A little more than a year ago, in the last days of 2014, Jim Harbaugh accepted the University of Michigan's offer to become the next head coach of the Wolverines. But Harbaugh could have come back four years earlier. In January 2011, former Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon had offered him the job, but it was half-hearted. Brandon didn't visit Harbaugh, or even send his chief headhunter. Instead, Brandon sent his headhunter's assistant. Harbaugh got the message, and turned it down.
Harbaugh decided to coach the San Francisco 49ers. So, when a good friend asked him if really wanted to coach Michigan or not, Harbaugh thought about it for a moment, shrugged and said, "I just wasn't feelin' the love."
When the Michigan job opened up again in 2014, Harbaugh's former teammates were determined that if he turned down Michigan again, it would not be because he "wasn't feelin' the love." Their plan was simple: Get just about every Michigan Man that Harbaugh admired to call him and tell him how badly they wanted him to come back to Michigan, and return the Wolverines to glory.
They got about three dozen Michigan greats to call, including legends like Billy Taylor, Rick Leach and Charles Woodson, and give Harbaugh the message. But they weren't sure how to get New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on board. Should they go through Brady's team, his publicist, his agent? No, it turned out, the best way to get to Tom Brady was through a 43-year old dishwasher at Ann Arbor's Pizza House, a man named Jay Flannelly, a.k.a., The Beav.
Flannelly is an unassuming guy who stands about 5-foot-9 and usually wears Michigan or Patriots hats, jackets, and hoodies. He grew up in Andover, Massachusetts, where he got his nickname from a summer playground counselor, who called him "The Beav" because he looked like Leave it to Beaver's Jerry Mathers, and "He's always getting into everything."
How did Flannelly become a Michigan fan? Easy: "They weren't Notre Dame. Back then you'd see the Fightin' Irish on the National Game of the Week every weekend. I got sick of them -- and Michigan played 'em every year."
He moved to Michigan in 1993, and enrolled in 1995, working as a volunteer student assistant on the football team until 1999, Tom Brady's last season. "I worked with a lot of good people," Flannelly says, "like Ty Wheatley, who went out of his way to be great to me. Todd Collins was great. Buster Stanley, Steve Morrison, and Walter Smith." He takes a breath. "Jay Riemersma, Jarrett Irons, Jason Horn. The list goes on."
At that point, you believe him.
"They all could have said, ‘This guy's an idiot, get him out of there!' But they were great to me."
Of his hundred best friends, however, one stands out: Tom Brady.
"The minute Tom got here, we hit it off," Flannelly says. Flannelly worked late nights at Mr. Spot's, a popular student restaurant on State Street, between the two campus barbershops where most of the coaches and players go. "Tom loved Mr. Spot's, one of his favorite places. He was always either studying or going to watch a film.
"We were already bonded by '98 when Drew Henson came here, also a friend of mine. I'll never forget 'Media Day' that year. Drew hasn't played a single down yet, but he was standing under the goal posts, and there was a line out to midfield of fans who wanted him to sign things.
"Tom's standing by the tunnel, without a soul anywhere near him, except me and my niece, for an hour. I don't think he signed five things. It was sad, embarrassing -- and unbelievable."
When the 1998 season started, Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr platooned junior Tom Brady and freshman Drew Henson.
"Tom was afraid to make a mistake, or he'd get pulled -- and it got to him," Flannelly says. "When [Syracuse quarterback] Donovan McNabb came in and killed us, fans were booing Tom and cheering Drew. They wanted Tom benched and Drew in the game. It was tough, and I gained a lot of respect for Tom.
"The next year, '99, still splitting time, Tom leads comeback victories against Notre Dame, Penn State, Ohio State and 'Bama [in the Orange Bowl] -- and damn near Michigan State," whose head coach was Nick Saban.
But Brady never engaged in bravado or boasting -- one of the hallmarks of the Michigan Man at his best. In 1997-98, when Brady was a sophomore backing up Brian Griese, he lived in an apartment building, where a fellow student named Jeff Viscomi lived. The building had a small basement laundry room with a single washer and dryer. Viscomi had left a load of undershirts and boxers in the dryer, he recalls. "I went down to retrieve them and Tom, whom I recognized only as one of several football players living in the building, was standing at the dryer folding my laundry and leaving it in a neat stack on the dryer. It was notable at the time only because most people, myself included, would have left the clothes in a pile on top of the dryer, but Tom had taken the time to fold them."
An entitled jock, he was not. Brady never forgot his friends, either, including "The Beav."
Some of the football players -- against the specific orders of the coaching staff -- formed an intramural basketball team, naturally sponsored by Mr. Spot's. "We had Jon Jansen, Tai Streets, and Tom -- those guys are all really good," Flannelly recalls. "I was the 17th man on the team. At the end of blowouts, Tom would say, 'Beav, just stand under the bucket, and we'll feed you.' I'd play two minutes and get 6 points, on 15 shots."
An hour after Brady got drafted in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft, with the 199th overall pick, Flannelly called Brady, and they've kept it up ever since. Every week, Flannelly still sends Brady an email with a pep talk and a scouting report of that week's opponent, and they talk.
