ANN ARBOR — Six of the 90 players Michigan has signed in head coach Jim Harbaugh’s four recruiting classes have been from Ohio, a staggeringly low number when you consider the talent the state produces annually and the Wolverines’ own storied history of Ohioans.
Ever since Horace Prettyman — born in Stryker, raised in Bryan — suited up for Michigan in 1882, Ohio-born players and coaches have crossed the state line in droves to wear the Maize and Blue.
1997 Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson attended Fremont Ross before going on to Michigan.
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Heisman Trophy winners Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson were from Ohio. So too was Bo Schembechler. Harbaugh was born in Toledo.
The winningest program in college football history would have a different past if not for Ohio.
“It’s good football there,” Harbaugh said in November. “They’re well trained. We aspire to get the best student-athletes and best football players to come to Michigan. It’s a free-will decision, but we think they’ll be happy if they come to Michigan.
“I was born in Ohio, played with a lot of Ohio players. Can’t say enough good things about that.”
Yet the recruiting philosophy during Harbaugh’s first four classes was clear: Ohio was not a priority. The Wolverines signed three Ohioans in 2015, zero in 2016, three in 2017, and zero in 2018.
During the four-year Brady Hoke era, the Kettering, Ohio, native welcomed 27 Ohio players into Schembechler Hall.
His first three classes were heavy on residents of the Buckeye State and highly touted, and Hoke beat out Ohio State for some of the talent, something Harbaugh is yet to accomplish.
“Brady Hoke recruited Ohio very well, but the results on the field in Ann Arbor — and the incredible success the Buckeyes have had in the last 17 years of the rivalry — haven’t given Michigan much of a leg to stand on with players both schools wanted,” said recruiting analyst Jeremy Birmingham, who writes for the Ohio State-centric website LettermenRow.com.
“Michigan has always recruited nationally, hoping that the school’s brand and football brand would allow them to bring in the best of the best from around the country. That was Jim Harbaugh’s initial recruiting strategy, and it’s worked well, especially in Georgia and the Northeast.
“But with sleeping giants like Georgia, Penn State, Texas, Florida, Miami, and others now waking up, I believe we’re seeing a reassessment in Ann Arbor and a need for increased return on investments made in recruiting. The best way to do that is to connect with the players who are local and to re-establish your brand in your home state and its neighbors.”
The change is under way. Five of Michigan’s 16 2019 commitments are from Ohio, and one of UM’s 2020 commits is a Columbus resident. Four of the six Ohioans have made their verbal commitments since May 30. Michigan’s 2019 class is ranked seventh nationally by Rivals.com.
“I get a lot of hate from Ohio State fans,” said Fairfield’s Erick All, a three-star tight end who committed to Michigan last week. “They just knock you for not going to Ohio State.”
The additions of former Ohio State assistant Ed Warinner and Cincinnati assistant Al Washington has boosted Michigan’s standing inside Ohio’s borders. Warinner was born and raised in the state and attended Mount Union, where he learned under legendary coach Larry Kehres. Washington, a Columbus native, is the son of a former Ohio State player. In his lone season at Cincinnati, he helped the Bearcats sign their best class in school history.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, left, and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer not only have a rivalry on the field but also battle over the Buckeye State's top recruits.
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Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison has recruited southwest and northeast Ohio, building relationships with coaches during multiple stints with the Wolverines. Youngstown native Mike Zordich, UM’s safeties coach, also is well versed on northeast Ohio.
“That’s helped open some doors,” Birmingham said of Warinner’s and Washington’s hiring. “The recruits that the Wolverines have landed to this point have not been prospects Ohio State had real interest in. But for Michigan, I believe the idea is simple: Open the door with the underdog kids, and then when they succeed, more highly sought-after recruits could follow them through.”
When Jim Tressel was hired in 2001, one of his first actions was ingratiating himself to Ohio’s high school football coaches. He moved the Ohio High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame from a tucked-away corner in St. John Arena to the east side of Ohio Stadium.
“It was almost embarrassing,” Manchester High School coach Jim France said, describing the old nondescript glass casing.
In time, Ohio high school coaches revered Tressel for his kindness, generosity, success, and the compassion he showed their players when they matriculated to Columbus. In the process, Tressel put a wall around the state. Ohio State is 15-2 against Michigan dating to Tressel’s first season. In that same span, OSU has 14 11-win seasons compared to the Wolverines’ two.
The Ohio High School Football Coaches Association conducts a clinic in February that Ohio State coaches annually attend. High school coaches also attend Ohio State’s coaching clinic each spring. The event always includes a speaker — a prominent coach from Ohio — and inductees for the coaches’ hall of fame.
“The Ohio State coaches have always been great about having at least one or two representatives coming to our meeting and keeping us informed,” said France, who’s the president of the OHSFCA. “Coach Tressel was the one who developed a special closeness with us. ... Coach Meyer and his staff have continued that. Several of his staff members are former Ohio high school coaches and were in the coaches association. They do a lot of things for us, and we try to help them out whenever we can.
“Whether it’s just to make us feel good or not, we’ve always had an Ohio State coach stop by our school, even though we don’t have a ton of those caliber players. I talk to a lot of coaches from around here, and I haven’t heard anyone in the area mention anything about Michigan coaches coming by.”
Michigan State head coach and Zanesville product Mark Dantonio has made recruiting Ohio a priority during his tenure.
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When Mark Dantonio — raised in Ohio and a former coach at Ohio State and Cincinnati — was hired by Michigan State in 2007, he immediately emphasized the state of Ohio. His dozen recruiting classes at MSU all have included at least four Ohioans, including nine in 2018. In all, Michigan State’s signed 75 recruits from Ohio and 83 from Michigan during Dantonio’s tenure.
It’s no coincidence some of the Spartans’ best players during the Dantonio era have come from south of the Michigan state line — including four first-team All-Americans — or that MSU has experienced a level of unprecedented sustained success.
“I’m from there, my background is there, so you tend to know a lot of people there,” Dantonio told MLive in 2016. “That’s got to be a place that we can recruit, and we’ve done a nice job in Ohio.”
Recruiting has become nationalized in recent decades for major programs. Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, and others are plucking players from Florida, Georgia, Texas, California, etc. But Harbaugh acknowledged recently on his podcast the Wolverines need to maneuver their way into Ohio — and Pennsylvania, another talent hotbed — more frequently.
“A good percentage of our players from the state of Ohio actually start,” he said. “So we do look at that percentage and know we have to recruit heavier in Ohio and Pennsylvania.”
Matt Dudek, Michigan’s director of recruiting, added: “It’s a conscious effort that coach and I have talked about, of getting back into Ohio and Pennsylvania. We have three or four coaches recruiting Ohio now.”
The easiest way to create true momentum, of course, is by winning. Harbaugh remains 0-3 against the Buckeyes, and the low number of Ohio players means relationships with high school coaches aren’t as strong as they could be.
But the evidence is overwhelming: The Wolverines have refocused their efforts on the state of Ohio.
“This offseason has been different for Michigan and Harbaugh, who outside of the spring trip to Paris has stayed out of the spotlight that followed his every move over the last three years,” Birmingham said. “I think that, as much as anything, is necessary for the Wolverines to cement themselves once again as a college football recruiting powerhouse and lose the sideshow label that they’ve carried for the last handful of years.”
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