Counselor Greg Harden is ‘Michigan’s best-kept secret’

January 18, 2013

By  Angelique S. Chengelis | Courtesy The Detroit News


Roy Roundtree was speaking in his easy-going manner before a crowd of nearly 1,500 at Michigan’s football banquet early last month, thanking his teammates and coaches for their support during his career, when he was suddenly overcome with emotion.

Roundtree, a receiver who played his final college game on New Year’s Day, choked back tears as he discussed the impact of Greg Harden, the Michigan athletic program’s longtime counselor for athletes. Roundtree said that without him, he would never have earned his undergraduate degree, let alone enrolled in graduate school.

Harden, described by former Michigan receiver and Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard as “Michigan’s best-kept secret,” did his best to not break down at a table surrounded by choked-up colleagues. But Roundtree, he said, has been one of his great success stories since he began work as student-athlete counselor at Michigan in 1986.

“He brought me in as his own, me being a wild freshman,” Roundtree said. “I was partying too much, missing classes, just happy to be in college, away from home, dad’s not on your back too much. It was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got freedom.’ I’m not saying I was getting in too much trouble, but I knew something was wrong with me.”

On former Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez’s recommendation, Roundtree met with Harden, who is not a sports psychologist but has worked with hundreds of athletes from various sports, including Howard and quarterback Tom Brady, as well as Olympian Michael Phelps, to help them understand and cope with expectations while setting life goals.

“Before it was like, I just came in here not really caring because I’m away from home, but I just started caring because that’s what I was here for, to accomplish goals and he started me off the right way,” Roundtree said. “It was part of growing up and with Mr. Harden, I did that.”

Harden’s goal is to equip student-athletes with tools to determine, quite simply, what type of people they want to become and not allow the sport they play to become their identity.

He taught Roundtree how to care, how to adapt and forge his way through this important part of young adulthood.

“Roy didn’t come in here a scholar,” Harden said recently in his office. “He didn’t come in here with all the tools to navigate the intricacies (of college life). I don’t care if you come from Des Moines, I don’t care if you come from the inner city of Chicago, Detroit, New York, I don’t care if you come from the farms, you have to make some major adjustments socially, academically, athletically to be successful here. People minimize the social psychology shift that has to be made. Roy had to make some leaps and he transformed himself. Roy transformed himself into a scholar-athlete.”

Harden didn’t arrive at Michigan from Detroit in 1967 with all of the navigational tools, either.

Chip on his shoulder

He arrived with anger and attitude, a track scholarship and a plan to try out for football.

He didn’t last long.

“I got (someone) pregnant, went home, took a job, discovered that I hated college, that I hated the University of Michigan,” Harden said. “I didn’t think I was going to miss it at all.

“I was arrogant and ignorant and angry and frustrated and thought everybody was a racist. I was totally unimpressed. When I got pregnant, I decided, ‘They didn’t like my attitude, I didn’t like theirs. I’ll go home and be a citizen of Detroit, get a job and raise a family.’ That didn’t work out and within a year, it dawned on me I had been changed by simply being on the campus. It had broadened my world view. My world view had changed, and I hadn’t noticed. Working in the steel mill, was not stimulating whatever intellect God had given me. So, I returned to the scene of the crime. I returned to school.”

By the mid-1980s, Harden was making a name for himself as a consultant, helping people deal with the intricacies of everyday life and work.

Legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler had heard of Harden, asked for a meeting and the two men instantly clicked.

“He opened this door for me,” Harden said. “Bo Schembechler taught me everything I know about football. He taught me everything I know about the athletic culture. He provided me with an understanding of the psychology of the athlete. He was the best.”

Schembechler and Harden hatched a plan for his first meeting with the football team. Schembechler’s plan was to introduce Harden, and then have Harden kick him out of the meeting.

