For as long as Michigan has played football, it has dipped into Ohio to find some of the best players in school history. That included 25 years ago this month, when Michigan -- and many others -- sent coaches to Cleveland to recruit a 5-foot-10 athlete named Desmond Howard.
At the time -- February 1988 -- Heisman glory couldn't have been predicted for the diminutive speedster.
"He was fast, good hands, and we thought he could really contribute to us early and we needed a couple gamebreakers, believe me," former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Ross said. "He was the type of guy that could give you that. I felt he was that type of player. I didn't know he was going to win the Heisman Trophy because that's hard to predict, but I thought he could play for us."
Howard won the Heisman as a wide receiver in 1991 but had not played the position which accorded him football fame when he was in high school. At St. Joe's, he played football with another eventual Michigan commit in quarterback Elvis Grbac. For Bill Gutbrod, Howard was a running back.
Howard becomes a prospect
John Storey, St. Joseph's defensive coordinator (now head coach): When he was coming up his junior year, the senior tailback kind of tweaked his ankle. The backfield coach said let's give this young kid a try.
Desmond Howard: It was actually a little debate between the head coach and offensive coordinator whether I should start the first game of the season. Against our neighborhood rivals the Euclid Panthers, I scored five touchdowns against them on our field. At that point, I figured, you know, maybe I could do this in college.
Gary Moeller, Michigan assistant coach: They turned around and handed him the ball like 30 times a game. His coach was Woody [Hayes] and Bo [Schembechler] all wrapped up into one. This guy was a great football coach. They didn't throw the ball that much. He was going give the ball to his tailback.
Storey: We would fake to the fullback and he'd get a couple carries, but most of the time you knew the ball was going to Desmond. We had a line averaging 285 across the front. That was pretty big at the time.
Chuck Priefer, Georgia Tech recruiter: He and Elvis were both prospects. I remember going in when they were juniors and watching them both play basketball. I was over there one afternoon watching film and ended up watching them play basketball and was interested. Watched them through their whole senior year and I followed Elvis, too. That started the process.
Storey: [Howard had] great vision, knew how to play off blockers. Had great speed. We were a running team and only threw about 10 times his senior year. I think we threw 10 or 12 times the whole year.
Moeller: Everybody was worried a little bit, probably, about where are you going to play him. The answer was simple: You can play him a lot of places.
Howard: I can't recall which team wrote me first. Probably a middle-tier team, local team like maybe Akron or Ohio, schools like that first. As the season progressed and we're doing very well, I started getting letters from bigger schools. I do remember getting a letter from Coach, I had never gotten mail before in school. For me to be getting a letter that wasn't a tuition bill was cool.
George Perles, Michigan State head coach: He was on the top shelf. He was one of the top recruits in the country in our opinion.
Howard gets recruited
As Howard went through his senior season, attention grew. Coaches from a plethora of colleges stopped by to see him, Grbac and a host of other players at the school.
Howard started to narrow his college choices after the year and five schools ended up standing out -- Georgia Tech, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Syracuse. Notably left out was Ohio State.
Howard: When [Ohio State] fired Earle Bruce, I told my dad they were off the table. I'm up the road in Cleveland, and I never even took an unofficial visit to Columbus.
J.D. Howard, Desmond's father: They only came in the gym but one time. Everyone else came back two or three times to set up the visit to the house. They didn't come to the house and that automatically took them out of the picture.
Howard: John Cooper, I think he was coming from Arizona. We didn't know anything about him, his philosophy, his style, what type of team he was going to bring, what type of player they were looking for. I didn't want to be part of a rebuilding program.
John Cooper, Ohio State coach: I'd be lying to you, that happened so far, so long ago, I can't remember.
Howard: I was heavily recruited. I guess you would probably assume that the ones I took trips to were the ones I could see myself at.
The Contenders -- Michigan State
Howard: Nick Saban was the guy who recruited me. I know Nick pretty well because he recruited me in high school. I say all the time I am a fan of Nick Saban's brand of football because that brand of football appeals to me.
