You won’t often see Michigan State go much farther north than Traverse City, Mich., to recruit.
Charlevoix? No. Petoskey? No. Atlanta? Did you even know Michigan has an Atlanta? Probably not. But Traverse City possesses a unique appeal that keeps bringing back the Spartans.
Freeways won’t get you all the way to this tourist haven, located on scenic Grand Traverse Bay, which feeds into Lake Michigan. Set in the northwest pat of the Lower Peninsula, it’s a slow, 180-mile trip from Michigan State. You could get all the way to the Upper Peninsula in almost the same amount of time.
“When you live in Traverse City, it’s a little more of a commitment on behalf of the university to take the time to travel to Traverse City,” Traverse City West football coach Tim Wooer said. “I think our kids understand that, and they appreciate that.”
And yet, Michigan State’s staff frequently makes the trip — at least twice a year, Wooer said, Sometimes more if the talent merits it. That’s often been the case, it seems, during Mark Dantonio’s tenure as the Spartans’ coach.
From Traverse City St. Francis, they’ve landed the Bullough brothers at linebacker (Max, Riley and Byron) as well as center Kyle Lints, tight end Patrick Rigan, and current players Ryan Armour and Matt Seybert, a Buffalo transfer. From West, kicker Kevin Cronin and former tackle Thiyo Lukusa.
Michigan State recruited the occasional player from the area before the turn of the century, as well, but more coaches went on notice following the success of linebacker Eric Gordon, a four-year Spartans starter who went on to play for several NFL practice squads.
Max Bullough, tackle Jake Fisher and guard Darren Keyton followed as Traverse City natives who paved their way to the NFL. A secluded city of about 15,000 showed itself to be a hotspot for football talent.
“That cracked the door,” St. Francis coach Josh Sellers said of Gordon’s success, “and I think Max’s success kind of kicked the door wide open. And then it’s just kind of been this steady stream going forward.”
More than any other spot, Traverse City has consistently produced offensive linemen: Fisher, Keyton, Lints, Lukusa, Rocko Khoury at Michigan and Jake Cerny at Illinois, to name a few.
For that success, Wooer credits tenacity in the weight room to overcome what’s lacking in raw athleticism. And for those who are athletic, he said playing multiple sports has a major impact.
“We don’t have the skilled kids that areas of the state do,” Wooer said. “Our success has got to be based on the weight room and the physicality of our kids. We’ve just been fortunate to have not only big players, but kids who are athletic.”
Sellers cites a more specific source: coaching. Former St. Francis coach Greg Vaughan, who won two Division 7 state titles there, now leads the lines for West.
And to head the offensive line for St. Francis, Sellers has Greg Sherwin. A former Central Michigan lineman at a time when the Chippewas beat Michigan State in 1991 and 1992, he went on to play for the Jets and now looks to impart wisdom on young players.
“He has been kind of our offensive line guru in the area,” Sellers said. “He’ll take any offensive lineman under his wing. It doesn’t matter what school you go to. He just wants to teach kids to play offensive line and play it well.”
So when Michigan State makes the trek, it always has a few players in mind with the possibility that it will leave with even more names on its list. Two years ago while recruiting Lukusa, Dantonio visited West and Wooer pointed out a tall freshman, Ryan Hayes.
“Here’s our next one,” he said.
Michigan State ultimately became the first Power Five school to offer him in November. Offensive line coach Mark Staten watched his basketball practice and shared the news afterward.
“I was very excited and honored to receive an offer from MSU,” Hayes said. “I was always a State fan growing up, so it was pretty cool.”
Notre Dame, Minnesota and Virginia have recently jumped aboard with offers. Unlike the earlier days of recruiting, when word of mouth and personal visits dominated, Hayes’ film can be seen anywhere in the country.
But the in-state factor still has its draws — and not just because of prestige, but because the staff has consistently dropped by, showing exactly how much Traverse City has become a priority.
“When they’re in our building and recruiting our kids all the time, our kids develop relationships with them,” Wooer said. “It’s a lot different than a school that calls this morning and says, ‘Hey, we’re gonna offer Ryan.’ Well, you’ve never been in our building. You’ve never met Ryan. There’s not that relationship with Ryan.
“I think Michigan State certainly does their homework and works hard at the recruiting process.”