Gary McNamara was about to message his wife, Nicole, to start searching for the best route from their home in Reno, Nev., to Nick Saban’s cathedral in Tuscaloosa, Ala., when he heard a booming, unmistakable voice down the hall.
It was Super Bowl weekend of 2018 and his son, Cade McNamara — a 6-foot-1 quarterback recruit with enough self-confidence to power the Las Vegas strip — had just finished visiting Alabama. Saban saw McNamara’s feel and vision as a project worth investing in. Though technically still committed to Notre Dame, Cade seemed to find his fit.
Then, the voice.
It boomed from a head that had just popped out of a doorway. The McNamaras had traveled to Ann Arbor, Mich., after their trip to Alabama, and they were now standing outside Jim Harbaugh’s office for the first time. Harbaugh was ready to mingle.
Michigan’s head coach is unique. For many, he’s a lot. For some, he’s too much. Others need time to get comfortable.
Cade McNamara needed about 14 seconds.
“Within five minutes they had found a conference room and were watching film,” says Gary, who described the interaction as “a true football exchange.” Within the first half-hour, a recruiting staffer pulled Gary aside to let him know Harbaugh didn’t act like this with other prospects. By the time they got in the car to head home, Cade had decided to change his commitment to Michigan.
“In high school, Cade complained practices weren’t long enough. That’s him,” Gary says, chuckling. “Jim definitely reminds me of Cade. … There’s an extreme respect there that goes beyond what anybody really knows.”
Harbaugh and McNamara, who will lead No. 2 Michigan (12-1) vs. No. 3 Georgia (12-1) on Friday in a College Football Playoff semifinal, naturally share a verbal and nonverbal football language. McNamara’s high school coach, Shawn Dupris, gave him the keys to a complex offense as an underclassman and helped teach him how to win.
“If you’re playing your grandma — whom you love dearly — in checkers, Cade,” Dupris would say, “someone has to win and someone has to lose.
“So, why lose?”
Michigan’s football coach and offensive leader share a feel, a respect and an appreciation of what it means to be a quarterback. Harbaugh, who once broke his hand punching Jim Kelly in the face after Kelly insinuated Harbaugh was soft during a TV broadcast, played the position for the Wolverines from 1983 to 1986. He then spent 13 more years as an NFL quarterback.
Harbaugh became Michigan’s football coach in 2015. It took him every inch of six seasons to find his blueprint quarterback.
Harbaugh found some of himself in McNamara. He also, perhaps, found his ideal quarterback for his ideal version of Michigan football.
“Hey, Coach,” Dupris recalls McNamara texting once, “I just beat Grandma in checkers.”
The McNamara boys (Cade, Kyle and Jake) had the backyard of every kid’s dream.
The family lived on a golf course, and the yard, outlined by a split-rail fence, was essentially a ballpark. In baseball season, the boys made Gary, a former college baseball center fielder and coach, chalk the yard into a diamond. In the fall, he painted football lines. Dad colored two fence posts yellow to serve as foul poles. He hung Christmas lights along the back fence so they could play at night.
And while this sounds like something out of a Hallmark movie, Gary’s quick to point out the reality. He’s a former competitive athlete, the three boys are close in age, they all have Type-A personalities and they grew up inside college baseball dugouts. There were cute moments.
There were also moments of adolescent explosion.
“I’d be in the golf clubhouse and someone would walk over and say, ‘Hey, so I was going down the fairway earlier and I saw the boys playing ball in the backyard,’” Gary recalls. “And the story would always be about how one of them had dropped a bat and was chasing the other, or one’s dropping an F-bomb.”