Monday, August 2, 2010

The Battle of Michigan: The War of Perception

Part 2 of a multi-part series: Part 1: The Numbers.

First, a preface: Brian, in mentioning Part 1 of this series last week, seemed to imply that the very act of debating this is in essence conceding the debate itself, and that MSU's recruiting is the same mediocre product it's always been and Michigan fans shouldn't waste time analyzing it. I agree in part (and that's actually part of what I'm planning on discussing as this series thingie moves forward), but I also disagree at the same time. Michigan fans can bemoan the fact that we've fallen to the level where we're worried about State all they want; that doesn't change the reality that it's something that has gone from a blip on the radar to a tangible threat that cannot be ignored.

My opinion, anyway.

So. In Part 1, I did my best to put aside any editorializing and bias, simply relying on hard numbers and facts. Part 3 will be the part where I veer into the territory of complete opinion (MSU fans will want to skip that one). This part will probably fall somewhere in the middle - there will be numerous facts, but I will also be injecting a pro-Michigan viewpoint, so be forewarned if you're not of the Maize and Blue persuasion.

Anyway, as the title says, there is a war of perception going on within our state's borders. It's been going on for over two years now, and frankly, Michigan's losing. To some people, it's an irrelevant battle for some very particular reasons. For others, it's something that they believe has changed and must be corrected.

The perception is, simply put, that Michigan, and specifically Rich Rodriguez, disrespects high school coaches and players in the state of Michigan by pursuing similar (or in their minds, inferior) prospects in other states. These feelings are amplified by the presence of Rodriguez, a complete outsider from the hills of West Virginia, in contrast to the past 40 years of Bo-Mo-Lloyd. Never mind that Lloyd was from the hills of Tennessee himself. But that's another argument for another day.

I have a feeling that certain people would've tried to kick start this line of thought even if Lloyd Carr had stayed as UM head coach or if Les Miles had been hired or something, because its roots reside in East Lansing and the arrival of one Mark Dantonio. I mentioned this in passing in Part 1, but one of the cornerstones of Dantonio's tenure in East Lansing is the re-dedication to bringing in the in-state kids, in making Michigan State THE university of Michigan.

A quick glance at recruiting, and you see man-beasts like William Gholston and Lawrence Thomas going to Michigan State, the historically inferior program in the state, and it's easy to assume that MSU has successfully shifted the balance of power in the mitten.

However, when the argument comes up that Rodriguez is neglecting/disrespecting/ignoring/whatever in-state kids, consider these numbers:

2002: Michigan 11, MSU 7
2003: Michigan 6, MSU 4
2004: Michigan 5, MSU 8
2005: Michigan 6, MSU 6
2006: Michigan 4, MSU 7
2007: Michigan 5, MSU 8
2008: Michigan 5, MSU 13
2009: Michigan 4, MSU 12
2010: Michigan 4, MSU 10
2011 (to date): Michigan 4, MSU 3

In case it isn't obvious, these are the numbers of in-state recruits each program has taken in the Rivals era.

Outside of the one outlying year (2002), Rich Rodriguez's recruiting in the state of Michigan is almost identical to Lloyd Carr's final years. The "change" is the aforementioned in-state blitz by Dantonio, which has somehow been spun into a negative UM light at the same time. A pretty impressive spin, I must admit.

As for Gholston and Thomas, the in-state supers who would generally be thought of as players well above Michigan State's payrate and would either go to Michigan or go out of state:

Player A:
Consensus prep All-American . . . named Parade Magazine and Rivalnet National Player of the Year . . . selected Defensive Player of the Year by PrepStar, SuperPrep and Rivalnet . . . ranked among the nation's top five players by nearly every recruiting publication, including No. 1 by Rivalnet, No. 2 by The National Recruiting Advisor, No. 2 by Tom Lemming's Prep Football Report and No. 5 by SuperPrep . . . rated the state's top prospect by the Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News and Lansing State Journal . . . the Midwest's top-ranked player recorded 102 tackles (63 solos, 39 assists), including nine sacks, and forced four fumbles in 1998 . . .

