Harbaugh Takes Football Teams on Team Bonding Trips in the Spring

Photo by Anthony Broome, The Wolverine, 2023

Article by Keith Hellems, M.D. ’62[email protected]

I am sure that many of you know about Jim Harbaugh’s planned trips in the spring to various sites for his football team, but I never even heard about such plans until last month’s teleconference with our eDelt board members. Just in case you don’t know, I’m going to give you a brief synopsis.  

Photo by Romain Blanquart, Detroit Free Press, 2017

Jim Harbaugh was hired to be Michigan’s football coach December 30, 2014. Shortly after this in 2016 he decided to take his players to Italy in the spring of 2017. Harbaugh touts these trips as a bonding experience adding to player cohesiveness in addition to being educational and fun, “with members of the roster seeing places they might not have otherwise,” as Aaron McCann wrote in an MLive article. The 2017 Italy trip was followed by a France trip in 2018 and a South Africa trip in 2019. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the program took a two-year hiatus in 2020 and 2021. It returned to their annual travels in 2022 with a nine-day trip around the state of Michigan. In 2023 they took a seven-day trip visiting Cleveland and Canton, Ohio, Washington DC, New York City, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. 

While in Rome in 2017 on their first trip Jim Harbaugh realized his first venture into international college football trips was a success came during a long dinner in Rome. Harbaugh and his players sat down for a lengthy meal one night in Italy, something that stretched over several courses and took time to get through.  

As reported by Nick Baumgardner for the Detroit Free Press, “Along the way, he realized what was happening. Part was due to technology. And part was due to an incredibly unique experience.” 

“We were all at a dinner that took about 2 1/2, 3 hours, through all the courses. And at the end, I just thanked them all. It was unbelievable,” Harbaugh recalled. “Sharing, telling stories, laughing, really connecting. And I said ‘we should do this more back home.’ Nobody had their cell phones out.”  Harbaugh has frequently discussed putting the “college back into college football,” and he sees this type of team bonding and building as a logical extension. Harbaugh touts these trips as much educational as they are fun, with members of the roster seeing places they might not have otherwise. His staff and players have completely bought in to the idea of sharing this adventure together.  

In Rome they visited the Colosseum, Spanish Steps, Pantheon, Roman Forum, Piazza Navona, and an operatic performance that featured a number of arias from some of the most famous operas ever written, got hands-on instruction on how to fight with authentic weapons while wearing the traditional gladiator tunic and belt.  They also attended cooking classes. 

After this year’s trip, Harbaugh headed to Peru for a mission trip, something he did every offseason from 2009-2015.  

Photo by Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News, 2018

In 2018 while in France they visited Paris making stops at the Eiffel Tower, U.S. Embassy, Louvre and Versailles. They also traveled to Normandy to see the D-Day beaches and cemetery. They participated in a community service project. 

In 2019 while in South Africa they visited Cape Town and Johannesburg. They toured the Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela spent nearly two decades imprisoned during apartheid before becoming the nation’s first democratically elected president. They checked out penguins while visiting the Cape of Good Hope, climbed Table Mountain, visited Buffels Bay and participated in a rugby and football clinic. After leaving Cape Town for Johannesburg, Michigan’s traveling contingent visited the Apartheid Museum and saw wildlife while on safaris. 

The trips are funded by private donors. The Rome trip cost around $800,000, which included shipment of Michigan’s football gear across the Atlantic Ocean since 3 of the allotted spring practices (NCAA rules) were done on this trip, as Nick Baumgardner wrote. Later trips did not take gear since there were no practices scheduled.    

In an article for The Detroit News, Angelique S. Chengelis wrote, “Two donors – who had wished to remain anonymous until Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh accidently revealed their identities – split the bill for the Wolverines’ spring trip to Paris, which came to just more than $1 million.” The big-money alums were Bobby Kotick and Don Graham. Kotick had paid the $800,000 plus bill for the Rome trip and the Paris trip costing $1,007,268 ($979,641 expenses and $27,627 for security services) was split between Kotick and Graham. It is not clear to me who actually paid for the South Africa trip which according to the Detroit Free Press were said to be $1,154,839 paid to the travel agency organizing the trip and $38,241 listed as “other trip costs.”    

After the covid-19 hiatus of 2020 and 2021, in 2022, a group of team leaders asked Harbaugh to resume the travel opportunities, according to an article written by Alejandro Zuniga for 247Sports. This time they stayed closer to home, with a journey around the state of Michigan with the trips “designed to offer team-building opportunities, with educational components, service commitments and entertainment activities built into the itinerary,” as Zuniga wrote. For example, they “spent a morning riding dune buggies at Silver Lake State Park” and in the afternoon, “they helped to rebuild The Flamingo Club, a once-renowned establishment in the historically Black community of Idlewild in northern Michigan,” Zuniga wrote, “Stops included Mackinac Island, Traverse City and Muskegon, plus time in the Upper Peninsula.” The schedule included time for voluntary workouts, and “the intra-state bus travel gave Michigan fans the opportunity to see their team in a different context,” Zuniga wrote. No practices were planned. 

The 2023 spring road trip went across several states taking a 7-day, 6-night trip which included stops in Cleveland and Canton, Ohio, Washington DC, New York City, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.   

In Cleveland they visited the Rock and Roll Museum and in Canton they visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As Anthony Broome wrote in an article for The Wolverine, “Michigan has 11 figures present at the PFHOF, including George Allen, Dan Dierdorf, Len Ford, Benny Friedman, Bill Hewitt, Steve Hutchinson, Ty Law, Tom Mack, Ralph Wilson, Jr. and Charles Woodson. The coolest story of the day came in the form of walk-on defensive back Jesse Madden, who is the grandson of Hall of Fame coach and broadcaster John Madden. Michigan made sure to get a photo opportunity of Madden in front of his grandfather’s bust in the Hall of Fame wing of the museum.” 

Photo by Anthony Broome, The Wolverine, 2023
Photo by Anthony Broome, The Wolverine, 2023

In New York they visited the Statue of Liberty, took a boat to Ellis Island and visited the New York Stock Exchange in the evening. They got the opportunity to attend a Broadway play and also saw Times Square where there was a rotating Michigan football ad appearing on a prominent billboard. They also visited the 9/11 Memorial, Ground Zero, Empire State Building and Central Park. The trip continued to Washington, D.C., where they toured the African-American History Museum and International Spy Museum. They made stops at the U.S. Capitol, Supreme Court and Arlington National Cemetery. Some even attended a Major League Baseball game. 

I would like to acknowledge the articles of Nick Baumgardner, Angelique S. Chengelis and Aaron McMann sections of which I copied in this article.  

Plans for the 2024 spring trip have not been announced yet.