The strong are getting stronger in the Big Ten this winter. With only a few days remaining before national signing day, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State are all on pace to finish with their best recruiting classes in the last decade.
All three schools are building on successful seasons on the field and the resurgent reputation of Big Ten football. All they are taking advantage of the league’s momentum in distinctive ways. Each has built its own brand on the recruiting trail that seems to mirror the head coach’s personality both in the public eye and in their private interactions with prospects.
As the competition between them heightens, those different approaches may have an increasing role in who has the most success fishing for talent in the same crowded pond. The high school players and coaches who listened to the schools’ pitches for the last several years agree that each has its merits as long as the pitches remain genuine.
Ohio State (National class rank: No. 2)
The tweet that says it all: Each program has used social media in a unique way to help define their recruiting strategy. We’ve included one tweet from all three teams that helps capture their online presence.
— Zach Smith #Zone6 (@CoachZachSmith) January 26, 2016
The pitch: Very few head coaches, if any, are more involved in recruiting than Urban Meyer. The three-time national champ has his hands on every part of the process.
He spends hours with most recruits and their families in his office when most head coaches only allot about 15 or 20 minutes for that time. He is also known to give detailed notes on a player’s film to high school coaches, even if it’s obvious early on that the player isn’t talented enough to get an offer from the Buckeyes.
“He’s meticulous,” said Chuck Kyle, the coach at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland. “He’ll give you details about the young man’s game and where he needs to improve. That’s useful information for us.”
The hands-on approach trickles down to Ohio State’s staff. Most prospects agreed that the Buckeye coaches were the most frequent communicators among the top Big Ten schools recruiting them. Although those usually daily messages come from the assistant assigned to a prospect's geographic area and not from his potential position coach, which was a drawback for some prospects.
Publicly, the Buckeyes are less apt to engage in social media stunts to create buzz on the recruiting trail. Their assistants are active on Twitter, but usually point to their championship rings and track record of producing NFL players as a way of establishing the brand.
Michigan (National class rank: No. 5)
The tweet that says it all:
— Connor Murphy (@CMurph_90) January 20, 2016
The pitch: Michigan and head coach Jim Harbaugh have been the vuvuzela of college football in the past year. Whether its sleepovers or the meritocracy philosophy or the many brushes with celebrity, no one creates a more consistent buzz. While the specifics may wear thin for some prospects, each stunt is a means to an end. There isn’t a recruit in the country that isn’t aware of what the Wolverines are trying to build in Ann Arbor. In marketing terms, their brand recognition is through the roof.
The Wolverines’ staff has had less time than its competitors to build relationships with recruits having just completed its first full year on the job. They’ve combatted that when trying to sell the program by stressing competition at all times and capitalizing on Harbaugh’s popularity.
The in-person recruiting pitches in the past year haven’t revolved around promising early playing time or a well-paved path to the NFL. Harbaugh’s main talking points are about how lucky the players are to have a chance to play football. The joy of “being on a ball team” was a convincing argument for many of Michigan’s targets this year, but for others it fell flat.
“He is an extremely weird guy,” said four-star tackle Liam Eichenberg, who was pursued by all three of the Big Ten powers before choosing Notre Dame. “He couldn’t really hold a conversation. He just kept on talking about, ‘You’re so lucky to have this opportunity.’ I kind of felt like he was just talking to himself.”
High school coaches who have met the Michigan staff say the Wolverines are still in the early stages of building strong ties to their schools, but it’s clear they do their homework on each prospect before showing up to talk.
Michigan State (National class rank: 19)
The tweet that says it all:
— Curtis Blackwell II (@MSUrecruiter) January 22, 2016
The pitch: Prospects often like to talk about coaching staffs “showing them love.” The Spartans take the 1 Corinthians approach in that department: patient and kind.
Head coach Mark Dantonio was described as “laid back” by some of the prospects that will be committing to Big Ten schools next week. Dantonio and company don’t push for recruits to make quick decisions or cajole them into campus trips. They generally aim at a smaller group of targets in whom they’re interested and only expand the circle if their first choices decide to go elsewhere. The coaches trend toward a more professional relationship when getting to know each kid rather than trying to act like their buddies.
Some recruits say they appreciate this style because it feels less like someone is trying to sell them a bill of goods. For others, the less aggressive tactic makes them feel as if the Spartans aren’t as interested in them as others. Michigan commit Michael Onwenu said he had Michigan State high on his initial list of schools, but he didn’t get a scholarship offer until this month and didn’t feel like he had a particular strong connection with Dantonio and the staff.
“In my opinion it has a lot to do with relationships,” Onwenu said. “Everybody has that same conservation about football. A lot of it comes down to how cool you are with the coach or how much they want you.”