ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Matthew Mills has two decades of experience producing high-profile spectacles, but he has never done a show quite like the one he did Wednesday. No one has.
Mills is the Emmy-award winning director and executive producer who spent the past three weeks creating and coordinating Michigan's two-hour signing day extravaganza. His previous work includes TV documentaries about Britney Spears and the Jonas Brothers, award shows and MTV's "Unplugged" series. This week he aimed his spotlight at Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh, and saw in him the same thing he sees in many of his other subjects.
"He knows the secret that so many big stars and incredibly creative people know," Mills said. "There really aren't that many actual rules."
There's no actual rule stopping a coach from attending satellite camps in enemy territory, as Michigan's staff did in June. There's no actual rule against sleeping over at a prospect's house or telling a committed recruit before signing day that you had found someone better. There's definitely no rule outlawing the unprecedented show Harbaugh and Mills orchestrated Wednesday.
Since his return to college football a little more than a year ago, Harbaugh has had no interest in the sport's status quo. One of two things typically happens when an innovative mind comes along and ignores the way things used to be done. The written rules are adjusted to close a loophole, or the rest of the world realizes the opportunity they've been missing and falls in line. Either way, for better or worse, the first Wednesday in February will probably never be the same.
At times, Wednesday's "Signing of the Stars" had the vibe of a totalitarian dictator's rally -- Harbaugh leading the call-and-response rhetoric for a crowd of feverish sycophants. ("Who's got it better than us? Nooo-body!") At times, it had the vibe of a Cam Newton touchdown dance: Sure, some of you are angry because it's different, but what's wrong with a bit of well-intentioned fun?
Those who attended should feel spectacular about participating in a show that raised more than $110,000 for the Chad Tough Foundation for research to fight childhood brain cancer. That end can justify almost any means. Bravo.
Those who attended also can feel a little slimy about skipping work and waiting in line for an event that was "powered by" an international airline and presented by a major apparel company. It took only a few hours after signing away their rights to the NCAA for the new Wolverines to learn firsthand how folks other than themselves will profit from their hard work via corporate sponsorship. Anyone present has forfeited his or her right to complain about a sense of entitlement among college athletes.
Depending on what colors you wear in the fall or what shade of jaded you may be with the world of college football recruiting, the ear-to-ear grin Harbaugh wore on stage for most of the day looked like the beginning of a tent-fingered evil genius' laugh or the innocent smile of a boy throwing a football through a beat-up tire on a warm, summer day.
Yes, Harbaugh seems genuine in his desire to have fun and celebrate a big accomplishment for his new players while raising money for an excellent cause along the way. And yes, he's more than shrewd enough to know that inviting Hall of Famers and pro wrestlers to said celebration is going to have some headline-grabbing, competition-drowning side effects.
Pick your side of the argument, but pick it carefully because it's probably only a matter of time before your favorite college coach is doing something similar. Michigan fans (normally on the other side of this equation) learned that lesson in January when they had to delicately dismount from their high horse when it comes to manipulating scholarship numbers and honoring a prospect's commitment.
Nobody in football has shown more creativity than Harbaugh in the past year, and those who are able will be following in his footsteps. He's making the rules right now.
It took the coach about 20 minutes after the show ended to announce his next disruptive innovation. The Wolverines are taking their spring practice on the road, spending a week together in sunny Florida when the rest of the school is on break. The players will get an expenses-paid trip to the beach. Harbaugh gets their undivided attention for a week and the added bonus of setting up shop on the campus of IMG Academy, a high school football powerhouse with 11 players on the ESPN 300 Class of 2017 list. Innocent fun. Evil genius.
Sometime toward the conclusion of Wednesday's proceedings, poker player Phil Hellmuth and interim athletic director Jim Hackett introduced new linebacker Carlo Kemp to the crowd. Kemp, the nephew of Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano, walked across stage and squeezed onto a couch in between Harbaugh and Ric Flair. He was asked how he felt about all this commotion.
"It's incredible," he said. "I've never had a football experience like this before in my life."
Nobody has. Better get used to it, kid.