Storey: I'll tell you who was a great recruiter, Nick Saban.
Perles: He worked hard at it, worked long hours at it, and it made a lot of friends at the high schools with different coaches. He was excellent.
Howard: He was a good enough recruiter to get me up there to check out the campus. I definitely went to go see Michigan State, but sitting in front of George Perles is not even in the same ballpark as sitting in front of Bo Schembechler.
Perles: We thought we had a shot at him. We knew Michigan wanted him badly, so that was big competition.
The contenders -- Syracuse
Howard: I was amazed at the history there, with Jim Brown, Ernie Davis. All the history about those running backs because I was a running back in high school. So Jim Brown, Floyd Little, Ernie Davis, wow, this place was magnificent.
Turnell Sims, Syracuse offensive lineman and Howard's official visit host: I showed him the whole thing with the Sugar Bowl and what we were doing and he got a chance to meet some people. He was very happy, smiling, enjoying himself. Took him out and enjoyed the town. I was up at Winding Ridge when he was recruited, so he came to the townhouses up there.
Sitting in front of George Perles is not even in the same ballpark as sitting in front of Bo Schembechler.
”-- Former Michigan star Desmond Howard
Howard: They had these little chalets, these little apartments on this hill where they stayed. That was really cool.
Sims: He went to the places that a lot of the players went to. We were on Marshall Street, hung out down there. Probably went to, not Varsity but Cosmo's. Late night Cosmo's Pizza, sat there for a little bit with one of my other fellow linemen talking to him. He hung in strong. I could tell he was tired from going out late that night but we got him home, got in bed. I think he slept on the couch.
Howard also referenced an "eye-opening experience" during this visit, but neither Howard nor Sims would elaborate when asked.
Sims: I knew he was a player at St. Joe's and [Syracuse] had big competition with Michigan. He had no qualms saying that.
The contenders -- Georgia Tech
Howard: I went to Atlanta and had never been there before. That was interesting. They had some guys who I just thought, talking to them, they were really smart. I remember talking to these guys and they were not your average cats. These guys, they get it. Some real smart guys, not just book smart but they were socially conscious and racially aware.
Priefer: He came down and fell in love with Atlanta and we loved him. And he liked us a lot.
J.D. Howard: [Desmond's mom, Hattie] was impressed with Atlanta because they had a Martin Luther King center and the coaches came and talked to him and they talked to him so straight that he kind of thought about that.
Priefer: To me, the opportunity at Georgia Tech was to play early. The city of Atlanta. Opportunities in Atlanta in what he ended up with -- Turner [Broadcasting] was [near] our campus. Certain things we pushed and a family atmosphere and a different type of football. The friendliness.
Howard: I enjoyed my conversation and dialogue with the guys I met on my trip to Georgia Tech. They had some beautiful people down there, too. Beautiful women.
The contenders -- Michigan
Howard: Bo Schembechler is college football. To be there, sitting there and talking to him, I was so intimidated standing outside the door waiting to go in. I remember I turned and on the other side of that door is coach Bo Schembechler.
Moeller: I came away with this guy has to get a good education, otherwise you weren't going to have a chance to recruit him because his mom wasn't going to let him go there. I thought to myself, if you ever commit something to one person, you commit it to her that he will get a solid degree. That's important to her.
Howard: There was something subconsciously about Michigan. I was always aware, that was the best way to put it. Always kind of aware of Michigan because I had my uncle in Detroit and my cousin.
J.D. Howard: Gutbrod liked Michigan. He told Desmond you'd get a good education and Michigan was serious about recruiting you. But you pick whatever school you want to go to. So we said, 'OK.' So we looked at all the schools that came on, and we looked at Michigan and you could get a good education.
Howard: I vaguely remember those things, Coach Moeller coming down and talking to me. He sold the program really well. He was a hell of a recruiter. Mo was a hell of a recruiter.
Howard makes a decision
After all of the visits, Howard stayed open to options, but also appeared to be close to his choice.
