It’s easy to pit Jim Harbaugh against Urban Meyer with the Michigan and Ohio State rivalry, but when it comes to recruiting, they’re more alike than many would think.
ESPN.com polled 75 ESPN 300 prospects in the 2017 class and asked who each recruit thought were the two best recruiting head coaches in college football. Harbaugh garnered the most votes of any coach, mentioned 30 times, while Meyer came in third with 19 votes, one behind Alabama’s Nick Saban with 20.
Over the past two recruiting classes, Ohio State has amassed the third-most ESPN 300 commitments behind LSU and Alabama, while Michigan has signed the fifth most with Harbaugh only in his second year at the helm.
The two teams face off in The Game on Saturday (ABC, noon ET) ranked in the top five of the College Football Playoff rankings, and recruits have no doubts these two coaches are among the elite.
“[Harbaugh] is energetic without being overbearing,” said No. 2-ranked Isaiah Wilson. “Those two things simply make him a great recruiter. He gives recruits his time, but he understands when to back off and when to pursue, so it’s all instincts with him.”
If there were a cartoon of Harbaugh’s short recruiting tenure at Michigan, it would likely look similar to the tornado stirred up by the Tasmanian Devil wherever he goes. The satellite camps ruffling the feathers of southern coaches, climbing trees while playing catch with a recruit and having sleepovers at a kicker’s house have all been a part of what has gotten him to this level.
Whether or not you agree with his tactics, Harbaugh has expanded Michigan’s geographic recruiting net into areas where the Wolverines had not seen much success in recent years. In 2016, Michigan landed three ESPN 300 prospects from California after not landing one such recruit since 2009.
The Wolverines also have a presence in the south now, thanks to Harbaugh and his recruiting strategy. Lee County High School assistant coach Kevin Pych said Harbaugh has seemed to persuade kids to consider Michigan.
“I grew up in Michigan and I used to wear Michigan stuff around here, and no one would even care,” Pych said. “After the satellite camps, we had people walking around with Michigan stuff and talking about Michigan. Harbaugh is the reason people down here are talking about Michigan now because he has changed the dynamic of it, and he has kind of started to take over this area.”
Pych had the chance to take a few of his players on a trip to Michigan, and he saw what makes Harbaugh such a great recruiting head coach. Pych attributes a lot of Harbaugh’s success to the fact that he shows each person how much he cares about them.
“When I went [to Ann Arbor] this summer, he was the first head football coach of a college program who actually talked to me about how to better myself,” Pych said. “He had recruits lined up outside his office and he’s sitting there talking to just me for an hour. I’m looking around seeing all these big names coming by and it didn’t bother him. He just cared about me as a human being, and I’ve never experienced that.”
That type of personal touch has shone through to the recruits as well, and Michigan is now solidly in the playoff discussion.
The same can be said for Meyer at Ohio State. Meyer has long had recruiting success beyond the Ohio border. Recruits and coaches will tell you it’s the personal touch and extra time that separate Meyer from the rest.
Gerard Ross is an assistant at Trinity Christian in Florida and was recruited by Meyer during his time at Notre Dame. Ross says he believes that Meyer is the same guy now as he was back when he recruited Ross to South Bend.
“He’s not putting up a front when he recruits you, and kids and parents feel comfortable with him because they know they’re going to be in good hands,” Ross said. “When he meets with the player or parents, he makes sure they are comfortable and that it’s about more than just football there. He pushes getting a job after football. If your son gets in trouble, he’ll treat him like he’s his, and he just has an eye for talent and getting the right players in his system.”
That eye for talent has Meyer positioned to potentially land one of the best recruiting classes at Ohio State. With 15 ESPN 300 prospects for 2017, there is a chance Meyer could get up to 20 if his remaining targets decide to come on board. That would be the most ESPN 300 commitments in one class since ESPN started doing its rankings in 2006.
It’s not that easy to convince a kid from Florida, Texas or California to live in Ohio for four to five years, but Meyer’s recruiting approach has helped in Columbus.
“Everywhere he goes, it’s gold,” Ross said. “He turned around Bowling Green, turned around Utah, went to Florida and won two championships, go to Ohio State and do what he’s doing. You have to put him on that list of elite coaches with Nick Saban, and everyone just wants to play for the guy.”
Harbaugh and Meyer will face off against each other on the field Saturday, but no matter the outcome, the two are solidifying themselves as recruiting powerhouses in the Big Ten.
The two coaches are recruiting at an elite level and have found a way to continue that success year after year. Most of the success, Ross believes, should be attributed to the coaches themselves and the body of work they have been able to accomplish.
“Harbaugh has to be some type of systematic genius in football,” Ross said. “To be able to go to Stanford, where everybody has to have a 3.8 or 4.1 and compete with anybody, then go to Michigan and in two years they’re already in the top-five rankings? I respect both of those coaches for what they’ve done, and I don’t think either team does any of this without them.”