Player B:
Consensus prep All-American . . . rated the nation�s No. 1 prospect by recruiting analyst Tom Lemming . . . also ranked among the country�s top players by SuperPrep (No. 8) . . . listed among the nation�s top receivers by Lemming (No. 1), PrepStar (No. 2) and SuperPrep (No. 3) . . . labeled the No. 1 player in the Midwest by PrepStar, SuperPrep and the Detroit Free Press . . . named Midwest Region Offensive MVP by PrepStar . . . rated the state�s top player by the Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News and Lansing State Journal . . . three-time all-state selection . . .

Player C:
SuperPrep, PrepStar and Max Emfinger All-American . . . rated among the nation's top 20 quarterbacks by SuperPrep (No. 15), Student Sports Magazine (No. 15), (No. 17) and's Tom Lemming (No. 18) . . . also ranked among the country's top passing QBs (No. 7) by USA Today's Max Emfinger . . . listed among the Midwest's top prospects by the Detroit Free Press (No. 15) and SuperPrep (No. 17) . . . ranked among the state's top seniors by The Detroit News (No. 3), Lansing State Journal (No. 3) and Detroit Free Press (No. 6) . . . named to The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press Dream Teams . . .

You look at those profiles, those accolades...they sound like players who would snub their noses at State and take their skills to Michigan, don't they?

Player A is TJ Duckett. Player B is Charles Rogers. Player C is Drew Stanton.

All Mark Dantonio has done is restore what John L. Smith destroyed. MSU has always fared better in-state, and they have always landed their fair share of in-state stars who were always more enamored with MSU than UM. The only historical difference right now is Michigan being in the tank at 8-16 and being run by a perceived outsider who has rubbed a few people the wrong way.

2009 recruit Reid Fragel in 2008:
"To me, being a prospect from Michigan, it sort of feels like Michigan is being disrespectful toward the recruits in this state by going outside the state," Reid Fragel, a senior tight end from Grosse Pointe South High School who's committed to Ohio State, told The Columbus Dispatch. "I've heard some things saying they might be looking to the South more, while Michigan State is looking in-state. I think that's really benefiting (the Spartans), with their recruiting class this year especially."

So...why is Reid Fragel entering his second year with Ohio State and not Michigan State? If respect is such a big thing to him, why did he commit to an out-of-state program (OSU) over the in-state one that offered him a scholarship (MSU)? He "heard some things" about Michigan looking to the South? What things? From who?

MSU running back Edwin Baker, in the same Daily article:
"Michigan is not looking in-state," said Baker,'s No. 2 in-state prospect. "They want to go down South and get away from (Michigan), and that's going to pull all the talent toward Michigan State's way."

I'll discuss what exactly is "pulling" all the talent Michigan State's way in Part 3, but Baker's claim is just as false now as it was when he made it two years ago. Particuarly weird coming from him, since he was the one Rich Rodriguez wanted (not Larry Caper). Fragel's bitterness was at least partially understandable, as he wanted to play tight end in college (like he is with OSU), but Michigan liked him more as an offensive tackle.

Even Rodriguez antagonist Dave Birkett (inadvertently?) took a swing at the perception that Rodriguez doesn't care about recruiting in Michigan:
In three years under Rodriguez, Michigan has signed players from 14 different states. Typically, the Wolverines do most of their recruiting in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, but they also have a successful Florida pipeline and have secured commitments from non-traditional states like Arizona, Louisiana and Massachusetts.

Emphasis mine.

This is what Rodriguez has said all along ever since he arrived. If somebody can find a link with a direct quote from RR himself, thanks, but I have heard him say numerous times he wants UM's recruiting base to be MI-OH-PA, and then going down to Florida and branching out nationally from there. He has never - not once - said anything disparaging about the talent in this state in comparison to others.

And it would be easy to. Do you think it's a coincidence that MSU's always cleaned up in the state and has historically been a second tier program? The two are linked. You can make a chicken and the egg argument, but the end result is the same. MSU relies on in-state talent because they are historically mediocre and can't recruit nationally, and they are historically mediocre because their recruiting classes are full of state of Michigan kids who simply aren't as good as kids in other states. The state of Michigan isn't even on the radar for top states in terms of high school talent. After the big three (Florida, Texas, California), people rattle off states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia. Michigan never comes up, because there is never enough depth in state to support a high level program on its own merits, let alone two.

