2016 NSD the Biggest Sign Yet That Jim Harbaugh's New-Look Michigan Is a Force

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterFebruary 4, 2016

ANN ARBOR, MI - FEBRUARY  3:  Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines speaks during the Michigan Signing of the Stars event at Hill Auditorium on February 3, 2016 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Twenty minutes before "Signing of the Stars" was set to begin, the chatter among those in Michigan's Hill Auditorium ceased as the nearly 3,000 in attendance rose to their feet to catch their first glimpse of a celebrity.

And as professional wrestling legend Ric Flair emerged from behind the stage to sneak a peek at the event's set up, only one sound could be heard across the auditorium.


It wouldn't be the last time the 16-time world heavyweight champion's catchphrase would be heard on the day.

From Flair to Tom Brady, Derek Jeter and rap duo Migos, there was no shortage of star power to be found in Ann Arbor on this national signing day. The star-studded cast of celebrities, which also included Gossip Girl's Jessica Szohr, former Wolverines linebacker Jake Ryan, NASCAR star Brad Keselowski and professional poker player Phil Hellmuth, helped introduce prospects, while ESPN's Todd McShay, Lou Holtz and Mike Shanahan helped break down game film in a live-streaming event presented by the Players' Tribune.

At one point Brady and Jeter—two of the best ever in their respective sports—sat on stage side by side, professing their love for Ann Arbor, providing quite the recruiting pitch for the Michigan program.

But even with all of the celebrities who found themselves passing through Wednesday, the biggest star of the day was the man most at home in Wednesday's spotlight. That would be Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, whose monumental day was the cause of the Wolverines' unprecedented signing day celebration.

"That was the main objective—to have fun, to celebrate," Harbaugh said following the two-hour show's conclusion. "We'll go back to work at 2:30, but it's good to have some fun."

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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Make no mistake about it, this was more work than play for Harbaugh, whose first full recruiting cycle at his alma mater ultimately resulted in the nation's fifth-ranked class following the afternoon commitment of 4-star Concord, California, tight end Devin Asiasi. Perhaps the most telling cheer of the day came not from the arrival of Brady or Flair's jabs at rivals Ohio State and Michigan State, but rather the revelation that the nation's No. 1 overall prospect, 5-star defensive tackle Rashan Gary, had committed to the Wolverines.

The importance of adding the nation's top-ranked prospect to what was already a star-studded class can't be overstated. The 6'5", 293-pounder could conceivably be considered a starter from the moment he steps on campus and is the kind of prospect who changes both the way a program and coach are viewed on the recruiting trail.

As news of Gary's decision trickled across the room via word of mouth, fans took it upon themselves to voice their approval. One grown man wearing a No. 16 Michigan jersey and hat seated in the mezzanine level simply stood up with both arms raised and shouted, "Gary!" as loud as he could.

"Backstage they told me we got some very good news," Harbaugh told the crowd, unable to officially comment on Gary without his letter of intent faxed in at the time.

But even had Gary—who now serves as Harbaugh's signature prospect and first 5-star commit since he arrived in Ann Arbor—not committed to the Wolverines, this would have been a class worth the pomp and circumstance Wednesday brought.

After having spent nearly all of the past year front and center in the college football world, this was the culmination of a 13-month long publicity tour for Harbaugh, which was clearly aimed at generating the type of buzz that would lead to such a class. With 29 players, including one 5-star, 14 4-star and 14 3-star prospects, Michigan's 2016 class is its first top-five haul since 2013, when former head coach Brady Hoke signed the nation's No. 4 class.

There were satellite camp tours and subtweets, birthday cakes and sleepovers. And when all was said and done, Harbaugh signed the type of class Michigan needed to prove that it belonged back with the big boys of the recruiting world.

Jim Harbaugh "dabs" with Lou Holtz.
Jim Harbaugh "dabs" with Lou Holtz.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

"He's not afraid to show his true personality," said prized quarterback and early-enrollee Brandon Peters, who took part in Wednesday's celebration. "He's just showing his love for the game and love for what he's doing. I think that's a great trait to have."

It was that personality that also helped flip running back Kareem Walker from Ohio State, take Florida State legacy and linebacker Devin Bush Jr. out of Seminoles country and convince offensive tackle Ben Bredeson not to stay home in Wisconsin and become the Badgers' next great offensive lineman.

Barring any unforeseen late additions, the Wolverines class will finish right behind the fourth-ranked Buckeyes, but it'd be tough to argue Harbaugh didn't get exactly what he needed out of his 2016 haul.

Michigan loaded up at shallow spots including wide receiver (six signees), defensive back (five) and defensive line (five). Most importantly, with 29 players, the Wolverines' 2016 class will play a large part in the team's personnel now matching its pro-style scheme, specifically with the addition of big running backs like Walker and Kingston Davis (6'1", 225), as well as tight ends Asiasi, Sean McKeon and Nick Eubanks.

"They want to be what Coach Harbaugh’s always been about: a physical football team," said McShay, one of ESPN's top college football analysts. "This is the first major step towards putting the right players with this system."

Or as Harbaugh put it, playing off his own signature catchphrase: "Who could possibly have it better than us?"

The road to signing day wasn't always easy, with criticism stemming from former commits claiming to have been told there was no longer room for them in the Wolverines' class late in the recruiting process. On Wednesday, Harbaugh responded to those accusations, saying, "There were mistakes made and I take full accountability for them. But I don't apologize."

ANN ARBOR, MI - FEBRUARY  3:  Pro wrestling legend Ric Flair speaks during the Michigan Signing of the Stars event at Hill Auditorium on February 3, 2016 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Wednesday, however, wasn't about criticism, but rather a celebration of a class that signifies college football's all-time winningest program's return to the elite of the recruiting world. There's still work to be done—although Harbaugh's 10-3 debut campaign in Ann Arbor provided a solid start—but Michigan's 2016 class is the type that could one day be viewed as the foundation of a championship team.

Like Flair said in his speech, which quickly launched into a WWE-style promo, "To be the man, you have to beat the man."

But the Nature Boy then added: "And right now, University of Michigan, you are the man."

Watching Wednesday unfold and realizing this was surely just the beginning of Harbaugh's recruiting reign, it was tough to disagree.

From the highlight package voiced by James Earl Jones to start the show to Migos dabbing with former baseball manager Jim Leyland, Harbaugh's first real signing day celebration was truly surreal. And it likely won't be the last of its kind either, whether it be in Ann Arbor or at one of the many schools now trying to keep pace with the Wolverines on the recruiting trail.

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.


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