Michigan's pro day was an unprecedented success according to anyone involved and also to long-time draft analyst for the NFL Network Mike Mayock, who said it was the biggest one of its kind. It takes dozens of people to pull something like a pro day off and associate athletic director for football David Ablauf gave us a behind-the-scenes look at exactly how it all came together.
When all 32 NFL teams are represented at a school's pro day, the planning has to begin far in advance. Ablauf explained so such a large undertaking takes shape. There's also a huge logistical plan that needs to be in place when NFL people roll into Ann Arbor from all over the country.
"There’s a lot of interest when you have 19 players. That’s a large group," Ablauf said. "I think you can see that moving forward this will be normal for Michigan. It is something that takes a couple of months working with the NFL. It’s a collaborative effort with the NFL, the teams and the scouts. It’s usually done by our director of football operations, Tony DeFeo. He worked to put a lot of those details together and get email correspondence and calls in — here’s who’s coming from different organizations. Obviously that’s a fluid thing and changed over time. It’s a process.
"The NFL scouts pretty much know where to go when they come in. They know where to stay and they’ve been given some information. Some of them are flying in and flying out on the same day too. It’s a total staff effort to help accommodate them though. There are guys coming in who have relationships with our staff and have picked their brain to figure out where to stay, what to do, and where to go eat, things like that. They talk to all of our guys because there are great relationships they’ve developed over time."
There's really no way to quantify the exact number of people involved but Ablauf says DeFeo gets the ball rolling with the NFL guys carrying a lot of the weight as well.
"Tony helps coordinate it but really the NFL teams run it," Ablauf explained. "It’s almost like the combine. You put the system in place but the NFL guys run the drills and they have guys just like the combine. It’s very similar to what you see at the combine but just done on your campus and in your environment with your players. There were 14 guys at the combine, and we had 19, really 20 if you count Terry Richardson who’s an alum, plus a couple of other players from other schools that were close, here.
"I think it’s really everyone, it really is. It’s people from the strength staff down to our coaching staff, to the GA’s, analysts — we even had Devin Gardner come in and throw to our wide receivers. It’s a whole team effort and it’s a long process to go through. It’s good when you have people who have been through it before like Coach Harbaugh and his staff. They put on a first-class, first-rate event. It’s a good opportunity for the scouts to see our players and see the player development that’s taking place. It’s huge."
Harbaugh's fingerprints are all over an NFL event like this and Ablauf says he's not the only coach involved in making it a very smooth, successful event.
"I don’t know if you can quantify it," Ablauf said. "I think it’s extremely important when you look at what Coach Harbaugh has done at the NFL level as a player, assistant, and coach. He’s assembled a staff of assistants, analysts, and GA’s who have been in big games and competed at the highest level in the NFL. He prepares and trains guys to get there. It’s hard to put an amount or a price on it but it definitely translates to success at that next level."
Succeeding at the next level can be tough and, even though the process starts when a player first arrives at Michigan, the pro day is a great way for relationships to grow and for players to get off to the best start possible.
"It’s part of that whole process," Ablauf said. "It’s relationships that our coaches have with these NFL guys, whether it’s coaches, scouts, or executives from the NFL. They really utilize those relationships and ask a lot about our players. Then, they see it firsthand when they come here and they get a chance to meet with them. That’s part of the process of our players spending time with the different scouts and executives. It could be different types of meetings the night before, the night after, during the day — depending on their schedules they try to coordinate meetings with the guys to get to know them.
There are different meeting rooms, sometimes it’s on the field — all of it applies. It’s wherever they can get an opportunity or place to talk. Sometimes they don’t mind if there are other people around and sometimes they want an opportunity for a one-on-one. They’re just trying to get a feel for the guys."
Not long after he was hired, Harbaugh mentioned something about Michigan being the 33rd NFL team and after the recent pro day, it's really starting to feel like it. Ablauf says it's not a coincidence.
"I think it’s the way that Coach Harbaugh runs the program," Ablauf said. "He looks at it that way and it’s all about player development on and off the field. Those are the big things that he looks at. He wants to have guys competing to be the best player they can be on the field. Crash the ceiling that you think is there and keep going.
"It’s the same thing in the classroom. He wants you to get your degree and he wants you to do well away from the field. We had a record number of guys earn Academic-All Big Ten. We had 57 players get 3.0 GPA’s or better. That’s what he wants. He’s pushing them to excel that way.
"Even in the community. That’s why you look at taking those opportunities to go to Rome to give those educational opportunities. That’s a betterment of yourself and being prepared for international business. It’s an international world and it’s giving those guys opportunities to see that and experience that. It’s all part of his player development plan. That’s what he prides himself on."
Not only does the even trickle down through the program but it also leaves a mark on prospective student athletes. Recruiting has been humming under Harbaugh and with pro day turnouts like last week, it'll continue.
"I think it’s a great byproduct of it and it will obviously help with recruiting," Ablauf said. "I think every young person today aspires to play in the NFL. I would think that it’s a dream or a goal for every young person playing college football. I think that plays a big factor in it all."
Even though the event was close to perfect, in perfect Harbaugh fashion, the staff is already thinking about how to improve next year and beyond. Ablauf and Co. are content with 2017's version but it's all about getting better, even in the administration.
"I think everyone was pleased," he said. "It was a great way to showcase and highlight our players and their accomplishments. Those seniors that have worked so hard; they performed really well. At the end of the day it was a job interview, in some ways a pretty public job interview. When you’ve got 32 potential employers watching everything you do it’s a job interview. I think our guys acquitted themselves well and put up some pretty big numbers. A few of them did better numbers than they did at the combine. Overall I think everyone was pleased.
"Internally, I think about it from my side, a communication side, there are certain little things we could do better to push things out and get more content out there, but I was pretty pleased. I’ve got my little list and I’m sure others do too. Overall we were pretty pleased with the outcome."
All in all, how's Ablauf and others feeling about it now that it's in the rearview?
"This was by far the biggest pro day we’ve ever had — by far."