So, you ask why Michigan doesn't offer and take a dozen in-state prospects every year? Simply put: It's because they don't strive to be Michigan State. Mark Dantonio doesn't have some bleeding heart sentimentality to the poor inner city Detroit kids who are dying for a way out. He's taking what he can get. If MSU had the clout and the ability to go into Virginia and snag a Curtis Grant (5-star linebacker this year), does anyone really believe he'd turn him away in favor of Detroit Southeastern linebacker Ed Davis, who, while a fine player in his own right, doesn't measure up to Grant? Good coaches want the best players, period. And contrary to the partisan lines that have been drawn, I do believe both Rodriguez and Dantonio are good coaches. They're very different in their methods and beliefs, but they're both good coaches and both have the ability to identify talent.

But the fact remains, even now, Michigan's national footprint is much larger than Michigan State's. Don't believe me? Do you think Michigan State has the ability to go into South Carolina and take a star lineman away from the in-state Gamecocks? Can MSU go into Arizona and grab a pair of 4-star level prospects with numerous Pac-10 offers? Can they grab a Florida kid with offers from Florida, Ohio State, USC and Georgia? If and when Michigan State reaches this level, a lot of people are going to be in for a surprise when it comes to who gets offered, where they're from, etc.

I give the Spartans credit. They've absolutely jumped on the opportunity that's been served up to them on a platter. First time in a generation that UM is down, and they're exploiting it to the fullest with the most fundamental of tactics - targeting the hearts and minds of the masses. The two sides have very, very different views of reality, but sometimes it's the perception that matters the most, and there's little doubt that MSU is winning the war of perception. Doesn't matter what the truth is, it's the fundamental definition of the Big Lie: no matter how outlandish and how false something is, if you repeat it enough and never deviate from your message, eventually people will believe it.

Like I mentioned at the onset of this one, Part 3 will be even more opinionated than this one. MSU folks will want to skip it. A large portion of it will actually be a rehash of a few sensitive issues I've talked about here before, but sometimes things have to be repeated just so the message gets across.


Ty Schalter said...


You're doing this the right way. I loved the first part, I loved this part, and despite my allegiance I'll likely love the third part as well.

There was one sentence in there that nailed it all:

"All Mark Dantonio has done is restore what John L. Smith destroyed."

Well, that's cause for celebration around these parts. Michigan State an 8-to-9 win program, with occasional outliers in either direction? Yes, please, and thank you--especially if we continue to be served a side of rivalry dominance.

These "low" expectations are always pounced upon by Michigan fans as proof positive that MSU still is, and always will be, Little Brother. Well, fine, but contrast "low expectations" of 25-14, and a reality of 22-17, with "proper expectations" of Michigan Football, and the reality of 8-16. I'd rather order a steak sandwich and be sad it came without grilled onions, than order filet mignon and be sad I got served Alpo.

Honestly, at what point does the mental switch flip? At what point will it be undeniable that what was no longer is? How long can U of M perennially win fewer games than MSU does, and lose to MSU head to head, and still be the "better" program in the mind of the average Wolverine?

The battle for in-state recruiting supremacy may be moot, or indeed wholly imagined by MSU fans. But, until OMG NATIONAL recruits translate into U of M winning more football games than they lose, can M fans mothball this notion that Michigan operates on some magical, rarefied plane?


Brian said...


In short, the answer is: More than two years.

If MSU gets the threepeat this year and UM is 6-6 or 5-7 again and MSU is 8-4ish, then the mental switch you speak of will probably flip for the majority of people, neutral or otherwise. Even then, some people on UM's side will wait to see what Harbaugh brings to the table as the new guy. You consider who's calling the shots in UM's AD now, and what kind of personality a guy like Harbaugh has, if RR fails, you'd be hardpressed to find many people who wouldn't believe bringing in Harbaugh would put Michigan on the fast track for normalcy again. I mean, hell, there are Ohio State fans who ask me "When are you guys getting rid of Dick Rod so you can bring Harbaugh in and get the Rivalry back to where it belongs?"

