How Jim Harbaugh is nationalizing Michigan recruiting
Jim Leyland did The Dab, Owen Wilson offered congratulatory remarks and Ric Flair delivered signature catchphrases from a lectern.
Whereas most programs have press conferences to introduce their new freshmen every February, Michigan staged something like a big party. The Wolverines’ first full recruiting cycle under Jim Harbaugh came to a close on National Signing Day on Wednesday, but the program’s “Signing of the Stars” dwarfed anything any other program accomplished. USC flipped a four-star safety from Florida State? Yeah, but did you see Migos on stage in Ann Arbor?
The event—which raised more than $110,000 for the ChadTough foundation—was the latest in a string of attention-grabbing recruiting tactics devised by Harbaugh since he was hired as Michigan’s head coach in December 2014. He's also drawn headlines for controversially pulling scholarship offers from committed players, wooing certain prospects with unique strategies and using satellite camps. All of those stories shifted the focus away from what Harbaugh was accomplishing all the while: putting together one of the strongest classes in the country.
Perhaps the class’s defining characteristic—besides its inclusion of the nation’s top prospect—is that it features players from around the country. Don’t expect that to change in the future: Under Harbaugh, Michigan’s geographic recruiting focus is essentially the contiguous United States.
Former Paramus Catholic (N.J.) High head coach Chris Partridge, who joined Michigan in a recruiting position last year, says the program “kind of revamped” its strategy with respect to location. Instead of fixating on the Great Lakes State—a stated aim of rival Michigan State—the Wolverines sought to expand their reach beyond the Midwest. “Michigan football is great and they have some tremendous football players in the state,” Partridge said last week. “But we also wanted to kind of go more national.”
This approach jibes with the composition of Michigan’s student body and a larger trend of the school’s increase in out-of-state students. Of the 6,071 undergraduates in the freshman class that enrolled in 2015, 42% aren’t Michigan—including 617 from New York and New Jersey and 312 from California.
Yet it would be difficult for the Wolverines to recruit nationally without their illustrious on-field track record and brand awareness—which should not be glossed over in spite of Harbaugh’s claim last year that, “I don’t know what that means, a brand.” Michigan hasn’t won a conference championship since 2004, but it has not relinquished its spot near the top of the college football pecking order.
“The history that the Wolverines have is unbelievable,” says Dwayne Savage, the head coach of Camden (N.J.) High, which produced two members—four-star wide receiver Brad Hawkins and three-star defensive end Ron Johnson Jr.—of Michigan’s 2016 recruiting class. “There’s only very few colleges in the country that have that. Probably Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State—there’s only a few of them that really have that, ‘Wow factor.’” Adds Savage, “Also, that degree that you get from Michigan goes a long way.”
It is an article of faith: Recruiting is about relationships. And the Wolverines’ staff has ties everywhere from New Jersey (Partridge) to California (Harbaugh) to Florida (passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch) to Ohio (secondary coach Michael Zordich) to Michigan (running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley). That enables the Wolverines to plant their flag in talent-rich areas in and away from Big Ten country while also continuing to attract local recruits who grow up wanting to play for the state’s flagship university—even as Michigan State continues to bolster its reputation as a nationally elite program under Mark Dantonio.
Michigan has long held national appeal on the recruiting trail, and it’s certainly not alone in this regard. But the Wolverines didn’t resonate on this scale under former coach Brady Hoke. Harbaugh handles recruiting with a zeal that undercuts any suspicion that he’d resent that aspect of his new job after leaving the NFL to return to college. He will seemingly do anything to win over certain players, and while his unique methods may rankle other fan bases, don’t expect them to go away.
Consider that both the kicker who hosted Harbaugh for a sleepover (Quinn Nordin) and the cornerback whose tree Harbaugh climbed (David Long) signed with the Wolverines. No, his “NetFlix & Chill kind of night” with defensive end Connor Murphy ultimately didn’t pay off (Murphy signed with USC), but this quote from one of the top tight ends in the 2015 class offers a glimpse of Harbaugh’s lofty standing in the eyes of recruits. "He's like the LeBron James of coaching it feels like,” UCLA signee Chris Clark said in December 2014, according to MLive.com.
