CHICAGO (AP) — Presenting the pope with a Michigan football helmet and a pair of Air Jordans wasn't the only highlight in Jim Harbaugh 's trip to Rome this spring.
The jaunt went so well that you half-expected the Wolverines coach to pull out a map and show slides of his young squad sampling historical sites instead of answering the usual questions during his appearance at the Big Ten media days event Tuesday.
"The best thing I've ever done personally as a part of a football team," Harbaugh said.
"We're at the Colosseum, at the Forum, and you learn so many things along the way," he marveled a moment later. "The Colosseum has been around for 600 years, it's been active for 600 years. Around here, 30, 40 years as a stadium and they tear it down. Amazing, really."
Whether Harbaugh asked the pontiff to bless Michigan's fortunes this season wasn't known. But it would be hard to blame him for asking.
After starting last season with nine straight wins, the Wolverines staggered home by losing three of their last four, including a heart-breaking, double-overtime clunker to Ohio State in Columbus and then a 33-32 loss to Florida State at the Orange Bowl.
On top of that, Harbaugh lost more starters than any major college team — 17, assuming Wilton Speight returns at quarterback — and all but one on what was the top-ranked defense in America. He'll also be fielding one of the youngest teams in the game.
On the flip side, after adapting to players brought in by predecessor Brady Hoke, Harbaugh finally will have a majority of his recruits in the lineup. Several members of last year's highly touted class — Rashan Gary, Chris Evans, Michael Onwenu and Devin Bush Jr. — could be on the verge of breakout years.
"The amount of growth that you can have from doing something for the first time and then doing it the next time or the second time, can be the biggest leap they have their entire college year, going from freshman year to sophomore year," Harbaugh said. "So I'm excited for that class."
It remains to be seen whether Harbaugh's sometimes-wacky bonding experiments will pay dividends soon enough to get past rival Ohio State and end Michigan's 13-year title drought. But it should be evident whether the trip to Rome was a success in terms of team-building, since Michigan opens the season Sept. 2 with a stern test against Florida in Arlington, Texas.
"Ninety percent of us had never been out the country before," junior center Mason Cole said. "To go to a foreign country, play football and experience their culture, that really cannot be matched. The only way you're going to learn stuff like that is by doing it."
No one is more eager to find out how much the Wolverines have learned than Harbaugh himself. He won't have to wait long.
"Probably a good factor in giving us motivation and to get ready because we know just how good they are," he said about the Gators. "And college football has always been unique.
"It's the only sport that I can think of that doesn't have a preseason or exhibition season. No spring training, no preseason game. So you go right into your first game," he said, breaking into a wide smile, "and that counts."
But even if Michigan winds up on the wrong side of the opener, Harbaugh has already announced next season's team-building trip. He's taking the Wolverines to Paris, with stops at the Versailles Palace and beaches at Dunkirk.
"Lot to do there," Harbaugh cracked.