FROM COLLEGE FOOTBALL TO PROFESSOR TO DEVELOPER, MICHAEL CRAWFORD ISN’T AFRAID TO GET HIS HANDS DIRTY
To say that Michael Crawford — who earned his undergraduate degree from USD in 2008 with a double major in sociology and psychology — has overcome a lot in his life is an extreme understatement. But these days, things are looking pretty sweet.
For one thing, he is a very proud papa. You don’t have to ask him twice to be shown a picture of 18-month-old Olivia Honey Rose. Fittingly, in the photo he selects from the multitude on his phone, the adorable tot is sporting a wee hard hat and kid-sized tool belt. “She wants to be just like me,” says Crawford. “She’s been coming with me to job sites since she was 3 months old. We have a blast together.”
For another thing, his wife, Claire (Moga) ’09 (BA), ’12 (MSN), ’17 (PhD), is expecting their son this fall, and Crawford is thrilled to soon greet the newest member of the family. And yet another note of positivity comes from the success of his company, Crawford Design and Development, which recently closed on the sale of a $4 million house in Point Loma and has several projects near USD aimed at college students, mostly in the nearby neighborhood known as Dogpatch.
“We’ve been buying and building and creating there for the last seven years,” he says. “We recently finished an eight-unit project called The Carl, which is named after my father, who was murdered eight years ago. And we just broke ground on a 14-unit project right behind Ballast Point Brewery that will probably be done by the end of this year. We have another project in the area that we finished up about six years ago.”
Crawford admits that it’s unusual for a 37-year-old man with a doctorate in clinical psychology to become a general contractor after studying at “YouTube University” to learn the fundamentals of becoming a building developer and designer.
“In terms of our development firm, it’s myself and my wife,” he explains. “We do the majority of the heavy lifting, although we do have an investor, Josh Brisco ’06 (BA), ’07 (BA), who I played football with at USD.”
Crawford delights in the changes he sees in Dogpatch, a small area just across from the USD campus on the hills between Linda Vista and Friars Road. “We love the area. Having gone to school at USD, we saw Dogpatch as a diamond in the rough.”
He unlocks the heavy padlock of the construction site of a multi-unit project behind the brewery and points out that within the week, heavy I-beams will be installed, and framing will be well underway.
“If you come back in two weeks, there’ll be a second floor on it; we’re going up four stories. And there’ll be a rooftop deck where tenants can watch the SeaWorld fireworks and all that jazz.”
In a tour of one of his units at The Carl, which is a few blocks away, he shows off the stainless-steel appliances, sleek built-in shelving, flat-screen TVs, subway tile backsplash and modern furnishings.
“We provide our tenants with Internet, power, cleaning services, all the furnishings,” he says. “I like to call it ‘AirBnB meets student housing.’ It’s perfect for college students, particularly if they’re international. We provide everything they need but the toothbrush.”
He also points out that for every one of his buildings, he provides a certain percentage of units that are affordable. “One of my tenants pays less than half of market rate. I’ve never raised his rent; I see how hard he works.”
Crawford is both humble about and proud of his successes. “In a way, this whole thing started out as dumb luck,” he says. “Just going to USD, and being part of that community, and seeing what kind of quality students were here, I wanted to ride that wave.”
Hard work had a lot to do with it as well. A budding entrepreneur even as a college student, he was renting in Dogpatch while in school. “My landlord happened to own two buildings right here,” he gestures. “She wanted to sell one. And I told her, ‘I would like to buy it.’ I didn’t have much cash, so I drove for Uber for a little bit and got enough cash for the down payment to buy one of them, a pretty rundown duplex.”
And thanks to those crash courses on YouTube, he fixed up half of the duplex, rented it out and repeated the process with the other unit. An architect friend took one look at the property and suggested adding another building in the back. “And that’s what got this whole thing started.”
Crawford came to USD as a second-year student after tearing his Achilles tendon while attending and playing football for Virginia’s Crawford University.
“My coach happened to know Jim Harbaugh, who was coming in to coach for USD, and thought it might be a good fit for me. I’m originally from Los Angeles, so it was just nice to be home in the sun, attending a private school, and to still be able to play football. And obviously, the education factor speaks for itself.”
The first in his family to pursue a college degree, Crawford has nothing but praise for his USD experience.
“Coming from humble beginnings to where we are now has been a journey,” he says. “We’re originally from Inglewood, California, a very low [socioeconomic] family. My mother was once addicted to crack cocaine. My father wasn’t always the best man around, and had an alcohol problem, but still despite all that, it was a very loving household, and they always pushed me to want more.”
He credits USD’s McNair Scholars program for his academic successes. Funded by USD and the U.S. Department of Education, the program serves high-achieving undergraduates who are committed to pursuing a PhD or research-intensive graduate degree.
When I was in school, the program was basically for first generation kids,” he explains. “It was trying to facilitate that gap that was there for most people of color — especially from challenged neighborhoods — to where we are now. They had great success in keeping you motivated to finish.”
On a practical level, that meant that he spent summers on campus, which helped him be accepted into graduate school. “When other students had to get part-time jobs at the Coca-Cola plant or whatever, I was able to stay here while doing research, which helped me get accepted to grad school. They even paid for my GRE testing.”
Crawford found a kindred spirit in then-Sociology Professor A. Rafik Mohamed, PhD, who left USD in 2009. “I remember he always said, ‘Hey, what’s your next step? What’s your next goal?,’” he recalls.
“This was a regular refrain in my conversations with Michael,” Mohamed says. “It wasn’t that he was lost or incapable of figuring out his own life. And I certainly couldn’t answer these questions for him. However, I saw in him what I think a handful of people saw in me when I was nearing the end of my undergraduate journey. He was inquisitive and introspective with infinite potential.”
