Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh said he just wanted to do something different to introduce his 2016 recruiting class this year.
Of all terms to describe Wednesday’s “Signing of the Stars” ceremony at Hill Auditorium, it was certainly different.
In his return to college football last year, Harbaugh was at Michigan for just over a month before he introduced the 2015 class, recruited largely by former coach Brady Hoke.
This year, with more time to prepare, he had something bigger in mind.
“How can we do something fun and a celebration?” Harbaugh wondered. “I’ve been watching this process, experienced it myself, how they pull a fax out of the fax machine and the coach stands up and talks about them, usually says some of the same things. We wanted to do something different, do something awesome. I was really pleased. I think today did that. It was awesome with a capital ‘A.’ ”
No one knew what to expect going into the celebration Wednesday. Harbaugh made his first appearance around 11:40 a.m., introduced by host Randy Sklar, after the Michigan Stadium introduction video featuring James Earl Jones played on the big screen.
He opened and closed his opening remarks by asking the crowd, “Who could possibly have it better than us?” Then, he and Sklar sat on a couch at one end of the stage in front of a packed auditorium. At the other end, football analysts Mike Shanahan, Todd McShay and Lou Holtz sat at a desk and broke down Michigan’s class as different celebrities and Michigan alumni.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady — a Michigan alumnus — introduced the first recruit, four-star quarterback Brandon Peters.
“I don’t know how to put it into words,” Peters said afterward. “Tom Brady is one of the greatest players to ever play. I’m a quarterback, too, and he’s a quarterback. You just look up to someone like that.
“I was kind of nervous at first, walking up on that stage and seeing all those people. I had a bunch of adrenaline, but once I got settled in and started seeing things, I settled down a little bit.”
More celebrities made appearances throughout the ceremony. Former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter introduced four-star running back Kareem Walker, four-star defensive end Ron Johnson and three-star defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour. Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, Jim’s brother, introduced three-star tight end Nick Eubanks.
As they were introduced, six of the seven early enrollees joined Harbaugh and Sklar on the stage (the only exception was three-star tight end Sean McKeon). Several former football players also made appearances, including former quarterbacks Jake Rudock, Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner, former walk-ons Joe Kerridge and Jordan Kovacs and former linebacker Jake Ryan.
The event was packed all-around with famous faces, even those with no ties to Michigan or sports. Many more sent in comments on video: ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale, former NFL coach Mike Ditka, former Michigan basketball player Jalen Rose and actor Vince Vaughn, among countless others.
Perhaps the most enthusiastic guest was former professional wrestler Ric Flair. Harbaugh said afterward that Nate Johnson gave him the idea to invite Flair during a recruiting visit at Johnson’s home in Tennessee.
“I was telling him about what this event was going to be like, talking about some of the people that were going to be here,” Harbaugh said. “I said, Tom Brady! Tom Brady’s going to be here, the greatest quarterback of all time, four Super Bowl trophies. They said, ‘We’re a wrestling family. You’re going to have Ric Flair there. It doesn’t get any better than that.’ ”
Toward the end of the two-hour ceremony, interim Athletic Director Jim Hackett introduced the final early enrollee, four-star defensive end Carlo Kemp. As Kemp spoke with Sklar and Harbaugh on the stage, Rashan Gary, the nation’s No. 1 recruit, was in New Jersey committing to come to Michigan next season. The audience found out and let out a loud cheer, and the early enrollees subtly expressed their excitement.
The two-hour show stood out. Most schools announce their recruits by compiling a list of players who send in National Letters of Intent and holding a press conference to discuss them. Michigan took over the conversation, for better or for worse.
“I think people will do something similar or they’ll criticize it,” Harbaugh said. “What do I think of that? I probably won’t think much of it. It worked for us. It was wonderful for us. And why not? We’ll be back to work at 2:30, but why not have some fun?”