There had been previous conversations between Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Steve Clinkscale, but the timing was never quite right.
Last month, after co-defensive coordinator Maurice Linguist left Michigan after a few months to become Buffalo’s head coach, everything seemed to align for Harbaugh and Clinkscale, a Youngstown, Ohio, native who has spent the last five seasons at Kentucky. During that time, the Wildcats had 57 interceptions, including 16 in 2020, which ranked third nationally, and were in the top four in the Southeastern Conference in pass defense the last three years. He also has been widely lauded for his recruiting.
Now, Clinkscale is the Wolverines’ defensive pass-game coordinator and defensive backs coach, having signed a three-year contract last month.
“I’ve been talking to Steve for a long time, many years, and it just meshed up this time around,” Harbaugh said last Thursday at the Sound Mind Sound Body Michigan Showcase recruiting camp, hosted by Ferris State football. “Glad he’s finally on the staff.”
Clinkscale, 42, a four-year starter at Ashland University and a team captain, said he has been a fan of the Michigan program for a long time. He said a “higher power” allowed things to line up perfectly, and that he and Harbaugh could never have planned this.
“The most appealing thing is, when you grow up admiring and watching a program and what they’ve done and how they’ve done it as a child, all the way into high school and college, and you get an opportunity to work there, or even if I could have played here, I’ve always admired the program and what they’ve done and what they’ve represented,” Clinkscale told The Detroit News in an interview at the camp. “It’s been a blessing and just an honor.”
As soon as Linguist left for Buffalo, Harbaugh zeroed in on Clinkscale.
“It was pretty quick,” Clinkscale said. “Coach and I have been in touch two years before, and we just stayed in touch. We felt like the first situation, it just wasn’t going to work, but we remained in touch with each other and it just lined up this way perfectly.”
Clinkscale adds more clout to Michigan’s renewed efforts to make the state of Michigan and Metro Detroit, specifically, a recruiting focus. Harbaugh revamped his staff in the offseason and added Ron Bellamy, a former Michigan receiver who spent the last 11 seasons as West Bloomfield’s head coach — he won a state title earlier this year — and former Michigan running back Mike Hart. Hart and Bellamy have strong ties to the area, Hart having recruited the state of Michigan for some of his previous coaching stops, most recently Indiana. Clinkscale coached at Ashland, Toledo and Cincinnati before Kentucky, and he has strong relationships with high school coaches in this area.
“He knows more people than I do,” Harbaugh said of Clinkscale.
Clinkscale knows how important recruiting Ohio is, as well, but being focused on in-state recruiting is key.
“All the coaches I’ve worked for, it’s always been: Start at home,” he said. “You control your home base, you win football games. You get students to graduate, stay in the program and you’re gonna win games. It worked at Kentucky, it worked at Cincinnati, it worked at Toledo, worked at Ashland, all the places I’ve coached, and we’ve been successful.
“And Coach (Harbaugh) is wanting to do the same thing, so he made a stronger core of coaches that we’re just gonna be young, get after it, we’re gonna recruit our butts off, and we’re just moving forward. We’re rebuilding, and you’ve got to rebuild starting at home. I’m excited to be a part of it. Everybody says how good I recruit, but it’s not about that. It’s about relationships. I love these coaches up here, the players. This is like being at home.”
Now that the NCAA has lifted in-person recruiting restrictions, it’s all recruiting these days. But the job is about coaching the players already in Ann Arbor, as well. Clinkscale didn’t discuss specific players, but spoke generally how he coaches defensive backs. Bellamy, initially hired to coach receivers, is now working with safeties.
“It’s not about how fast we get things to work, it’s about putting in the work,” Clinkscale said. “They recruited good players, and we’re going to continue to recruit great players. You put the players in the right position, you get them to understand the game, and they make the plays. I tell them all the time, I learn just as much from you as I do from another coach. I played the position, but a lot of times, if you haven’t played or you don’t watch your guys grow from a situation, then you’re not going to be able to continue to present something to them that they can understand.
“It’s not about the coaches. It’s not even about X’s and O’s. It’s about getting the kids to do what you ask them to do. All the coaches ask them to do certain things over and over, and if they can’t do them, you have to find a way to get them to do what you ask them to do, because you know it will work.”
Clinkscale said he is most interested in the attitude with which the players practice and play.
“You have to be ready to compete,” he said. “If you’ve got the effort and the attitude, you can continue (as a coach) to make things simple, or complicated, make it a little crazy, but it can be as simple as possible. I want to put them in position where we can make some plays and not just keep covering people or putting us in bad position.
“We may bend a little bit, they may catch some passes, but we’re not going to let them catch the big plays. We’re going to eliminate those and take the ball away. That’s the key.”
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