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Brian Kelly kicked off Notre Dame-Michigan week by downplaying the programs' fast-fading rivalry on the field, but the Fighting Irish coach just as easily could have been talking about what's happening on the recruiting trail.
The two schools are separated by just 130 miles on the map, one-tenth of a percentage point on the list of college football's all-time winningest programs and 12 spots in U.S. News & World Report's latest list of best colleges and universities (both are in the top 30). Their profiles as national brands, historic football programs and elite academic institutions have been intertwined for decades.
But good luck finding many nationally elite recruits whose decisions have come down to Michigan and Notre Dame. Both schools show interest in many top prospects because that's what elite programs do -- "Believe me, we bump into them enough," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said -- but the major recruiting showdowns between the Maize and Blue and the Blue and Gold are largely a thing of the past.
The recruiting shift is more subtle than Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick handing his Michigan counterpart, Dave Brandon, a letter before last year's game expressing Notre Dame's decision to opt out of the series after the 2014 contest at Notre Dame Stadium. While Michigan continues to prioritize its backyard in recruiting, Notre Dame has branched out more to the Southeast, where it soon will make more frequent appearances because of its scheduling partnership with the ACC.
Notre Dame standouts such as defensive linemen Louis Nix III (Jacksonville, Fla.) and Stephon Tuitt (Monroe, Ga.), linebacker Prince Shembo (Charlotte, N.C.) and wide receiver T.J. Jones (Roswell, Ga.) hail from ACC/SEC country. So does Everett Golson (Myrtle Beach, S.C.), the quarterback who led the Irish to the national title game after last season. Wide receiver Corey Holmes of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is among the top committed prospects in Notre Dame's 2014 class.
|Kyle Kalis is one of nine 2012 Michigan signees from Ohio.|
Michigan, meanwhile, has fortified itself in the Midwest behind Hoke and his staff. The team's 2013 class, ranked sixth nationally by ESPN.com's RecruitingNation, featured 22 players from the current Big Ten footprint -- eight in-state prospects and nine from neighboring Ohio -- and just two from ACC country (one from Virginia, one from North Carolina). Hoke's four highest-rated players in his first full class in 2012 -- cornerback Terry Richardson, offensive lineman Kyle Kalis and linebackers Royce Jenkins-Stone and Joe Bolden -- came from Michigan or Ohio. Nine of the 15 ESPN 300 prospects in Michigan's 2013 class grew up in the same two states.
"From the moment [Hoke] took the job and said, 'I'm a Michigan man,' they're much more active in the Midwest," ESPN national recruiting analyst Craig Haubert said. "They still have to go national, and they do that to a degree, but he's kind of built Michigan's fence around Illinois, around Ohio and then up into Michigan. Notre Dame, they've become a lot more focused down in Florida. Notre Dame's numbers in the Midwest are slowly going down, where their focus more on the coasts, particularly in the Southeast, have begun to go up.
"It could be a sign of getting ready to part ways as opponents; it's almost like they're parting ways, too, in the way they recruit."
The landscape used to be different. When a Midwest prospect rose to national prominence, the Wolverines and Fighting Irish would pounce in unison.
"There's only so many local players," said Bob Davie, Notre Dame's head coach from 1997 to 2001 and an Irish assistant from 1994 to '96. "When you talk about Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, it seemed like we were always on the same guys."
Davie recalls Notre Dame and Michigan also competing for far-flung recruits in states like Florida -- first for the right to host the prospect on a visit, then for the all-important signature on a national letter of intent. When summer camps became a major recruiting tool, Notre Dame set one up to compete with Michigan's.
After being promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach, Davie looked to Michigan for his first hire and brought in Greg Mattison to lead Notre Dame's defense.
"We were behind a little bit, we knew that," Davie said. "Hiring Greg, we got up to speed on how Michigan was recruiting, more of an aggressive nature. There's no question the Michigans, the Ohio States, the Notre Dames -- you're going to be on the same kids."
Mattison, now in his second stint as Michigan's defensive coordinator, has pursued a similar pool of recruits at both schools.
"There's only a few teams that can do that and walk in and say, 'Hey, we've got a great football program, we have a great academic program,'" Mattison said. "So you're usually targeting the same guys a lot of times."
Bob Chmiel worked as Michigan's recruiting coordinator from 1988 to '93 before moving to Notre Dame in the same capacity under Lou Holtz in 1994. Chmiel, who also served as a Wolverines assistant from 1981 to '84, notes that Michigan, as a Big Ten member, always was "more provincial" in its recruiting approach than unaffiliated Notre Dame, which looked nationally.
But both schools zeroed in on the region, whether it was Notre Dame head coach Ara Parseghian and lead assistant Tom Pagna targeting Ohio and Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 1970s or Michigan coach Bo Schembechler assembling a staff with strong Midwest roots.