Moeller: His mother was, 'I don't care where you go to school, you're going to go somewhere where there are good academics.' Georgia Tech was probably the other school, I would guess. I don't know what he'd tell you, but I'm sure his mother would tell you that.
J.D. Howard: Georgia Tech was probably number two. They came to see Desmond in the recruiting time, they came to see him not just one time, they came to my job and we went to a restaurant and we sat and talked, me and the coach. They really wanted to get Desmond.
Bobby Ross, Georgia Tech head coach: We went into Cleveland, Chuck and I, in a snowstorm, a blizzard. It was so bad we couldn't get to his home so we met him at this old restaurant, Chuck and myself, and Desmond's father came down along with Desmond. Immediately impressed with him.
Priefer: It was an uphill battle but we felt we had a legitimate chance because of Atlanta, because of Bobby and the program on the rise. We really did. You'd have to ask Desmond, but the dad was the biggest influence with the Rose Bowl. He wanted that, and we could tell. I remember Bobby Ross walking out after meeting the dad and him saying, 'Chuck, we're going to have a hard time getting him because of Mr. Howard.' "
Ross: I would have thought that, yeah. I would always give him my opinion as we left of what we had seen. I felt that Michigan was his dream school and of course, we ended up being unfortunately right on that.
Howard: At the end of the day, for me, when I sat in front of Coach Schembechler and he told me if I came to Michigan ... it was an honor.
Howard had made his decision but had not told anyone. He wanted to seek the opinions of his parents first, and they had a conversation at the kitchen table. Georgia Tech felt it was still in contention.
Perles: The high school coaches would tell you what they thought, and a lot of them thought he was going to Michigan, which he did.
J.D. Howard: Desmond always wanted to ask me my opinion, what did I think and how I was looking at it. I told him how I was looking at it and my honest opinion. He said, 'OK, all right, Daddy, I have no problem with it.' We had a discussion about it and once we got through the discussion we were all right.
Priefer: Tuesday night before the letter, [Desmond] calls me at 7 or 8 o'clock and says, 'Coach, I've decided to go to Michigan.' I say, 'Are you sure?' He says, 'Coach, I'm sure.' I kind of felt he was leaning that way, but it was between us and Michigan. I said, 'Have you talked to Bo?' Bo had always had the rule that he would make the final scholarship decision. They had already signed a certain number of players and he said, 'No, I have not talked to Bo, he is out at a funeral,' which I knew he was. I told him, 'Desmond, if you change your mind, I'll drive to Cleveland tonight. I'll be there in the morning at 7 o'clock.'
Howard: I just told Coach Moeller on the phone. What happens is there are a lot of stories and rumors going around, things of that nature. I told Coach Moeller on the phone I was going to commit to Michigan.
Moeller: We were on the phone. [Desmond] asked me a couple questions about this and that. I was trying to push him, 'Desmond, we have to get something done so we know we have something here for you.'
Priefer: I call Mo and ask Mo and said, 'All I want to know is are you definitely going to take Desmond?' This was like their last scholarship. He said, and this is his exact line, I said, 'Mo, is he as good a player as I think he is?' He says, 'What do you think?' I said, 'Mo, why are you asking me what I think? We're recruiting the heck out of him and I'd take him in a heartbeat.' He said, 'Yeah, I think he's a pretty good player.'
Ross: We were getting started at the time and that's why we were so excited about him, because we needed a couple people like that to not only make our program a little more legitimate, to be honest with you, to be recognized. Desmond would have provided that for us, not only in his play and what type of person he was but also that he was a very high-profile recruit. It would have meant an awful lot to us, probably a lot more than what it meant to Michigan, although he did pretty darned well at Michigan. But they get so many of them. We were really trying to get our feet on the ground.
Moeller: We were going to hold something for him. He wasn't one of those you were just taking a gamble on and someone we half-heartedly wanted. He was a great athlete and a smart kid with a good attitude as far as succeeding. That's the kind of kid you want.