For the greater part of four decades, the University of Michigan has swaggered throughout the state with a confidence that seemed unbreakable. Incessant bowl games, top-10 rankings and head coaching stability were pillars the Wolverines built their in-state recruiting kingdom upon.
Cracks, however, are beginning to show in UM's foundation, and the recruiting climate in the Great Lakes State appears to be moving from blue to green.
And it's not just because of UM's current struggles on-field, or the roller coaster ride known as the Rich Rodriguez hire, or the steady stream of bad press associated with the hire and subsequent player defections; it's all that and more.
Corresponding with UM's present downward trajectory, in the standings and in perception, is an inversely related slant associated with Michigan State.
The climb began when Mark Dantonio signaled a new direction after he was hired by MSU to replace a coaching staff that, in practice, seemed rather indifferent to Spartan traditions and serious in-state recruiting.
From the day he was hired, Dantonio has held out Michigan, both the state and the team, as an object to be conquered -- the countdown clock attested this; the frequent evocations of UM as a measure of progress and success success did this; and a focus on building relationships with the pool of coaches whose students would have the greatest loyalty to the Green & White is accomplishing this.
Doing it Right
One of Dantonio's first acts as skipper was to write an open letter to every high school coach in the state of Michigan, promising a new day in Spartan-land where his staff and program would be reaching out, offering assistance in any way possible and pledging to work with high schools in order to move as many young men as possible into higher education.
After being hired by UM, it took Rodriguez almost eight months just to settle his contract with West Virginia. He was ostensibly a Michigan Man, but he just couldn't quit the Mountaineers.
A priority of Dantonio's has been to reestablish traditions and reconnect with the program's history. Honorary captains, gameday walks and brand new facilities that emphasize and pay homage to outstanding athletes of yesteryear are a testament to the staff's comprehensive attention to program building.
Another example of Dantonio & Co. doing things the right way involves well coordinated, well attended summer camps that include players the Spartans would never seriously pursue.
But other programs (various MAC schools and teams such as Grand Valley) would. Many of them have representatives present at Spartan camps, and the flow of information between high schools and institutions of higher learning is lubricated by an MSU staff that cares and assists in practice, not just words.
Parents of recruits with drastically different talent levels routinely comment on the professionalism and sincerity of Spartan coaches -- it's not just the star prospects who are made to feel at home in East Lansing.
So far, Dantonio's attention to the homeland (aided by the molasses-like transition of the Rodriguez regime) seems to be paying off.
With his first full haul of players in 2008, Dantonio pulled in 13 Michiganders compared to UM's 5. The ranking of prospect, however, weighed heavily toward Michigan with one 5-star, Boubacar Cissoko, and two 4's, Mike Martin and Rocko Khoury. MSU pulled in one 4-star, Fred Smith.
But the landscape is shifting, perhaps more rapidly than anyone could have imagined.
For 2009, MSU has locked in two 4-stars (Edwin Baker, Chris Norman) along with the best quarterback in the state, Andrew Maxwell of Midland, who has traveled around the country and successfully competed against the best quarterbacks in his class.
Michigan has no in-state 4- or 5-stars in the fold for '09 and appears to be having difficulty even holding onto recruits, whether they're homegrown or imported.
And for 2010, the news could be just as good for MSU.
At this weekend's game in Ann Arbor, where Michigan State has a chance to further nudge along its own perception of excellence, top-targets will be in attendance.
Austin White, Michigan's second-ranked junior, who has been to numerous State games already, will see the backyard brawl in person. So will Dionte Savage, a massive, top-6 lineman who has MSU high on his early list.
William Gholston, that state's top-ranked prep for 2010 and a potential 4- to 5-star defensive end who has been deeply impressed by MSU in early recruiting, will also be watching closely. The fifth-ranked in-stater, linebacker Max Bullough, is already a committed Spartan.
A Balanced Offense
A danger, of course, is that the state's talent level dries up from year to year. When the home base doesn't fill the coffers, trying to unearth or pry away players from other states or regions is a risky endeavor.
If the targets are not identified early enough or too difficult to land, junior college prospects become a viable alternative. Dantonio makes it known JC's can have their place in a program, but building team cohesion takes time and four years is what the staff says they prefer.
It's difficult to be successful in football, on the field moving the chains or off the field in parents' homes or coaches' offices, if you're a one-trick pony.
A regional approach, spreading outward from Michigan to Ohio, Illinois and the rest of the Midwest, mitigates the potential pitfalls of becoming too parochial.
Spartan assistant coaches patrol their recruiting regions with a passion. Dan Enos has been an invaluable asset to the Spartan program with his tireless devotion to and working of southeast Michigan. Dan Roushar has built tremendous goodwill in Chicago and northern Illinois. And the coordinators, Pat Narduzzi and Don Treadwell, have been instrumental in networking and building relationships throughout Ohio.
A win this weekend moves the needle one tick closer to parity between the state's archrivals. The Spartans and Wolverines might be separated by 70 miles of interstate, but in the recruiting world, the gap is considerably smaller. And it appears to be shrinking every day.