Chris Partridge didn’t know Jim Harbaugh when he was hired.
Partridge had coached college football before, at his alma mater, Lafayette College, and at The Citadel, but prior to joining the Michigan football team, he spent the five seasons in the high-school ranks, coaching Paramus Catholic High School in New Jersey.
The huge success Partridge had in those years — he estimates they had 17 Division I athletes on the roster his last season — was enough to get him noticed. It was also enough to give him the feeling that it was time to move on.
That’s when a mutual friend got Partridge in touch with Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh.
“Tom Gamble, who is coincidentally working here now, was working for (Harbaugh) at the 49ers,” Partridge told The Daily on Nov. 7. “… And then, so, Jim got the job here, and Tom said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna call him and see if he needs somebody, you know, out of the high school ranks.’
“… And then, just one day, Jim just called me on the cell phone.”
That was that. Partridge flew out for an interview and was hired as the director of player personnel in recruiting.
The move made sense. It was as meteoric a rise as Partridge could have expected at that time, and it put someone who was familiar with the New Jersey recruiting pipeline in a primary recruiting position for Michigan.
A season later, Partridge got a promotion to the coaching staff, becoming the linebackers coach. At that same time, Harbaugh’s investment in Partridge paid off on the recruiting trail.
The No. 1 player in the 2016 recruiting class, Rashan Gary, committed to the Wolverines that offseason. He had played high school at Paramus Catholic.
“It played a role, I feel like, in terms of being comfortable and having a familiar face — having somebody to talk to,” Gary said of Partridge’s role in his commitment.
“But I told Rashan, and I told his mother, that, you know, I’m at Michigan, but I’m not going to try to guide you anywhere,” Partridge added.
“You know, I’m gonna be there as a support, because I’ve known you prior. And with Michigan, yeah, you come up, you visit, you meet with everybody else, and I’m just gonna try to guide that decision wherever it might be. So I really never gave them this hard sell or anything like that. I just tried to give them facts.”
In part because of Gary’s commitment, Partridge was named the 2016 Recruiter of the Year by Scout. The next season, he won the same distinction from 247Sports.
It was no coincidence, then, that Partridge helped develop a strong base of players from New Jersey.
VIPER Jabrill Peppers and offensive tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty came to Ann Arbor the year before Partridge’s arrival, and there are seven New Jerseyans other than Gary and Bushell-Beatty on the 2018 roster.
“He values family,” Gary told The Daily. “I don’t look at him as a coach. I look at him as one of my family members. And, you know, he values family a lot. And when you’re around family, it makes you comfortable. So I feel like me coming here with Juwann and before when Jabrill was here, it’s just a whole big family. We still have a lot of guys from Jersey, so that whole Jersey group, we’re all together as family.”
That’s an aspect of his coaching that Partridge, now the safeties coach and special teams coordinator, takes pride in — and it stretches beyond the players from the Garden State.
Fifth-year senior safety Tyree Kinnel watches film with Partridge every Sunday. Another group of players meets with him at 7:30 a.m.
The conversations are about football, sure, but Partridge says he feels he has a bigger responsibility than simply coaching Xs and Os. He feels he needs to “guide” his players.
“We either talk about family or football when it’s me and him,” Kinnel said. “That’s the thing I love about him.”
“I remember last week, a couple weeks ago, I talked to him, like, three times in one week and it didn’t matter,” added Gary. “We were here late night talking about personal things going on and how I should feel about that and what I should do to make me feel better.”
The closeness Partridge has with his players came in handy this past offseason, when one of the top programs in the country, Alabama, came calling.
The Crimson Tide wanted Partridge for themselves, and rumors suddenly swirled about Partridge departing for greener pastures.
“I didn’t want that,” Partridge said. “Especially since my intent was always to stay here. You know, you don’t want people to say, ‘He’s looking to leave,’ or, ‘He’s looking around.’ Obviously there’s a component to your career and your path there, but, you know, I always felt that, with guys like Rashan, guys that I’ve recruited, I wanted to stick it out for that and not just jump.
“Because, in reality, we can do anything we want to do here. What’s the reason to go somewhere else.”
Gary heard the rumors too, and at first, he was concerned. But Partridge assured Gary of his intentions to stay. With the trust the two had built up to that point, there was no real reason for Gary to doubt him.
“He loves us, and we love him,” Gary said. “He feels like it’s family here, so there’s no reason to leave family.”
Even prior to that, when Partridge first got the call from Alabama, he felt he needed to tell one person right away: Harbaugh.
The coach had taken a chance on Partridge four years earlier. As Partridge puts it, he deserved the respect it took to go to him before doing anything else.
“(He was) like, ‘Hey, great. This is really good for you. It’s great for your career,’ ” Partridge said. “I think I remember, I said, ‘Hey, do you want me to stay here?’ And he said yes, and that was the end of it. You know, Jim is really good, because you feel like you can go talk to him about something like that, and you feel like he’s going to guide you in the right way, whether it’s the best way for him or not.
“… I think that’s one of the things I respect the most out of him.”
Perhaps that’s what made Partridge and Harbaugh — and Michigan by proxy — a match made in heaven.
Harbaugh earns the respect of his coaches with hard work and transparency. That same style can be seen in Partridge. In his recruiting, coaching and relationship-building.
Maybe that’s why all it took for Partridge to prove a good enough fit for the program was a mutual friend and a phone call.