It happens routinely these days in Ann Arbor.
Word spreads that another four- or five-star prep thoroughbred has announced, from somewhere in America or beyond, that he’s committing to play football for Jim Harbaugh and Michigan. Or there’s news that yet another teenage super-talent has said yes to an official trip to Ann Arbor. Or, that he’s added UM to an elite recruit’s tight list of prime-time football options.
It’s not only a football team’s stature that's been reclaimed in the 24 months since Harbaugh returned to Ann Arbor. The Wolverines’ roster lifeblood, its ability to draw the land’s top talent to a lofty Big Ten school, has stretched recruiting boundaries and added something of a celebrity air as Harbaugh woos and increasingly wins a serious stream of national high school talent.
“As I watch it all happen, it’s amazing the things he (Harbaugh) has done that have enabled him to have a reach far greater than any of us had,” said Lloyd Carr, Michigan’s head coach from 1995-2007, during a phone conversation from his winter home in Greenville, S.C. “It’s simply amazing what his efforts have achieved in recruiting.”
Michigan isn’t finished a month before players sign declarations to play with a particular school. But it’s a big class, with 27 prep stars already having said UM is their choice. As many as six more could be part of Harbaugh’s haul, which today is ranked No. 3 in America by Scout.com, No. 4 by Rivals.com. Seven of the top 10 in the Rivals state rankings are committed to Michigan.
Until Sunday they were also in dueling for the land’s No. 1 target, California running back Najee Harris, until he opted to join Nick Saban at Alabama.
The fact America’s top player, a West Coast prep, was torn until the last moment between Michigan and Alabama is but one example of how UM’s recruiting has moved away from some old concentrations on Michigan, Ohio, and the Midwest and shifted under Harbaugh to a place where borders no longer matter. Nineteen of Michigan’s current crop are from states other than Michigan.
It’s a case where Harbaugh has decided stale habits or preferences no longer are vogue when, in his view, as well as other coaches who understand 2017’s realities, the recruiting planet has gotten flatter.
Harbaugh has one five-star recruit in Detroit Cass Tech receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones on the Scout rankings (Rivals counts two, including Florida linebacker Jordan Anthony), and an impressive 18 four-stars. Alabama is No. 1 in Scout’s rankings, Georgia is second, and Ohio State, which Michigan would appreciate replacing not only as a college playoff team but as the Big Ten’s more decorated recruiter, is fourth.
Michigan finished No. 4 on Rivals’ list a year ago. Harbaugh had less than a month to work on a 2015 class that finished 51st after it was leveled by years of transitions and tumult under Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez (Michigan’s recruiting rankings the five previous years: 31st, fifth, seventh, 21st, 21st).
Everything has changed
What has changed under Harbaugh’s watch is almost everything. Scope. Visibility. And, for sure, a head coach’s tilt toward imagination. He has been something of a P.T. Barnum disciple in his traveling-show passion, embodied by satellite camps that allow prep talent in the South, East, West, Midwest – including American Samoa and Australia, 38 camps in total in 2016 -- to showcase talents all while Michigan was displaying its Sunday best.
It’s but one way Harbaugh has taken Michigan’s national act beyond any altitude the school had reached during Carr’s time, let alone that of UM football’s modern-day patriarch, Bo Schembechler.
“I think it ties into his whole coaching philosophy of being aggressive,” said Allen Trieu, Midwest football recruiting manager for Scout.com. “The biggest evidence is all the satellite camps. Flying in coaches to see kids in American Samoa? This really has never been done in American history.
“And part of that philosophy is: ‘I want the best guy and it doesn’t matter where he’s from. We’re Michigan and we have resources at our disposal some schools don’t have. We can fly these guys everywhere, so let’s do it.’”
Harbaugh decided on another wrinkle last March: He would move the entire Wolverines team to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., for a week of spring practice. That some of the galaxy’s best prep talent is found at IMG was just one of the dividends Harbaugh saw in taking Michigan’s stage show to a locale his players and coaches weren’t about to mind as winter played out in Michigan.
Carr says it isn’t only a matter of NCAA rules changing from their old straitjacketed ways. Or travel and budgets expanding beyond what could have been comprehended even 10 years ago.
He credits Harbaugh for thinking in ways few coaches might have pondered.
“When I was coaching, there were rules about when you could do things, and when you couldn’t, and where you could go, and where you couldn’t,” Carr said. “And when the new playoff format arrived, it seemed rules began to change, also. Jim managed to see things he could do within rules that no one had either seen or thought sufficiently about.