“That was instant credibility with 115 college athletes who were stunned Bo would leave me and allow me to ask him to leave the room,” Harden said, laughing. “He gave me credibility instantly. He allowed me to meet with the team independent of the coaches so we could have real talk and helped me design the model that I use today. If it’s not for Schembechler, I’m not here. He schooled me. He supported me.”

One of the athletes Harden supported was Howard, the 1991 Heisman Trophy winner who to this day values Harden for his insight and guidance.

“I don’t know where to start — he’s a very, very special person,” said Howard, now an ESPN college football analyst. “He has a gift. He knows how to dissect and analyze situations to where young student-athletes can comprehend them. He’s genuine, he’s sincere, he’s highly intelligent, he’s brilliant, he’s extremely modest and he’s all about serving the person with the issue. It’s never about him.”

Michigan is not alone in providing counseling services to student athletes. Other schools in the Big Ten, including Michigan State, have sports psychologists on staff.

But Harden, who has a bachelor’s degree in general studies and a master’s in social work, is not a psychologist.

“Mental coaching is what Lexi Erwin called it,” Harden said, referring to Erwin, a player who helped lead the volleyball team to the Final Four this season. “I’m coaching. I’m coaching the mind.”

He has conversations, not lectures, with the student-athletes, some who are referred to him, others who seek him out.

“My real obsession is to convince an individual that they have to determine for themselves what sort of man, what sort of woman they want to be,” Harden said. “We’re constantly pushing the agenda — what are you here to accomplish? The goal is to make people experts on themselves.”

Erwin struggled with a lack of confidence her first two seasons. Her coach suggested she visit with Harden, and during their first conversation, volleyball wasn’t mentioned.

Straight shooter

“He’s very honest,” Erwin said. “He’s going to tell you stuff you’re probably not going to want to hear. I’d go in and say, ‘The coaches are so mean, I think they’re picking on me.’ He asked me, ‘Why are you complaining all the time?’ He’s not going to sugarcoat things. He’s not just a make-you-feel-good-type of person. He’s a realist.

“I think of him as a mental coach and now kind of like a mentor. When I first started seeing him, I had things I definitely wanted to work on, and he was willing to work on. He gave me challenges to try, but not just through my sport. That’s why I think he’s a mental coach. It’s not like he’s a volleyball sports psychologist, he’s like a life coach. He’s honestly one of the biggest impacts on me since I’ve been here.”

Michael Parke is a former Michigan soccer captain now working on his doctorate at Maryland in organizational behavior, a direction clearly influenced by his work with Harden.

During his sophomore year, Parke wasn’t playing and didn’t understand why. He visited with Harden.

“I still remember that meeting today — transformation, immediately,” Parke said. “I’m complaining about the coaches never giving me a chance. I believed I was a different player, that they had written me off, and he stops me right there and says, ‘Life’s not fair, what are you going to do about it?’ It was a message I had needed to hear my entire life.”

By the end of the 2010 football season, kicker Brendan Gibbons was at an all-time low in terms of confidence. He had struggled on the field that season, and on the recommendation of his parents, he made an appointment with Harden. Gibbons began to visit with Harden once every two weeks as his confidence returned.

“He’s helped so many people and he knows from experience and he’s so positive and such a great man, you kind of want to succeed for him, and he really makes you feel like you can do it,” Gibbons said. “He puts that positive energy through you and makes you set your goals real clear. He’s a good man to have your in life.”

Harden is dealing these days with a different student-athlete, one who has typically specialized in a sport from a young age and has added pressures from social networking and media.

“They think they have 3,000 (Facebook) friends — that would confuse anybody,” Harden said. “Some of them don’t know how to have a conversation with you. They can text you. They’ll sit in a car and text to each other. They can play video games.

“I never thought at this stage of my life, I would be able to work with 18 to 22 year olds. I might not like their videos, I might not like their music, I might not understand that a phone call is not going to work, I’d better text them. But at the end of the day, the core is they want their lives to work. They want to be successful. My purpose is to help people get the best out of themselves. That’s what I do.”


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