By Saturday night, November 1, 2014, those happy days of All-Americans on both sides of the ball and BCS bowl victories seemed like distant memories. Athletic director Dave Brandon had resigned mid-season, was gone, but the Wolverines were 4–5, and the lettermen were beginning to feel it was time for a change -- yet again.
"I was afraid we could have another seven years of Civil War," Flannelly told me. "Think we needed more of that? Nothing was decided at those tables, but it's pretty clear we had to do something.
"Two upshots: This isn't working, and getting Jim Harbaugh is not impossible. That's when the seed was planted. It was the first time I started to think we might have a chance at Jim Harbaugh."
When the lettermen wanted to get in touch with a slew of legendary players, former Harbaugh teammate John Ghindia told me, "We knew we had to call The Beav."
Flannelly jumped on the idea. "I said to Ghindy, 'Look, we need to go all in and get Jim here. Why don't we have some guys from my era call him? Brady, Jon Jansen, Jarrett Irons,'" three of the most respected names in the Michigan family. "He says, ‘Good idea.'"
"I wanted Jimmy to hear from guys he didn't expect to hear from," Ghindia explains. "I told [Harbaugh friend and lawyer Todd] Anson that Tom Brady would be calling Jimmy after a 49ers game -- and Anson says, ‘How the hell did you do that?' I said, 'Easy, brother! Jay from Pizza House. Never underestimate The Beav!' "
Because Anson had graduated from Michigan's law school in 1980, before Pizza House opened, he didn't know about the place -- and he certainly had never heard of "The Beav." It took Ghindia a while to convince Anson, a skilled middleman, that Flannelly was the key.
"More than once," Anson told me, "we reflected on the fact that the pipeline to Tom Brady was a dishwasher [at Pizza House] called ‘The Beav.' But Ghindy was right! When I came to town in December, I made it a point to take Ghindy to Pizza House -- where they held the coaches' weekly radio show -- and meet the notorious Jay Flannelly!"
Flannelly accepted the assignment, but it would not be as simple as Ghindia had portrayed it to Anson. Flannelly knew he had to execute it carefully. "Tom [Brady] is the kind of guy, if I ask him for five bucks for a charity, he sends $10,000," Flannelly says. He knew he could ask Brady for almost anything -- except after a loss. "Tom Brady is the worst loser in the world -- outside of myself! He still holds the unofficial record for breaking Sega controllers when he lost games. So, I had to be strategic."
The Sunday after the Wolverines' loss to Ohio State sealed Michigan's 5-7 season, the Patriots suffered only their third defeat of the season at Green Bay. Flannelly wasn't going to bother asking a favor after that one. The next weekend, December 7, the Pats beat San Diego, so "The Beav" sprang into action.
"The Pats won, and Tom played great," Flannelly told me. "So after the game's over, I'm e-mailing Tom. I congratulate him on the win. He replies, 'Hey, we won, we played great.' Then I ask him to call Harbaugh, and give Tom his number. Tom says, 'Coach Harbaugh is the kind of guy we need.'
"Next day, Ghindy tells me Tom called Jim and talked for two hours. OK, that's really cool."
"Tom Brady," Ghindia says, "has as much to do with Harbaugh coming back as any player on our list. It showed Jimmy just how deep it went."
But even The Beav wasn't convinced the job was done. "I'm still thinking, there's still no way this is going to happen," he admits. "But Ghindy says, 'Keep it up! Keep it up! Keep it up! You're doing a great job, and it's working!' So, I kept it up. We all did!"
In fact, Ghindia was right: It was working.
"I was aware of all the calls coming in," Harbaugh's wife, Sarah, told me. "It was really neat -- neat to see a whole group of people coming together and really pushing for him. It was a little overwhelming in a sense, but that made it that much harder to say no -- not that there was ever a question."
It's obviously crazy to say Tom Brady calling Jim Harbaugh persuaded him to return to Michigan. But it surely didn't hurt.
Jay Flannelly had been in the center of it all, but he admits he still thought Harbaugh's return was a long shot. "At this point, I still didn't think Jim was going to come. I just felt bad for Jim, dealing with the 49ers, so I sent him a Merry Christmas text message. And at 1 a.m. our time, and 10 p.m., California time, Christmas day, I get a text back: 'Thank you, Jay. Happy Holidays to you and yours, and our friend John Ghindia. Thanks for the kind words and sentiment. Jim H.'
"I can't believe he replied," Flannelly told me. Jay says, "Now I'm thinking, maybe?!?"
Of course, Harbaugh appeared at a press conference on Tuesday, December 30, 2014, to announce that he was, in fact, returning to coach the Wolverines.
In the year since I interviewed Flannelly for my book, ENDZONE: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football, which came out this fall, Jay Flannelly has become a national celebrity, featured on Boston radio stations, the New York papers, and even Sports Illustrated, which picked up his story last week.
John Ghindia was right: Never underestimate "The Beav."
-- John U. Bacon is the author of four New York Times bestsellers. His latest book, Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football was published in September. He gives weekly commentary on Michigan Radio, teaches at the University of Michigan and Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, and speaks nationwide on leadership and diversity. Learn more at JohnUBacon.com, and follow him on Twitter @johnubacon.