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How Michigan and Tom Brady Recruited Each Other

Stories of Tom Brady's college years are a reliable accompaniment to each Patriots Super Bowl trip, but it's worth recognizing how far recruiting has come since his father and coach sent grainy tape of his junior year at Junipero Serra High to Ann Arbor.
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In the dark ages of college football recruiting, before players could upload their highlight videos to YouTube and high school coaches could pass along full games to college assistants with a simple Hudl link, moms, dads and coaches hunched over VCRs—we’ll pause here for those under 25 to Google what that acronym means—and created tapes that they would then mail to college football offices with the hope that someone on a faraway campus might watch. Sometimes those coaches watched those videos. Sometimes they didn’t.

Such a videotape of a senior quarterback from Junipero Serra High in San Mateo, Calif., landed on the desk of Michigan defensive backs coach Bill Harris in 1994. He popped it into his VCR and pressed play. It began like this…

What followed were highlights of Tom Brady making every throw a college coach might want to see. The throws were broken into categories. Every ball went exactly where it was supposed to go, like the football version of a fishing show where every cast lands another bass.

The 6'4", 210-pound Brady had some interest from schools on the West Coast, but his father and high school coach had decided to send out the tapes the summer before Brady’s senior season in an attempt to drum up more interest. At the time, was eight years away from starting the first national recruiting database on the Internet. Harris, whose recruiting territory included northern California, couldn’t easily assemble a list of every player Michigan might want in his area. Sometimes, the players had to find him. In this case, one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play did just that.

“It was a highlight film,” said Harris*, who is retired and living in western Michigan. “Everybody looks good in a highlight film.” But Brady looked good enough that Harris decided to show the tape to quarterbacks coach Kit Cartwright and head coach Gary Moeller. They agreed Harris should do some more digging, and he booked a trip to the West Coast following the 1994 season to investigate further.

*To hear more from Harris, Mike Riley, former Arkansas and Buffalo Bills offensive line coach Kurt Anderson (Brady’s Michigan teammate) and Boston College offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler (Brady’s Michigan teammate and, later, graduate assistant coach), tune into SiriusXM Channel 84 at 9 p.m. eastern on Friday for a two-hour special looking back at the key participants in the Super Bowl as college players.

A quarterback landing on the recruiting radar of a major program during his senior season would seem absurd today. Now, programs from across the nation would have followed Brady throughout his high school career. He likely would have attended regional camps sponsored by Rivals or Nike or Under Armour. He probably would have gone to an Elite 11 regional camp, and, if he impressed the organizers, he might have been invited to the Elite 11 finals the summer before his senior season. But by that point, he probably already would have committed to a school. The No. 1 quarterback in the class of 2018 is Trevor Lawrence from Cartersville, Ga. Lawrence will be a Clemson freshman this fall, but he committed to the Tigers in December 2016 as a high school junior. Joe Milton, the class of 2018 quarterback from Orlando who just enrolled at Michigan, committed to the Wolverines in May of his junior year of high school. He had received his scholarship offer three months earlier.

Even Brady’s Super Bowl counterpart went through a recruiting process more similar to the high school quarterbacks of today. Eagles quarterback Nick Foles was a three-star recruit who graduated from Austin’s Westlake High (the school that produced Drew Brees) 11 years ago. Rivals ranked Foles No. 30 among pro-style quarterbacks in his class, and the service began writing about Foles in February 2006, a year before he could sign with a college program. Foles committed to Arizona State in May 2006, but his recruitment took an odd turn as National Signing Day approached. The Sun Devils had fired Dirk Koetter at the end of the 2006 regular season and hired Dennis Erickson that December. The weekend before National Signing Day 2007, Camarillo, Calif., quarterback Samson Szakacsy, who was ranked 10 spots higher than Foles by Rivals, decommitted from USC and committed to Arizona State. Unsure if the new regime really wanted him, Foles decommitted and looked elsewhere. Twelve days after he was supposed to sign with Arizona State, Foles signed with Michigan State. (The other quarterback in the Spartans’ 2007 recruiting class? Kirk Cousins.) Foles spent a year in East Lansing before deciding he wanted to move closer to home. With no schools in Texas interested, he transferred to Arizona, the Sun Devils’ Territorial Cup rival.

