When defensive lineman Tim Jamison left a January meeting with Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, he ran into a familiar face in the hallway.
“Coach Shaf, what are you doing here,” Jamison said.
Michigan defensive coordinator Scott Shafer, who had recruited Jamison to play at Northern Illinois, was walking into a job interview with Rodriguez.
Though Jamison wondered what Shafer was doing in Ann Arbor, Shafer’s arrival shouldn’t have surprised anyone. His development as a football coach has followed a Michigan pipeline, despite a direct connection to the Wolverines.
The Huskies’ head coach during Shafer’s tenure there, Joe Novak, had played for Bo Schembechler at Miami (Ohio). Novak and Shafer turned a Northern Illinois team that went 3-37 in its first three years into a top-10 team five years later.
Novak posted the phrase “Those who stay will be champions” on the wall of the Huskies’ locker room.
The phrase is synonymous with Michigan football, but those words were familiar to Shafer long before he arrived in Ann Arbor.
Even before he could put on pads, Shafer knew what Schembechler’s mantra demanded. Shafer’s dad coached high school football with Novak in northeast Ohio.
Shafer credits his father and Novak for giving him the foundation of a career in coaching.
After playing quarterback at Baldwin-Wallace, Shafer tried to break into coaching. With a recommendation from Novak, Shafer began as a graduate assistant on Bill Mallory’s staff at Indiana in 1991.
Mallory worked with Schembechler at Ohio State and took over at Miami (Ohio) in 1969, when Schembechler left for Michigan.
Even in his first meeting with Shafer, Mallory noticed the character traits that have made Shafer successful.
“Not only the knowledge of the game, but I knew that he would relate well to the players,” said Mallory, whose 69 wins are the most for a coach in Indiana history. “Just a great example for (the players), being a role model, great teacher of the game, just possesses a lot of what you want to see in a coach.
“I expected him to excel.”
Mallory knows what it takes to be a successful coach. He played for Ara Parseghian and John Pont and coached with Woody Hayes, Carm Cozza, Doyt Perry and Schembechler.
Shafer’s experience at Indiana opened the door to other coaching opportunities for Shafer. In 1993, he coached defensive backs at Rhode Island and took the same position with Northern Illinois three years later.
Shafer spent the next eight years with Novak, who took many ideas from Schembechler.
“I know there’s a lot of times I hear Bo Schembechler coming out of my mouth when I talk, and that’s not a bad thing,” Novak said.
In 2000, Shafer was promoted to Northern Illinois’s defensive coordinator. Shafer run a 4-3 base formation but doesn’t allow strategy to define his defense.
“The scheme is overrated,” Shafer said. “What’s not overrated is getting your kids to play with great effort, great attitude and great enthusiasm.”
The Huskies’ reflected this mentality in signature wins over Alabama, Maryland and Iowa State in 2003, allowing Shafer to move up the coaching ladder.
In 2004, he coached the secondary at Illinois before taking the defensive coordinator position at Western Michigan. In his two years in Kalamazoo, he coached with one of his best friends, former Wolverine Steve Morrison, and helped turn around the Broncos, from 1-11 his first season to 8-5 in his second year. His defense led the nation in interceptions and sacks.
That performance caught the attention of another Michigan alum, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh.
In one season with the Cardinal, Shafer’s defense improved in every statistical category and helped Stanford upset then-No. 1 Southern California.
Despite the apparent rift that arose between Harbaugh and Michigan last year, Shafer says Harbaugh still speaks very highly of his alma mater.
“He understood why I would be attracted to Michigan — for the same reason he was attracted to Michigan,” Shafer said. “He was happy myself and my family would get a chance to experience some of the things he did in his years at Michigan.”
Just minutes after Shafer told his 13-year-old son, Wolfgang, about his new job at Michigan, Wolfgang called back and sang his dad “The Victors.”
Wolfgang was quick to embrace the Michigan program, one Shafer has embraced his whole life.