Mimi Bolden-Morris can pinpoint the moment she fell in love with coaching.
While attending Georgetown, Bolden-Morris remained on campus during the summer for her obligations as a member of the Hoyas women’s basketball team. With classes finished for the semester, the school’s sport management program offered various work-adjacent opportunities to its students, hoping to keep them busy.
One of the open positions called for a local flag football coach. Intrigued and in need of some pocket change, Bolden-Morris signed up.
Instantly, she was hooked.
“I was like, ‘Man, I could see myself doing this,’ ” Bolden-Morris told The Daily. “Being able to see five-year-olds make their first catch or score their first touchdown, and then with the older kids, being able to talk to them about life, being someone that they can confide in – there was just something about it that I loved.”
She could not have imagined what the opportunity would lead to. Just a few years removed from coaching flag football, Bolden-Morris now serves as a graduate assistant at Michigan, an integral piece to the fourth-ranked college football team in the nation.
Along with her coaching impact, she is carrying the weight of an entire demographic on her shoulders, too.
“She is the manifestation of a dream for so many of us who didn’t get that chance to be a GA,” Mickey Grace, a female offensive analyst at Connecticut, said. “… It’s a place where a woman couldn’t get to before.”
Against all odds, Bolden-Morris is here. Regardless of what anyone else may think or desire, she doesn’t plan to leave anytime soon.
Does Bolden-Morris have what it takes to be a female coach in a male-prevalent industry?
Sugar Rodgers, the coach whom Bolden-Morris credits with changing her life, has no doubt that she does.
“She’s built for this,” Rodgers, who coached Morris at Georgetown before becoming an assistant at William & Mary, said.
The ‘this’ in Rodgers’ answer relates to multiple aspects. It represents the tedious life of a football coach, a profession that requires draining hours and tenuous job security. More pertinently, it hints to the burden of a trailblazer, of an individual hoping to change an industry.
“Everybody around the world is watching her,” Rodgers added bluntly. “Is she going to fold? How is this going to play out?”
“Sometimes, you look at gender way too much. Just because someone didn’t play football doesn’t mean they don’t know football.”
For women aspiring to coach football, that misconception is detrimental.
Take Bolden-Morris. She didn’t really play football, merely participating in a few years of flag football after her mom refused to sign her up for tackle. Nonetheless, she likes to say that she grew up “consumed in the game,” and that’s not hyperbole.
Belle Glade, Fla., is a quintessential “Friday Night Lights” style town: High school football is the entertainment. The weekend’s eve, with the whole city converging to rattle the bleachers, became the best part of Bolden-Morris’s adolescence.
Fridays were just the start. On Saturdays, she watched her brother, Mike, star on the field while her dad coached. On Sundays, the family would sit around the TV and watch the day’s NFL slate. Football really did consume her.
There was only one problem.
“I don’t think it’s set up for women to be super successful,” Bolden-Morris reflects now. “There are so many different things that we don’t have access to.”
She experienced that chasm from a young age. Her adoration hardly waned; she remained a passionate spectator. But, unable to play football, she pivoted to basketball – a sport that could open doors for her, earning a college scholarship at Boston College after a decorated career at Cardinal Newman High School.
Football provided no such opportunities.
Bolden-Morris never knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. She did know, however, what she wanted to do.
Bolden-Morris’ mom worked in the school system and is now a principal, while her dad is a police officer. She was raised in a household devoted to public service.
“Growing up in that, I wanted to help people,” Bolden-Morris said. “I can do that with coaching.”
After her flag football foray, she wanted to pursue an avenue to further her football ventures. She reached out to the staff at Georgetown and, with the FCS program needing volunteers, the Hoyas brought her on board in the winter semester. Within a few months, she progressed from helping out recruits, to sitting in on meetings, to working closely with the running backs.
“She’s a natural,” Steve Thames Jr., Georgetown’s receivers coach and someone Bolden-Morris calls a mentor, said. “It was a joy to have her.”
That semester validated her initial beliefs: Coaching was for her.
But obstacles persisted. Coaching is predicated on trust, and coaches tend to trust people they already know and people who look like them, which mostly confines the candidate pool to former football players — predominantly men. That creates a vicious cycle, one prone to excluding women. There’s a fear of the unknown at play, too. Men in football seldom interact with women in such a “masculine” sphere.
On the surface, Bolden-Morris’s path to Michigan may seem fortuitous. Her brother, Mike, is now a star edge rusher for the Wolverines. Against Mimi’s wishes, her mom called Jim Harbaugh to vouch for her daughter during the GA search. Harbaugh relished the initiative. And in February, when Harbaugh promoted Grant Newsome from GA to tight ends coach, a spot opened up. It went to Bolden-Morris.
“I have always believed in providing opportunities for individuals who are passionate about football, and Mimi is someone who has shown that drive to become a football coach,” Harbaugh wrote in a statement in March.
And yet, the magnitude of that moment underscored the uphill battle that women face in football. The Michigan press release incorrectly labeled Bolden-Morris as the first GA at the Power Five level. That designation belongs to Carol White, who coached at Georgia Tech in the 1980s in what was largely a covert operation.
