Harbaugh, Michigan raise the bar with Signing Day spectacular

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Ric Flair arrived on stage to a chorus of "woos." Former MLB manager Jim Leyland dabbed with Migos. Pro poker bad boy Phil Hellmuth introduced a recruit.

It was a pep rally, a USO special and the NFL Draft all rolled into one. It was unique and entertaining and sometimes strange.

It was Michigan’s "Signing of the Stars" National Signing Day spectacular on Wednesday, and like everything else coach Jim Harbaugh has done since taking over at his alma mater about 13 months ago, it was bigger and better and more ridiculous than anything that’s been done before.

"Why is Lou Holtz here cracking jokes with Mike Shanahan and Todd McShay?" you might have found yourself asking at some point during the two-hour extravaganza at the elegant Hill Auditorium. Well, with Harbaugh, the question one comes to expect is, "Why not?"

Either that or, as he asked in his opening statement to the 3,000-plus fans, students and VIPs who were in attendance at the invite-only event, "Who could possibly have it better than us?" To which the attendees dutifully and passionately replied, "Nooooobody!"

On Wednesday, at least, that was a true statement, as Michigan and its fan-favorite coach brought out the big guns. Tom Brady, an alum who has had some success in the NFL, came on stage to introduce three of the program’s 2016 signees, including top-ranked kicker Quinn Nordin, who Skyped into the event with his family.

Nordin, of course, was the player Harbaugh joined for a much-publicized sleepover last month. In fact, Harbaugh spoke briefly referenced the event, explaining, "I slept in Quinn’s sister’s room," before quickly adding, "She wasn’t there!"

Derek Jeter — a Michigan native whose Players’ Tribune co-sponsored the event — then introduced two New Jersey signees as an ode to his recently completed career with the Yankees.

Brady and Jeter garnered some of the day’s biggest cheers from the 3,000-plus fans and VIPs in attendance, though they were hardly the only sports stars in this gathering: Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh joined his brother on stage to introduce four-star tight end signee Nick Eubanks and hype his NFL potential, and longtime NFL executive Bill Polian appeared on video to speak in similarly glowing terms about four-star offensive line signee Michael Onwenu.

Flair, a pro wrestling legend, may have stumbled through the names of four-star cornerback Lavert Hill and three-star safety Josh Metellus, but there was no hesitation in his love for Michigan. Flair revealed that, prior to gaining fame and fortune as a wrestling star, he had committed to play football for the Wolverines under Bump Elliott, who preceded Bo Schembechler as coach.

"To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man," Flair said, pulling out one of his most well-known phrases. "And right now, the University of Michigan is the man!"

ESPN analyst and 1991 Heisman winner Desmond Howard made an appearance, as did outgoing athletic director Jim Hackett, former Michigan quarterbacks Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner — who led the audience in a spirited singing of famed fight song "The Victors" — and a number of other ex-Wolverines. Among the lesser-known of those was former walk-on quarterback Jack Kennedy, who now opens for Lil’ Wayne and kicked off the event with a Michigan-themed performance.

Comedian Randy Sklar, also a Michigan alum, emceed and hosted, occassionally taking jabs at Harbaugh’s now-infamous recruiting tactics ("I was going to host at USC, but Jim came to my house, slept over, climbed a tree … and flipped me").

Meanwhile, actors Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn and Robert Patrick, longtime MLB manager and executive Tony LaRussa, rapper Big Sean and former Michigan standouts Charles Woodson, Chad Henne, Devin Funchess and Jalen Rose, among others, provided video tributes to Harbaugh and the program.

And amid it all, the three-man roundtable of Shanahan, Holtz and McShay — seated on the opposite side of the stage from Harbaugh and the six Michigan early enrollees who were able to attend, including four-star quarterback Brandon Peters and top-ranked running back Kareen Walker — provided analysis and scouting of the recruits’ highlight reels, adding an NFL Draft feel to the event.

Basically, there was a little bit of everything — including the Michigan marching band, which surrounded the auditorium at the conclusion of the event to perform a live rendition of "The Victors" and serve as a bit of a shield while the celebrities slipped away. 

For the TMZ fan, it was spectacular. For the football fan, it was … something. Entertaining, for sure. Over the top, too. But as a "celebration" (Harbaugh’s word) of Michigan’s signees, it certainly succeeded.

"We wanted to do something different," Harbaugh told reporters afterward. "Wanted to do something awesome."

And along those lines, the event ended in fitting fashion, with a murmur going through the crowd that the nation’s top-ranked recruit, defensive tackle Rashan Gary, had committed to Michigan.

"Backstage, they told me that we got some really good news," Harbaugh said to a cheer, cutting himself off because NCAA rules prohibit schools from commenting on recruits until they have actually signed and faxed/e-mailed their Letters of Intent. The fans wanted more, but for once, Harbaugh couldn’t provide it.

"And that’s our show," he added.

A show, indeed.