“Add that to a big segment of coaches and schools who don’t want to change and, suddenly, everybody in the country who was a college football fan knew about those camps. Kids across the country were saying: ‘Man, they’re taking their team down there for a week of spring practice!’
“I’m sure there are people who didn’t like it. But it turned into a very, very positive thing for the University of Michigan.”
No, not everyone liked it. Even a coach who’s bidding tonight for his sixth national championship, Saban, yelled about Michigan’s incursions into regions that just happened to be recruiting oases for Alabama and others.
The NCAA briefly banned satellite camps last spring but then dropped the ban days later. Camps are now part of a national review as the NCAA ponders a proposal that would limit satellites to 10 days.
For now, Michigan and Harbaugh will continue to view the recruiting and satellite galaxy as being, if not unexplored, non-optimized.
Carr acknowledges this new world is slightly nuts. But in a good way.
Forty years ago, in the middle of the Schembechler era, and even into Carr’s time as a UM assistant and as Wolverines head coach, UM staffs worked Michigan and Ohio and took what treasures the Midwest and western Pennsylvania tended to provide within a radius of 300-400 miles. There was nothing wrong with dipping into Florida or Texas or Louisiana. Or grabbing a solid-gold talent from California or New Jersey or either of the coasts. But that was not for a moment going to be Michigan’s recruiting preference.
The philosophy was simple, as it was for Ohio State, Michigan State, or any Big Ten school – really, for any major college team in the nation. Sticking closer to home translated into advantages.
You could more easily establish relationships with high school coaches in a university’s backyard. You could, most importantly, begin to bond with families and assure parents their son would be taken care of, in relatively close driving distance from home. This would promise yet another bonus: Mom and dad could more easily see their son play, especially in years long before the Big Ten Network and ESPN made seeing nearly every Big Ten game as easy as flipping a channel.
It was also easier for assistant coaches to take in a Friday night game and inspect a player who might be heavily hunted once January arrived and top-shelf recruits were deciding on schools no more than schools were deciding on them.
It was a time before another reality turned college football recruiting upside down: the Internet. Suddenly, video of any recruit, in any game, could be delivered instantly to an e-mail address.
“Unbelievable,” Carr said. “That’s the difference.
“You can call a high school coach in California or Texas or Minnesota, talk to him on the phone, and in five minutes you’ve got a tape and video of this prospect.
“When I was on Bo’s staff, we had to go through the mail. We’d spend one entire week after our season, with each assistant’s job to pick up 16-millimeter game film and bring it back to Ann Arbor so all the coaches could look at prospects at their particular position.
“You couldn’t begin to cover regions and areas as well as you can today.”
Carr mentions another reason Harbaugh has gone national in such unprecedented ways at Michigan. It has to do with a coach’s resume. And every bit as much, with personality.
Harbaugh played 14 years in the NFL. Kids he’s recruiting today weren’t old enough to have taken in the show. But they know of his work for the Bears, Colts, Chargers and Ravens. It helps when prep stars you’re courting have pro football on their wish-list.
“He came to this job with an identity none of us had,” Carr said. “I think it’s been a great advantage.”
Next came head coaching stops. Harbaugh’s first ticket, with the University of San Diego, wasn’t going to carry significant clout. But big seasons at Stanford were persuasive, as was his Super Bowl stint with the 49ers, which was recent enough to have made Harbaugh a fixture in any football-savvy kid’s consciousness.
“He’s taken advantage of his celebrity,” Carr said. “That’s been a factor.”
Whether it’s enough to match Urban Meyer’s talent-scouting and Ohio State’s playoff status, or even enough to withstand the Big Ten’s crunch bunch (Penn State, Wisconsin, a likely to rebound MSU, etc.) is certainly debatable.
Whether it’s enough to soon put UM into the College Football Playoff and offer Harbaugh & Co. a shot at a national trophy is the greater question.
Trieu acknowledges Harbaugh’s coast-to-coast recruiting safaris and billboard classes guarantee little – except promise and potential.
“When you shoot as high as he’s shooting, there’s a high risk-reward element,” Trieu said. “He might fall on his face with a couple of these kids. Frankly, I think it can go either way (on remaining targets, which until Sunday included Harris), and I think it’s important for fans to understand that.
“When you swing for the fences, you might strikeout a time or two. If you miss on a couple of these kids, it might not kill you, but ... Their finish (between now and Feb. 1, when letters of intent can be signed) has a very high ceiling, and also a very low floor.”
That appears to be the brand of gamble Harbaugh will take in any year. He’s calculated his odds in these hyper-national recruiting forays. Even when he loses, he seems more than happy with his eventual cash-out.