No fan truly knows what goes into coaching because college football programs are vessels of secrecy, the ins-and-outs obscured from the public eye. That disproportionately affects women, allowing outsiders to form baseless assumptions about what their work entails, and what it doesn’t.
Bolden-Morris knows there are people out there who think she isn’t deserving of her role. She hopes that her work disproves that notion.
During the week, Bolden-Morris studies the opposing defense, evaluating tendencies and devising a game plan to beat it. From there, she helps manipulate Michigan’s offense, guising its own tendencies. And while she works primarily with quarterbacks throughout the week, her game day responsibilities involve helping the tight ends, too.
“Anything that people need, I’m just here,” Bolden-Morris said.
There are moments when she wants to cave, when she wants to quit. After waking up at 6 a.m. having gone to bed at 2:30 the night before, for the third straight day, she begins to question herself. Doubts seep in. Is this for her? Is this for people who look like her? In these crucibles, a dream she chased for so long morphs into a burden she struggles to appreciate.
Here, in between workouts and cups of coffee, Bolden-Morris rests on her unwavering support system, relying on those who have walked in her shoes. It’s a small network of women in football, but a strong one.
In the spring, before leaving for Ann Arbor, Bolden-Morris grabbed lunch with Jennifer King, an assistant running backs coach for the NFL’s Washington Commanders.
“You don’t have to prove yourself,” King told Bolden-Morris.
That lesson is true, but difficult to grasp. King knows that. So does Bolden-Morris. She is on a platform, good and bad. It’s a juxtaposition women face in male-prevalent occupations.
“Every time we turn on the TV, or every time the NFL spotlights one of us as a coach, it’s great in some aspects because it provides visibility to a possibility,” Lori Locust, an assistant defensive line coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said. “But it also continues to highlight the fact that we’re women, right? We’re kind of fighting back against that right now.”
Bolden-Morris realizes the novelty of her situation. There are times when she finds herself in the same room as Abigail O’Connor, Christina DeRuyter, McKenna Daulton and Paige Shiver, all women employed by the Michigan football team. She’ll look around and appreciate the moment: Five women working together for a DI football program.
“But I want it to be just like, ‘Oh, there’s Coach Harbaugh and Coach (Matt) Weiss and Coach (Sherrone) Moore’,” Bolden-Morris said. “Yep, simple as that. I don’t want it to be something that’s such a surprise.”
The cold reality is that it is a surprise. Thames remembered being with Bolden-Morris when Michigan announced her hiring. In a light-hearted jest, Georgetown’s coaching staff showered Bolden-Morris with jokes about her newfound fame, sending her every article written about her.
Michigan hiring a GA should hardly merit a story, let alone stories from the nation’s largest news organizations. This is the tightrope that Locust mentioned – the need for barrier breaking and the desire for normality, and the inherent contradiction between the two.
It’s the world that Bolden-Morris navigates every day.
“I hate not being the best in the building,” she said. “Me coming into an environment where I’m like, quote unquote, ‘the weak link,’ I hate that.”
But it also pushes her forward.
She can’t quantify her impact, but she thinks about it.
“People might be looking at me for inspiration and I don’t even know,” Bolden-Morris said, her eyes widening. “It could be someone sitting at home, and I may not even know that they are looking at me for a source of hope. I believe that’s really important. That’s what inspires me.”
That inspiration could be younger girls, catching a glimpse of her on TV and latching onto a vision. It’s also women working in the sports industry. Bolden-Morris was their dream once; she is their dream once again.
“The fact that someone like her is at a place like Michigan, it sets the bar so high for other women,” Grace said. “(They can say), ‘Oh, I can do this.’ ”
Grace met Bolden-Morris when UConn traveled to Ann Arbor to play Michigan in September. The pair convened inside the Michigan Stadium tunnel, sharing stories and advice. Grace said the conversation filled her with joy.
Rodgers’s conversations with Bolden-Morris spur similar emotions. Rodgers remembers chatting in the days before Bolden-Morris officially took the GA role; at the time, she had offers in college basketball, too.
“But now she has an opportunity,” Rodgers says. “To be the first to open doors for other young women coming into coaching football.”
Locust never had that opportunity to be a GA. She bounced between teams in the U.S. Women’s Football League, high school teams and indoor football league teams before, after 11 years, landing with the Ravens.
Grace said that Bolden-Morris, a key staffer at Michigan just a year out of undergrad, is living Locust’s dream.
“We’re not always going to be here,” Locust said, explaining Bolden-Morris’s importance. “We want the next wave of women that hit the league to be viable candidates. The only way we’re going to move forward is if we reach back and try to help them.”
The noise, the doubts, the criticism – all of it will always exist, Locust says.
“But in my mind, they can buy tickets to watch her on Saturdays,” she reasoned.
If all goes according to plan, people will be doing that for a while. Because Bolden-Morris has even higher aspirations: She wants to be a head coach one day.
When that day comes, she hopes it won’t break headlines – at least not more than a male coach would.