Mohamed, who’s now interim provost for California State University-San Bernardino, was moved to hear that Crawford remembers him so vividly.
“I loved working with students, and nothing touches me more than hearing that I impacted a former student in some small way. They certainly impacted me immensely, especially during my days at USD when I was just getting my footing in higher education,” he says. “It was easy to see that Michael had the energy, intellect and emotional intelligence to do whatever he wanted and to have a positive impact on his community and young men of color.”
Crawford stresses how important it for him as an undergraduate to talk to people who understood where he was coming from. “I could go in and talk to somebody who looked like me and they’d tell me, ‘Hey, I get it. I understand. But there is light at the end of this tunnel. That was really impactful.”
And of course, the friends he made on the gridiron made a lasting impact on his life as well.
Two of those are now Crawford’s investors: Josh Brisco ’06 (BA), ’07 (BA), who played defensive back, and Frederick Montgomery ’09 (BS/BA). “Both of them are highly involved in the community, and obviously people I see on the regular,” he says. “I would say that of my seven closest friends, five or six of them are guys I played football with.”
He’s proud to have been coached by Jim Harbaugh and believes the team had one of the most successful runs the Toreros have had to date.
“It’s wild to see how well those 100 or so athletes have done. Some are surgeons and politicians and astronauts. They’re great family men as well,” Crawford says.
Reached via phone after football practice at the University of Michigan, where he’s head coach, Harbaugh was effusive about his time with the team in the mid-2000s that Crawford played with.
“It was my first head coaching experience,” he recalls. “I was only removed from being a player by a few years, so I felt a lot like their older brother. They were a bunch of great guys who were hilarious and fun to be around, and they were really good players.”
He looks back with great affection even at grueling practice runs up “Harbaugh Hill” on campus. “I’d run the hill with the guys during 6:00 a.m. workouts, and the grade on that hill was pretty significant: 35 to 40%.”
For Crawford, Harbaugh’s influence still resonates. “I remember when Coach made a speech where he said, ‘We’ll see how successful you guys really are in five, 10 or 20 years.’ We didn’t get it at the time, but recently [the guys] were talking and realized, ‘This is what he was talking about.’ We’re all great assets to our community and our families. And a lot of those successes stemmed from the organization known as football.”
He laughs when he talks about what he calls Harbaugh’s “team mantra.”
“We make fun of him now, because he took it to the 49ers and then to [the University of] Michigan, but his saying, ‘If you don’t grind, you don’t shine’ definitely was cultivated at USD,” Crawford says.
“If you ran into anybody who played Torero football and just say the first part, ‘If you don’t grind,’ they will immediately respond with, ‘You don’t shine.’ And that’s been our mantra. We believe in it. Hard work works, whether it’s on the football field or in life, with your kids or whatever else is going on.”
Harbaugh speaks highly of Crawford and the USD team from that era, which he led to two straight Pioneer League titles and an impressive national ranking, a particularly notable feat for a school that doesn’t offer football scholarships.
“Michael was always just a really squared away, rock solid individual who always took care of business. He was popular on the team, an above-average player and a really good teammate. He was never a detractor. I could always count on him.”
These days, Crawford doesn’t shy away from talking about things in his personal life that some might keep to themselves.
“When I was younger, there were definitely things that I didn’t share with too many folks. But now that I’m older, I do share, especially with the college students I teach,” he says.
“One of my first activities with my students is to ask them to write down all the excuses of why this isn’t going to work or why people have told you this isn’t going to work,” he explains. “Then I put the papers in a hat — no one’s name is on them — and read them aloud. I toss in some of my own. And one of my struggles — and one of my greatest assets probably — is that my mother was addicted to crack cocaine. After I left to go to college, my personal household fell apart.”
He vividly recalls the day he went to USD’s Office of Financial Aid, trying to get his mom some help.
“I said, ‘Hey, I’m trying to get my mom to rehab, and when you have low insurance or no insurance it’s very, very hard. They just want to send you somewhere for a couple of days.’ So there I was, a student, trying to figure out how to get an actual loan. I needed $3,400 to get my mom on a flight to Florida, which they helped me figure out. I got the loan and sent her to rehab. And she’s been sober ever since.”
His mom, Gail, is a huge part of his life. “She’s doing double duty, because my father isn’t with us anymore.” In fact, she lives in one of Crawford’s rental units along with his sister, Michelle ’14 (BA).
“My dad was shot and murdered in our home back in Bakersfield. His case hasn’t been solved. Every time I went back there, there was a new detective, and my father was kind of getting lost in the shuffle. So, I put his name on the side of one of my buildings, along with his face, just to make sure he’s not forgotten.”
His doctoral specialty involves alcohol and drug addiction, a topic that he’s obviously got lived experience with, given his family history.
“Losing him that way was different than if your father had cancer and you got to say goodbye. So that was a big turning moment for myself, my family, my mom and everybody else.”
Crawford says that his love for cognitive behavioral therapy has helped him with that trauma. “It kind of has a lot of stoicism philosophies, which comes down to ‘control what you can and don’t give energy to things that you can’t control,’” he explains.
He’s quick to give credit to all of those who saw his potential back when he was in college. “Between the coach and the teachers and my family and my then-girlfriend — who’s now my wife — there was a nice balance. I was, for the most part, grounded and was able to be there for my mom’s journey as well as my father’s,” he says.
As for sharing his story, he’s ready. “Before, if you Googled my construction company, you wouldn’t find anything. I’m not on social media at all. Sadly, the rational for that, is that there are still barriers to entry in terms of this being a white male dominant field. But now I’m ready to share my story. My mindset is changing. I want to empower people who look like me.”
That said, there’s plenty of work to be done, and Crawford needs to see to it.
Still grinding and, most definitely, still shining. — Julene Snyder
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