Brady’s recruitment included nothing as dramatic as the 11th-hour shift that kept Foles from going to Tempe. Given the level of interest in him and the schools involved, Brady likely would have been a three- or four-star player* in today’s recruiting parlance. He had interest from nearby Cal. USC’s offensive coordinator loved him. (More on that later.) UCLA was recruiting several West Coast quarterbacks, including Brady. Harris arrived in California and visited Tom MacKenzie at Serra. Harris asked the coach to see full games instead of highlights. “I want to see him at his worst,” Harris said. It turns out Brady’s worst was still quite good. “I watched a couple of games and he made some good decisions. Not every ball was caught, but he was throwing it in the right direction.” Harris also learned that Brady was a star baseball player at Serra. He expected to hear about Brady’s exploits on the mound, but Brady excelled behind the plate. “This man must have some toughness,” Harris remembered thinking. “You’re down there in the dirt directing the team. I said, ‘Let me meet this man.’”

*Recruiting services assign players between two and five stars. A five-star is expected to be a superstar in college. Four-stars are expected to be key players. Three-stars are expected to be starters but not stars. Everyone else gets two stars or no stars. Why aren’t there any one-star recruits? No one knows.

Harris hit it off with Brady and his father, Tom Sr. Harris returned to Ann Arbor with a glowing report. Next, Cartwright and Moeller had to meet Brady. Those coaches visited next, and they came away just as impressed. The next step was an official visit.

At this point, Cal, UCLA and USC and Illinois were Michigan’s main competition. Mike Riley, who would go on to become the head coach of Oregon State, the San Diego Chargers, Oregon State (again) and Nebraska, had come to USC in 1993 as the offensive coordinator when John Robinson returned for a second head coaching stint with the Trojans. That fall, Riley spotted Brady playing for Serra and immediately made him a recruiting priority. Riley recruited Brady throughout the 1993 and 1994 seasons. “I really very simply liked the way he threw the football,” Riley said. “I always look for guys that are just kind of natural passers, that can get rid of the ball and have a good, quick release.” Riley also loved the fact that Brady played catcher, because the best catchers have a very quick release to throw out would-be base-stealers.

Brady made several unofficial visits to USC. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Brady met former Trojans star—and Serra graduate—Lynn Swann at the 1994 UCLA-USC game.

Here is their exchange, according to a 1995 Chronicle story:

Brady: “Hey, I hear you went to my high school.”

Swann: “Excuse me, are you 42 years old?”

Brady: “No.”

Swann: “Then YOU go to MY high school.”

Later, Swann introduced Brady to Robinson, another Serra alum. “See him?” Swann said, according to the paper. “We went to HIS high school.”

Unfortunately, Robinson wasn’t as excited about Brady as Riley was. The Trojans already had one local quarterback committed (John Fox from Centennial High in Corona, Calif.). They would only take two quarterbacks, and when Quincy Woods of Park Forest, Ill., indicated that winter that he wanted to be a Trojan, USC had no room for Brady. A crushed Riley visited the Bradys to deliver the bad news in person.

Later, Riley would have a chance to correct his mistake. He was hired in January 1999 to coach the San Diego Chargers. Brady finished at Michigan in 1999 and was available in the 2000 draft. Riley’s Chargers passed on Brady five times before the Patriots chose him with the 199th overall pick. “So I lost out on a couple of great opportunities to coach a guy that I really, really admire,” said Riley, who returned to Oregon State as an assistant last month after he was fired at Nebraska in November.

Harris and the Michigan coaches got Brady to campus in early January 1995. They hit him with the ultimate “Michigan Man” sales pitch, and Brady was intrigued. A few days after Brady returned home from Ann Arbor, a major domino fell. Cade McNown of West Linn, Ore., committed to UCLA. Brady then canceled his scheduled visit to UCLA. In mid-January, Harris picked up his phone. On the other end was Brady, and he wanted to be a Michigan Man. Harris was overjoyed, but he played it cool on the phone. He still had to get Moeller’s approval. Once he secured that, Brady was in. On Jan. 18, 1995, Brady announced he had chosen Michigan.

Unfortunately for Harris, the time he spent with Brady in college consisted of visits when Brady came back home to California. Harris left Michigan in 1995 to become Stanford’s defensive coordinator. Meanwhile, Moeller was forced out at Michigan in May 1995 following his arrest during a drunken outburst at a suburban Detroit restaurant. Defensive coordinator Lloyd Carr would take over the program, and Cartwright would leave for Indiana following the 1995 season. The coaches who had brought Brady to Ann Arbor were gone. The ones who remained would soon be hot on the trail of a class of 1998 stud from Brighton, Mich., named Drew Henson.

Brady, passed over by USC and UCLA, a few years away from being passed over 198 times by NFL teams, was in for a fight—the result of which continues to serve him to this day.