My ribs were rattled around a little bit, and it occurred to me, ‘There’s nothing broken. I’m OK here. I just made my first tackle!’ I opened my eyes and I was blind. I could not see. It was the middle of the day and I could not see anything. I said to myself, ‘This is how it is — 10-years-old and it’s the end.’ Then I saw a circle of light, and I kind of concentrated on that circle. I realized that I wasn’t blind. I was just looking out of the side of my helmet. I was looking out of the ear hole on the side of my helmet! I jumped up real fast, and I ran over to where some of my teammates were. They were all high-fiving me and jumping up and down and congratulating me on tackling the biggest, toughest guy on the entire team. That was the day I fell in love with football. I was ate up with football from then on. I found something I truly love to do, and I have been doing it since I was 10.”
“That led to more tackles and eventually they made me a quarterback. I ended up playing right through high school…Then I played five years of college football, then 15 years of (professional) football. Now I have been coaching for 17 years going on 18 years. I learned two things – one, that I love football. The other was that even though you might be afraid of something or scared of something, you just do things and get the courage from them later. It’s amazing how many times in life that I’ve used that experience. I was afraid to do something and I did it anyway and something good happened. Usually when you have butterflies and nervous feelings about things? The memories come after the butterflies.”
“There were times, like when I was in 8th grade, they had a girl-boy dance at our school. All the boys were on one wall and all the girls were on the other wall. None of the boys wanted to go up and ask the girls to dance. I looked, literally, at all the girls standing there and I was so afraid to go talk to them. They all looked like…Ralph! I was taking a Spanish test in 10th grade, and I didn’t really know the material. I was afraid. I took the test, didn’t get a very good grade, but I took the test. I looked down at that paper, and I didn’t see the Spanish. I saw Ralph. Right there on the test. His face looking back at me. So many times, I’ve gone through life, and sometimes it didn’t work out well, but at least you didn’t quit. You tried. Not only did I fall in love with football that day when I was 10-years-old, but I also learned a really valuable life lesson. Even though you’re scared of doing something, you do it, and then after you get the courage.”
On his relationship and respect for Tom Brady, another Michigan alum:
“I’m just in awe of Tom Brady and everything he’s accomplished. I look at Tom Brady and view him as the greatest player to ever play football. He’s alongside Michael Jordan in basketball and Babe Ruth and Willie Mays as baseball players. Pele in soccer. He’s lapped the field, everybody else, already, and he’s still going strong. His dedication, his commitment, his talent. It’s at the highest level of anybody that ever played the game.”
“He was playing with the Patriots his rookie year and my last year with the Saints in 2001. We played against each other that one game, so I talked to him after that game. We’ve been friends ever since, and we do talk on the phone. We text each other a lot and he wishes us well here at Michigan before games. I’ll text him before games. There was a very funny time where my daughter – who was 8 at the time, she’s now 10 — and we were watching TV on the couch. My wife was there, a few of the other kids. We were watching “The Lone Ranger” and I could see that my daughter was on the phone. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ She said, ‘I’m just texting.’ I said, ‘Who are you texting?’ She said, ‘I’m texting Tom Brady.’ What?!?! I go, ‘What are you saying?’…It had a bunch of emojis, like horses, unicorns, smiley faces, hearts. It went on for like three different rows. He had texted her back, though. He texted her right away and said ‘Thank you!’”
On Academics and Athletics:
“As parents…we get excited that our children may have a passion and drive to do something. They are getting up out of their bed, or getting up off the couch, to go do something. We get excited about it as parents because that really is the first step. As a person, you have to want to do something, and to practice, and to want to be good at something. If that’s school, that’s awesome. That will benefit you the most in life. But also, a sport, a musical instrument, a passion and drive to build something, to draw something, paint something…something that you love, then go practice it and have a drive to do it. That’s the best advice I can give you.”
“In college I really didn’t have the struggle of wanting to be liked. I was so driven in wanting to be good at football and at school that it consumed me. I had really good mentoring and coaching and teaching that showed me that the only way to get better at things is to practice them.”
On hitting a college wall and athletes who redshirt (or sit a year before playing athletics):
“I went to Michigan and I was redshirted. In fact, I hit a wall my sophomore year where I just didn’t know if I was good enough. I wasn’t playing. I wasn’t used in any games. I wasn’t ahead of two of the other quarterbacks. I hit a wall, and I was able to break through that wall. I kind of just took off from there.”
