By Andrew Kahn


ANN ARBOR -- Milan “Mimi” Bolden-Morris was a reluctant trailblazer. She’s been around football as long as she can remember. Growing up, her dad always coached her brother, and she was always the water girl. During her college summers, she coached flag football and loved it. As a basketball player at Georgetown last season, she volunteered with the football program. She had an offer to join the staff and work her way up, but she also was emailing other programs about opportunities.

Her mom suggested they reach out to her brother’s head coach, Jim Harbaugh.

Bolden-Morris told her mom she didn’t want to bother Harbaugh or interfere with her brother Mike’s situation. Both were true, but she also was scared. Michigan football, in every sense, is a step up from Georgetown. Was she ready for that?

Her mom, Melanie, believed she was. Besides, she told her daughter, the worst that could happen was Harbaugh said no and she stayed at Georgetown. The upside was a chance to work with some of the best minds in the sport.

She told her mom she’d think about it. Her mom, unbeknownst to her daughter, made the phone call.

Bolden-Morris’ initial reaction -- “Why would you do that?” -- quickly changed to gratitude. She needed a push, and it led to phone conversations with Harbaugh in which he learned more about her work with Georgetown football. They discussed a potential internship at Michigan. Then, in February, Harbaugh shook up his staff, promoting graduate assistant Grant Newsome to tight ends coach. Harbaugh suggested Bolden-Morris replace him.

Michigan announced her hiring
on March 15. She’s the first female graduate assistant coach in Big Ten history and the first at a Power Five school since a woman helped the Georgia Tech kickers in the late 80s, according to the AP.

“I have always believed in providing opportunities for individuals who are passionate about football and Mimi is someone who has shown that drive to become a football coach,” Harbaugh said in a statement at the time.

Three and half months in to her new role, she’s made Harbaugh look smart. While pursuing a second master’s at Michigan’s School of Public Policy, she works closely with the Wolverines’ quarterbacks, participating in their daily meetings along with Harbaugh and quarterbacks coach/co-offensive coordinator Matt Weiss. Bolden-Morris does a lot of listening but chimes in when she can add value. She’s suggested technique tweaks, ways to incorporate analytics, and even specific plays.

Pass by her office and she’s probably in there, watching film or diagramming schemes.

One day, Michigan’s quarterbacks were working on a new move that needed a name. It reminded Bolden-Morris of something her Georgetown basketball coach had taught her. She lent her expertise to the drill, and shared the name she knew it by: “anchor pivot.”

“Perfect!” Harbaugh said. That’s now the name.

At practice, she’s hands-on, correcting mistakes and praising the quarterbacks’ successes. Harbaugh is busy overseeing all of practice and Weiss is a relatively quiet guy.

“He’s not the type to yell and go nuts when we make a good play,” Davis Warren, a sophomore quarterback, said of Weiss. “But you can always count on Mimi to be fired up and excited, dapping us up after a good play.”

After her brother, a senior defensive lineman, forced a fumble against Colorado State, she flexed in his direction, emulating his preferred celebration.

The siblings have gotten along fine. When Mike called Mimi to congratulate her on the job, she teased him. “Don’t call me Milan. Don’t call me Mimi. Call me Coach.” Yeah, that wasn’t happening. In fact, little brother has flipped it, calling her “Coach Bolden-Morris” is in a faux serious voice now and then.

He’s loved having her around. He never had concerns about her joining the Michigan program. Hers were unfounded. For starters, they don’t see each other all that much. Mike has classes and defensive meetings. At practice, they’re on opposite sides of the field. They’ll toss a football back and forth during warmups, but that’s about it.

During her first couple of months on the job, Mike asked about her regularly and got rave reviews from assistant coaches and quarterbacks. She and strength coach Ben Herbert had an outing after which Herbert reported to Mike that she’s going to succeed in life because she took notes.

Melanie and Mike Morris Sr. attend most Michigan home games, making the trip from Belle Glade, Florida, and tape every game to watch again later. Now they have two children to look for.

Their daughter is making her mark behind the scenes. She and another grad assistant -- there are four total -- lead the defensive scout team, preparing them to mimic the upcoming opponent to help Michigan’s offense. On game days, she’s on the sidelines, assisting with substitutions. She’s been especially busy through Michigan’s 2-0 start. Ninety-six Wolverines saw the field this past Saturday against Hawaii. A similar number could play against Connecticut this Saturday.

Bolden-Morris arrived at Michigan fresh off her college playing career. After three seasons at Boston College she transferred to Georgetown, earning a master’s in sports management and leading the Hoyas in scoring.

“She’s been through the ups and downs of a college athlete,” Warren said. And given that Georgetown, like Michigan, takes academics seriously, “She always has some good nuggets of wisdom” about time management. She’s pitched the staff on some fresh recruiting ideas as well.

Ask any staffer inside Schembechler Hall about Bolden-Morris and the first thing they note is her intelligence. They talk up her work ethic and upbeat attitude. And they really, really hammer home how much she wants to learn.

“She’s always asking me questions about the secondary,” co-defensive coordinator Steve Clinkscale said. “‘Hey, what’s this coverage? What are you guys doing here?’ I think that’s going to be great for her in this industry. She’s a humble person and doesn’t have an ego. I think she’s in the right profession.”

“She’s asking questions but also making suggestions,” said Moore, co-offensive coordinator. He added: “Just kind of how she thinks about things from a different perspective has been really cool.”

Georgetown assistant coach Steve Thames was impressed with how quickly Bolden-Morris picked up football concepts. “I would draw something up or tell her, and she would reiterate it back to me immediately,” he said. “She had that brain power to figure things out.”

The notion of someone not being able to fully understand football, let alone coach, because they did not play football, is dismissed at Michigan. Jay Harbaugh didn’t play past high school. Weiss was a walk-on punter in college. Bolden-Morris has played only flag football.

“To use that as an excuse for her to not be a good coach in the future is total B.S.,” Warren said. “I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to stop her from rising up the ranks in coaching. … You can tell when someone has a natural ability to convey ideas and get their students to learn, and she can do that.”

So it may not matter that she didn’t play. It does matter that she’s a woman. Michigan didn’t send out a press release when it hired any of its other grad assistants. ESPN College GameDay didn’t come to Schembechler this week to interview those young men.

Bolden-Morris is aware of this.

“I think that’s one of the most exciting, humbling, and motivating things that have come with this role,” she said. It’s what keeps her going in the tough moments, breaking down film at 2 a.m. and trying to compensate for her limited experience.

“I’m coming from being a student-athlete, being the best at what I did. I was the leader of the team, someone people leaned on. Now I’m depending on others to help me grow. I’m the quote-unquote weak link for now. When I’m like, ‘This is tough, I don’t know if I want to go, if I want to do this or that,’ I think about my purpose and why I wanted to do this.”

She believes her opportunity, and any publicity that comes with it, can create opportunities for other women. She met with Jennifer King, assistant running backs coach for the NFL’s Washington Commanders, before coming to Ann Arbor. King has realized over the past two years the impact she can have on young women. That inspired Bolden-Morris.

“I feel like it’s not even just for women,” Bolden-Morris said. “Anyone who might feel marginalized. They see someone who’s not only a woman, but a Black woman. This opportunity to represent and be a source of motivation is really important to me.”

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