PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. — It’s obvious that the No. 2 seed Michigan football team trusts Mazi Smith.
The senior defensive tackle and team captain sat at the left-most podium during the Wolverines’ open media session Wednesday, with four other players and both of Michigan’s defensive coordinators spread across the vast ballroom to his right. While people were sprinkled between the various options, the largest scrum clearly lied in front of Smith.
Cameras, microphones, recorders, photographers and reporters encircled him. At first, questions stuck to football — how does No. 3 seed TCU’s offense look, how are the Wolverines preparing for Saturday, what is Smith’s mentality on the field. Until it got to the point that all the cameras and pens were waiting for:
Mazi, how challenging was it navigating all the off-field stuff? Was that a distraction for you? How did you handle that?
That “stuff,” of course, referenced Smith’s felony weapons charge that came to light Dec. 1. As more details became available, discussions surrounding Smith’s actions and the possible repercussions he might face started swirling.
But while outsiders developed a relentless skepticism about Smith’s character and what ought to be done, nothing wavered inside Michigan’s building.
“We don’t care what he’s going through,” senior defensive end Mike Morris said Tuesday. “Mazi has been with this team and had shown his leadership and his reliability for four years without having anything squeaky, anything that would be a distraction to the team. And I want him to know I’m here for him.
“I don’t care what he’s going through. I don’t care what the media says about him. I’m here for him.”
It appears that each and every Wolverine has the same level of trust and loyalty to Smith as Morris does. They defend his character, his actions, and insist on his virtue.
“It’s all love in that building,” Smith said. “I didn’t have to (address it) for real.”
At the top of Smith’s foremost supporters is none other than Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, a reverence that immediately showed the day of the incident.
“(I told Harbaugh) the first day, right away — right away,” Smith said. “… He just wanted all the facts — all the facts. He didn’t want (any) surprises. He just wanted me to be forthcoming and honest, and that’s what I was from the get-go. And I feel like that’s why he kept trusting me, trusting the process.”
Part of that trust and forgiveness relies on perspective. Through what lens is the situation viewed?
There’s a critical approach, and there’s a more paternal approach. Harbaugh took the latter, and Morris wants more people to look through the perspective the Wolverines’ coach adopted.
“You have to realize that we’re kids,” Morris said. “I just left my mom’s house two, three years ago. … We’re still children. It’s like when a child falls and slips, someone has to be there to help them up. And I feel like Coach Harbaugh was that parent in that instance to say, ‘It’s OK, we’ll bandage it up, we’ll fix it. You can’t do that again.’ But he was that person in his corner — and all of our corners — just saying that we’re gonna be OK.”
It’s a trait Harbaugh has always demonstrated. For better or worse, Harbaugh will stick his neck out for his players and their actions, defending them tooth and nail — like any caring parent might do.
It’s part of who Harbaugh is and a defining trait in the culture of his Michigan teams — and it has been on full display throughout the fallout of Smith’s charge. Smith wasn’t suspended, and he has been defended and lauded rather than accosted. It’s an undying loyalty hidden to no one.
“That was what I came here for,” Smith said. “I didn’t come here to play for somebody who didn’t look out for me and take care of me and somebody that didn’t love me and know who I was.”
While Smith’s last few weeks have been met with endless support from the Wolverines, he’s still had his own time for reflection.
“Honesty is the best policy,” he repeated throughout the 45-minute media session, “And that’s what I was.”
Smith has leaned on his ethics and personal morals for support, his honesty absolving him in the Wolverines’ eyes like a confessional. Beyond that, he acknowledged he “made mistakes,” and has learned. Smith also relied on compartmentalization, keeping his off-the-field issues off the field and his on-the-field performance consistent.
Most of all, though, Smith needed football while going through this process.
“I kind of just leaned on football, and kept playing,” Smith said. “I’m just thankful to be still playing well.”
Now playing on the biggest stage college football has to offer, Smith wants the focus to be solely on the game that helped him through it. In his eyes, the off-the-field issues aren’t other people’s business. Whether they like it or not, Smith is trusted and he’s going to play.
So in the end, in Smith’s opinion, the situation is simple:
“It’s about me and coach Harbaugh, the understanding that we got, and it’s about the legal system doing justice.”