“I’ve noticed, with teammates and guys that come to college, they all hit a wall at a certain point where they feel like it’s too hard, they’re too tired, or they feel like they’re not good enough. If they could find a way to just break through that, get to the other side and just take off like a rocketship – and that’s what happened (with me). I just kept the faith and kept practicing and that ended up working out really well. I didn’t quit. You know, half the battle is to keep going and not just throwing in the towel. Every single person I have coached has hit that wall.”
“The other thing is that I had a really sore Achilles tendon for about a month. That was also a part of the time I hit that wall. I improved, but the sad thing is when people hit that wall and can’t keep going. They throw in the towel and then you have zero chance of making it. The advice I give is to give it your very best. That way, you’ll feel good about what you’ve accomplished.”
“There’s two things that are happening (when a player redshirts). Number one, a football player will be better in their 5th year than they will be their freshman year. So on one side of the coin it will be better if everybody redshirts because they’d be better in their 5th year of playing football in college then they would their freshman year. The other side of that coin is that you get better at football by playing football and practicing football. A freshman gets better (by playing), so his career would be better if he would be able to play football as a freshman. He’s practicing harder because he knows he’s going to be in games, and guys that know they’re redshirting, they ease off the effort because they know they’re not playing in the game. They’re not as focused and motivated when they know they’re not going to play in the game.”
“There are certainly players that are more physically and mentally ready to play as freshmen than others. There might be a better player at that position when they’re a freshman, so you make the decision pretty much before the season, or the first four to six weeks of the season, whether it’s better for that individual to redshirt or to play. There’s benefits to both, and as a coach, I sit down with each player and talk through the pros and cons of playing as a freshman or redshirting. There’s benefits to both, but they are highly individualized to each player and it relates to where their development is as a freshman.”
On players leaving school early to pursue the NFL:
“I really don’t recommend it unless they’re going to be a very high draft pick. I realize the opportunity to have the ability to be drafted, say, in the first round, is something that will pay enough money to where they can still come back and get their education. My recommendation for anybody else…is to use every bit of college eligibility they have to get as much education as they can, or get as good at football as they can for when they do go to take their shot at playing in the NFL. Then they’re as good as they can possibly be, because they are competing against the whole world that wants to be professional football players and there’s only 2,000 in the NFL.”
“I share that information and advise them to stay in school. Get as much education as they possibly can, do as many internships as they possibly can, and as it relates to football, use all their eligibility before taking their shot.”
On the differences between college and the NFL:
“The biggest difference is that pro football players are the head of their own household. They’re married, they have children, they’ve moved on from college. They’re the head, or they think they are. Some aren’t as good as they think, or as ready as they think they are. College players need more nourishing and nurturing. They’re still developing. There’s a phase of high school, you know, where you’re at in your development as a person. You’re still growing and maturing. There’s somebody who’s at college. They’re more developed, physically and mentally. College is the in-between of high school and being a professional, being a full-time worker at a job. College players are not fully ready to be the head of their own household or to be emotionally and mentally mature. They haven’t seen as many things as pro players.”
“I like them both. Coaching pro players or college players is very similar, but just understanding that college players need more patience, more nurturing, more advice. I wanted to stay as a college coach. The opportunity has been provided (to return to the NFL) and I chose to stay in college coaching.”
More on EHS standout and early Michigan enrollee Mike Sainristil:
“We felt that he was somebody that would fit in with our team because he’s just a good, genuine, down to Earth person, and he’s not allergic to work. Those factors, and I just overall really liked him – not even liking him, I love him. Just my gut feeling of him as a person. He’s respectful.”
“I feel like I have a good antenna, and I love Mikey. Not just like him. Some guys I like. I love Mikey. All those factors made me feel like he would be an excellent fit here at Michigan.”
“He’s doing great…Every single guy that came in as mid-year (early enrollees), this is the best eight players and students we’ve had come in at the mid-year since I’ve been at Michigan. All eight go to class early. They are there 15, 20 minutes before the class starts. When it comes to working out, they’re kicking in the door in the morning to get into the weight room or doing extra on their own afterwards. It’s been noticeable to everybody. Coaches, the other players, the upper class, they realize that they’re different from even they were. They’re more serious about being good than I can remember myself being as a freshman…Mikey’s doing great, and so are our seven other youngsters that came in at the midyear.”