Wolverines head to Italy for most unusual week of practice

All roads lead to Rome, and college football is joining the caravan this weekend. Michigan's football team will land in the Eternal City on Saturday for what could be the most unusual week of practice in the game’s history.

Jim Harbaugh, his staff and 99 of their football players will hold three workouts next week in Italy. They’ll spend the rest of their time abroad touring Rome and some of its biggest attractions. Harbaugh billed the trip in February as a cultural, educational and international football experience for his program. Earlier this week, he said he’s hoping the week is “the best experience in these youngsters’ lives up until this point” and the best experience of his too.

It’s an idea, hatched by the head man himself, that makes it awfully difficult for outsiders within the sport and beyond to criticize his desire to take Michigan on the road. His stated plans to make these international trips an annual affair is an obvious recruiting incentive (paid for by a single anonymous donor) that few other schools can afford to offer. It’s also a genuine effort to find creative ways to enrich his players’ lives within restrictive NCAA rules.

Pushing boundaries to seek any possible competitive advantage while simultaneously trying to spread the good word of football has, as much as anything, defined the first two-plus years of Harbaugh’s tenure at his alma mater. Rome may be his splashiest move to date, but it fits the mold.

Here’s more on what Michigan has planned this week and how in the world the winged helmet (now adorned with an Italian flag sticker) ended up flying nearly 5,000 miles from Ann Arbor:

How did we get here?

A year ago, Harbaugh shipped his team to Florida for a week of practice during the school’s spring break. The trip raised the ire of several other coaches and powerful figures in college football, and future trips like it were subsequently outlawed.

Harbaugh’s response came to him while flying to a satellite camp last June -- he would take the team to Rome. Naysayers would have a hard time spinning the trip as only about football practice or a detriment to the student-athlete’s welfare. It also skirted the new rule prohibiting spring break practices by waiting until the academic semester finished to make the journey. Ten months of planning ensued, including coordinating plans with pro sports teams, U.S. government agencies for security purposes and the Vatican.

What’s on the agenda?

The bulk of Michigan’s roughly 150-person travel party arrives in Rome on Saturday, April 22. Others who haven’t yet finished their final exams will join the team later and some players are opting to skip the trip for academic or personal reasons. The team will practice on April 27, 28 and 29 before heading home on April 30.

When they’re not in pads, the coaches and players will meet with refugees, visit Rome’s most historic landmarks and even have an audience with Pope Francis at Vatican City later in the week. The team also has plans to take in an opera, learn some Italian cooking tips, visit a gladiator training center and perhaps reenact a bit of Italian history with the help of paintball guns.

“From what I’ve heard, we’re celebrating the liberation of Italy by playing paintball as a team,” quarterback Garrett Moores said earlier this week. “If that happens, it’s going to be pretty cool.”

Liberation Day in Italy, which celebrates the fall of the Fascist regime at the end of World War II, is celebrated each year on April 25.

What about the football?

Michigan will hold its first two practices at Giulio Onesti Olympic Center, about 15 minutes north of the center of Rome. The team has had help setting up its workouts from AS Roma, a soccer team from Italy’s top-level Serie A league, and FIDAF, Italy’s American Football federation. The second workout will be followed by a brief coaches’ clinic, according to FIDAF’s website.

Michigan hasn't shared much information about its practice plans and said some of the details won’t be hashed out until they are on the ground in Italy. The team didn't bring over any of its own blocking sleds or larger equipment. FIDAF said it has provided some support for the Wolverines in terms of making sure they have all the elements they’ll need to run a practice. The Wolverines will connect with AS Roma on their final day of practice and potentially one day earlier for some competition between the two groups of athletes.

The team will wrap up its spring season with some form of a scrimmage at a different Italian stadium -- Stadio dei Marmi. The game will kick off at 2 p.m. local time and is open to any and all curious onlookers or diehard fans making their way to Rome.

Where do they go from here?

Roughly a quarter of the players in Italy will use their trip to Rome as a jumping-off point for internships, classes and travel around the globe. Four players will stay in Italy for international internships and 20 others are planning to study abroad in places that range from Belgium to Iceland to Costa Rica and Argentina.

Harbaugh gave his players the entire month of May off from football activities to open the door for those types of trips. The abbreviated courses were developed by the university to give athletes a chance to study abroad. Shari Acho, who helped develop Michigan's internship program for football players in the U.S. and overseas, said she’s been working in a similar role for more than two decades and has never had a more supportive coach than Harbaugh.

“He’s the first coach to really get it and really change the culture,” she said.

Harbaugh has said he wants to continue exploring the world with his team in the future. He has tentative plans to visit South Africa, Japan, Israel and maybe New Zealand in the next five years.