As Michigan and Michigan State prepare to meet on the football field Saturday, another battle is going on off the field. This report reflects the observations and analysis of recruiting reporters Brandon Justice (Michigan) and Luke Srodulski (Michigan State) on the changing dynamic between the schools.
Jim Harbaugh roamed the sideline at Ford Field in Detroit on a Friday earlier in October.
With assistants flanking him, the Michigan coach went back-and-forth a couple of times, conversing with coaches from Michigan high school powerhouses Cass Tech and Martin Luther King Jr. High.
King trailed by double digits in the third quarter of the Detroit Public School League championship on Oct. 21, but that didn’t stop one Crusaders coach from asking Harbaugh to pose with him for a quick photo. Harbaugh, wearing his typical khaki pants and a blue Michigan jacket, obliged.
This took place just a short drive from Ann Arbor, Mich., but Harbaugh’s presence likely would’ve elicited that reaction anywhere. His NFL playing career, followed by an even more successful NFL and college coaching career, has made him recognizable nationally. Quirky personality traits like his affinity for whole milk and decision to use a player’s blood as war paint only enhance his reputation.
It fits the mold of his alma mater, with Michigan intent on establishing a unique national identity. The university’s partnership with the Jordan brand marked a big step toward that.
With the Wolverines coming to East Lansing on Saturday to face Michigan State, a rival they’ve lost to seven of the past eight seasons, how has Harbaugh’s presence affected the in-state dynamic?
A closer look at recruiting practices at both programs shows they have few similarities besides location.
The past eight seasons have seen football success come primarily in East Lansing, not Ann Arbor, but Harbaugh’s arrival last year has brought change to the Michigan program. While the game Saturday will measure on-field success, Harbaugh has proven his off-the-wall, off-the-field strategy has worked wonders on the recruiting trail. What other coach has slept at one recruit’s house and wrestled (yes, literally wrestled) another?
The Wolverines struggled to recruit star players in Michigan, especially in Detroit, during the Brady Hoke era. Hoke was generally a well-liked guy, but the city of Detroit wasn’t his biggest fan. When Harbaugh came in, he had to fix that relationship, and the 2016 and 2017 classes have proven that he has. How did Harbaugh do that?
“Before (Michigan) had a game last season, (Harbaugh) brought immediate relevance,” Cass Tech offensive coordinator Chris Cash said. “Just because he’s him: Michigan alum, a pro player, pro coach, etc. The rest is history. That’s it.”
Guys from Detroit such as LaVert Hill and Michael Onwenu in the 2016 class have already made an impact at Michigan. In the 2017 class, only three of the top eight players from Michigan are committed, all to Michigan. Of the five remaining, three are considered favorites to choose Michigan, while one hasn’t been offered.
Does this pose a problem for Michigan State? Not necessarily. The schools occupy different spaces on the recruiting scene. You’ll see Michigan and Michigan State offer a lot of the same players, but seldom will you see a player deciding between just these two schools.
In-state players are likely to choose the school they grew up rooting for, should they have the option. Out-of-state players have much less reason to choose between the Spartans and Wolverines.
|National class ranking||Prospects offered by both schools|
|Class||Michigan||Michigan State||Committed to UM||Committed to MSU|
* Class not yet completed
Michigan largely recruits nationally. Michigan State largely recruits locally. The Spartans seem to understand, as shown in the table above based on 247sports rankings, that they’re unlikely to contend for many of the blue-chip prospects Michigan can land. It doesn’t matter who’s the coach. The Wolverines program sells itself.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio and his staff try to land the best fits for the program from Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
That’s the strategy Dantonio embraced when he came to Michigan State. He wouldn’t win many battles for players from Texas and California against a program with the history and national recognition of Michigan. He focused on finding the best fits for his program, largely in the Midwest, while establishing a strong reputation for player development.
“The first thing that I said we had to do when I came here is we had to measure up,” Dantonio said. “That didn’t mean win. We had to measure up. And I think we’ve done that.”
He hasn’t done that by trying to emulate Michigan. The Wolverines, according to Harbaugh, view recruiting as a “meritocracy.” Offers and commitments appear more fluid and abundant, with the staff always looking for better options.
Dantonio and Michigan State offer fewer players and build strong relationships with them before doing so. When a player commits to Michigan State, the expectation is that he’ll view his decision as the end of his recruiting process.
Harbaugh doesn’t share that idea necessarily. He explained his strategy in January when asked why two players lost scholarships.
“It’s a meritocracy with everything we do in our program,” he said. “It’s going to continue to be that.”
The Spartans want to cultivate strong relationships among the players to build on when they arrive on campus. Nick Boehm, a 2018 offensive lineman, described it after a visit.
“I really like the family atmosphere,” he said. “The way the players were before the game and how they react to adversity, it just seemed like it was a brotherhood.”
Michigan does things a little differently, with a bit more flash. You’ll see gaudy, meticulously edited photos and videos trying to coax the nation’s top players to join the program. Oftentimes, commits lead these public recruiting efforts. It’s a different version of a family atmosphere.
Who’s to say which approach is better? Michigan and Michigan State just go about things differently. That’s how it was before Harbaugh came in, and now it’s accelerated.
Dantonio and the Spartans need not worry. They won’t lock horns with Michigan on the recruiting trail much more than they did before Harbaugh. Still, it might be a little discouraging when they show up to a game in Detroit and see Harbaugh accepting selfie requests from every parent in the crowd.