"Those guys have a history of recruiting in certain areas, and they have relationships with coaches in those areas," Chmiel said. "So those guys are comfortable going back."
Chicago became the epicenter for many recruiting battles between Michigan and Notre Dame, although the closings of several prominent Catholic high schools changed the dynamic. Notre Dame still brings in players from the Chicago area, but some top Catholic school prospects like running back Ty Isaac (USC) and offensive lineman Jamarco Jones (Ohio State) have gone elsewhere.
"Those are kids, to me, that Notre Dame should never lose to anybody," said Chmiel, noting that Jones attended the same school (De La Salle) as Notre Dame legend Moose Krause. "At the same time, if you take the original Catholic League, there's probably 10 schools that don't exist any more. And a lot of them were good football-playing schools.
"If you look at the number of Division I players who were in Chicago before, that number has fallen rapidly."
The change in demographics both in Chicago and throughout the Midwest has shifted Notre Dame's focus to the fertile Southeast, especially under Kelly. Although most of Kelly's assistants have Midwest ties, they're spending more time in states with growing populations and year-round football.
"When you talk about winning a national championship, you have to go into areas where those players come from," Kelly told USA Today this summer. "And I don't think you need to be a rocket scientist to figure out where those demographics are. They have to come from those areas, and we had to go in there and work hard at it."
Throughout the tenures of Holtz, Davie and Tyrone Willingham, Notre Dame had a prideful but restrictive philosophy. Davie, now New Mexico's coach, has watched Notre Dame boost its southern presence and enhance its overall recruiting profile with facilities, marketing and branding initiatives.
|Notre Dame unveiled a new look for the first "Under the Lights" game at the Big House in 2011.|
"[At first, it was,] 'We're different, we're going to be what we are, we're never going to change,'" Davie recalled. "Then, all of a sudden, it became, 'We're going to build a football building, we're going to go pay the coaches what everybody else is paying, we're going to go recruit that pool of guys everybody else is recruiting, and we're going to become flashier.' I don't think there's any question that is the case. We had a hard time competing against the flashy Michigan and the flashy Ohio State, in a lot of things: facilities, style, who we recruited, all those things.
"From the outside, it looks like everything's equal, whether it's facilities, how flashy the uniforms are. Notre Dame came out in gold shoes the other day. The [players'] pants are a flashier gold. The marketing piece of it is a real piece. I see a difference. I appreciate that. It's what they had to do."
Added Davie: "Notre Dame is now, to me, Michigan."
In addition to swanky facilities and glittery game-day threads, Kelly's dynamic offense has made Notre Dame appealing in different ways.
"Michigan is going back to the old style and Notre Dame is going more flashy," said Ricky Powers, a former Michigan running back recruited by Notre Dame who now coaches at Buchtel High School in Akron, Ohio. "The coaches at Notre Dame want a faster, quicker team, not the I-formation and run people over. They want to be flashy and watch guys run."
Coaches at both schools say they still rub elbows in recruiting, but the programs are taking different paths. Jeff Hecklinski, Michigan's wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator, wants to recruit nationally but makes no secret about the program's desire to prioritize Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois before branching out.
Michigan's staff tracks national recruiting trends, but it refuses to miss something good right under its nose.
"To say, 'Hey, we're going to do this down here,' you're missing out on connections and fits that are elsewhere," Hecklinski said. "You really can't do that. Look, we play in the Big Ten. Everybody we recruit in the Midwest, we're probably going to play against. So making sure we do all of our homework and our due diligence in Big Ten country is first and foremost."
Hecklinski has encountered Notre Dame about as much as he expected to since arriving at Michigan and notes that when elite prospects emerge in the Midwest, "pretty much it's going to come down to Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio [State]." Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, a former Notre Dame assistant, said of the Irish: "I feel their presence."
That may be true, but Hoke's push into his home state, combined with Meyer's ravenous recruiting approach, has made Notre Dame more of a fringe character in the Buckeye State.
"All their focus is on each other," Haubert said of Michigan and Ohio State. "That's where the battles are. [Michigan] probably wouldn't say this publicly, but I would be surprised if they even look at Notre Dame as a recruiting rival, as somebody they often have to overcome."
After next year's game, Michigan and Notre Dame won't have to overcome one another on the field, either. Davie, while acknowledging the changes in the schools' recruiting approaches, said the decision to end the annual series "makes no sense."
"Is it Michigan's biggest rivalry? No. Is it Notre Dame's biggest rivalry? No. But it's a big rivalry," Chmiel said. "When I coached at Michigan and when I coached at Notre Dame, a lot of those kids played against each other in high school, and a lot were recruited to both schools. The premise now that it's not that way, there's probably some credence to that. But I still think the game should be played. The top two winning football programs in the United States of America, a geographical demographic, a history, it's ridiculous to terminate that game."
History is changing for Michigan and Notre Dame, both between the lines and on the trail.