Plenty of head coaches are successful using more low-key methods—such as Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher—but it’s undeniable Harbaugh’s style is working. His latest masterstroke? Staging part of Michigan’s spring practices this year at IMG, an academy in Bradenton, Fla., brimming with elite talent.
“I think the kids have taken to it very well,” says Scout.com analyst Allen Trieu. “It certainly has upped the level of recruiting for those kids in terms of him really showing that he’s going to spend some extra time and take some extra time with these guys.” Adds Ace Anbender, who covers recruiting for MGoBlog.com, “I think the thing that stands out the most is not just the fact that he’s pulling in all of these quality prospects, but the way he’s kind of found loopholes and different ways to recruit and kind of taking it to a level that a lot of coaches just aren’t willing to do.”
In 2016, Michigan brought in a class featuring 29 prospects* from 13 different states—including six from New Jersey, six from Florida and three from California. The group ranks sixth in the country, according to Scout.com, and second in the Big Ten, behind only Ohio State (No. 2). Partridge, Scout.com’s recruiter of the year, helped the Wolverines beat out a host of big-time programs for the nation’s top prospect, defensive tackle Rashan Gary, one of several important battles they won away from the Midwest.
DePaul Catholic (N.J.) High running back Kareem Walker picked Michigan after decommitting from Ohio State. Loyola (Calif.) High’s Long chose the Wolverines after reneging on his pledge to Stanford. De La Salle (Calif.) High tight end Devin Asiasi rebuffed Alabama, UCLA, USC and Washington for Michigan on Signing Day. And Charles W. Flanagan (Fla.) High linebacker Devin Bush, the son of former Florida State defensive back Devin Bush Sr., said no to the Seminoles in favor of joining the Wolverines.
The chart below shows how Michigan’s 2016 class stacks up with the program’s other classes over the last decade. This year’s haul features a relatively high percentage of players from outside of the Midwest**—at least 23 percentage points higher than any of Hoke’s four classes—but its players from inside the region registered a higher average star rating. Overall, the average star rating of Harbaugh’s 2016 class lags behind that of three other classes in the observed period, including the final class brought in by Lloyd Carr.
* Prattville (Ala.) High linebacker Dytarious Johnson did not sign with Michigan on Wednesday because of a reported “transcript problem,” but he said a scholarship offer is still on the table.
** The U.S. Census Bureau defines the region as the following states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
One notable aspect of this class is the Wolverines’ lack of representation from Ohio, the most talent-rich state in the Midwest. However, it’s worth pointing out that the state’s four top recruits, according to Scout.com—defensive end Jonathon Cooper, offensive tackles Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg and running back Demario McCall—issued verbal commitments to programs either before or within four months of Harbaugh’s hiring. In the modern recruiting timetable, Harbaugh and his staff showed up a little late for the Buckeye State’s best 2016 prospects.
Partridge says the Wolverines plan to recruit Ohio, and Michigan has already extended offers to several current high school juniors who reside there. “We’re very interested in a lot of 2017 and ’18s from the state, and we’ll look to definitely sign some next year,” Partridge says. That should lead to several intriguing recruiting battles between Michigan and Ohio State, but there’s plenty of talent to go around, even if the Buckeyes will be tough to beat for coveted local recruits. For instance, Michigan State reeled in eight players from Ohio in its 2016 class alone, including three four-star recruits.
“You don’t necessarily have to go head-to-head with Ohio State to get good talent out of there,” Trieu says, citing Luke Kuechly—a former three-star prospect who was not offered by the Buckeyes, starred at Boston College and is now a defensive anchor for the NFC-champion Carolina Panthers—as an example of an Ohio prospect who was overlooked. Trieu adds, “I think Ohio State’s going to get their share of top guys. But Brady Hoke showed, even through his years, he went in there and got a handful of guys that Ohio State wanted.”
While Michigan should benefit from its national recruiting plan, the Wolverines’ underlying goal remains unchanged: Get the best players. “It’s a meritocracy,” Harbaugh said recently. With its ability to mine more locations than most other programs, Michigan can follow that philosophy no matter where it leads.