One of the writers for MSU's Rivals site once quipped that "UM football could survive a nuclear holocaust." Well, that theory may be put to the test after this season. Time will tell.

Ty Schalter said...

Indeed. Honestly, I don't want UM mired in terrible forever--it's bad for the conference, and it's bad for all rivalries, Capitalized or un-. Pretty much what I, as an MSU fan, wanted out of this UM transition is what I got--but now, I'd definitely like to see Michigan back above So Bad It Doesn't Really Count status, so that beating them, you know, "counts."

I can accept that two years in a row is a freaky transitional occurrence--indeed, Dantonio is under a bit of pressure to prove that his first two seasons weren't a freaky transitional occurrence, too. It's really pretty amazing: all possibilities are on the table: either Normalcy is Restored as UM goes 8-4 and beats a 6-6 MSU, or Dick Rod is Sent Back to The Boonies as 9-3 MSU threepeats against 5-8 UM, or anywhere muddlingly in between.


Unknown said...

I'm not sure there is a time limit on it. Ask Oklahoma State how long Oklahoma had to be down in order to gain the upper hand..longer than the Blake and Schnellenberger years obviously.

Michigan might topple out of the Eagle's nest..but it's really not likely, unless the top brass at Michigan decides it doesn't want to compete any longer. I think the 226 million dollar renovation of the Big House speaks to Michigan's commitment to winning football games though.

jsquigg said...

Let's not give Harbaugh the reigns yet. I don't care if he did play for Michigan, he has yet to prove anything big at Stanford and people are losing it. Hiring Harbaugh would be a mistake. Another extreme philisophical shift followed by mediocre football at best. No thanks. The best scenario is for Rich to get the job done.

BBA1993 said...

Brian – love your work.

You are right about UofM losing the perception war. Sparty, to their credit, has done a great job of capitalizing on the current state of flux in AA to turn the focus onto who cares more about the state of Michigan. If this discussion becomes at all relevant into the medium future (2-3 yrs), then as a Michigan fan, we can say for sure that our program has fallen from the elite, maybe for good.

One part of the analysis that has been missing from the discussion in my view is exactly why Michigan hired RR. The opportunity for a “program continuity” hire was certainly there (i.e., someone who had a UofM pedigree who would run both a convention pro-style offensive and defensive scheme): Miles, Harbaugh, Hoke, Trgovac, etc. To some extent, Greg Schiano would have been that as well, even though he is not a UofM alum. But that is not the direction we chose. Why? Because, without acknowledging it directly and publicly, I think Bill Martin knew that the old way of doing business was a path to Sparty-esque mediocrity. In the span of four games in late 2006 to early 2007, we got smoked by three spread offense teams and one conventional offense loaded with 5 star talent. We had only two great teams in Lloyd’s last eight years as coach (2003 and 2006); any of the rest could be confused for a decent season at Wisconsin, Iowa, or MSU. That is not what Michigan football is about. Michigan football is about 9-10 wins as a baseline and having a national title contending type of team every fourth or fifth year. It was clear that the entire program needed an overhaul to get back up to that level. So, we rolled the dice on a guy who clearly had command of the offense of the future and asked him to remake the entire program. I don’t think anybody appreciated exactly how hard that would be and how resistant to change the entire Michigan culture would be.

In comparison, Dantonio has had to change very little from the JLS regime (the only thing he really has done was make MSU’s offense more predictable – JLS, for all his faults, was a good offensive coach). And the results are largely the same. In his first three years, JLS was 8-5, 5-7, and 5-6, losing to Michigan every year, twice in OT and the other by 7 points. In Dantonio’s first three years, he goes 7-6, 9-4 and 6-7, beating Michigan in the last two years, one time in OT. He loses those two Michigan games, his records go to 8-5 and 5-7. One extra cupcake game on his schedule in 2007 gets MSU to bowl eligibility that JLS missed out on in 2005 due to an 11 game schedule. For all the buzz, there really is absolutely no difference between the performance of the current MSU regime and past ones. Their entire “success” under Dantonio has been a beneficial externality around the regime change in AA. Period. However, Mark Dantonio does have the benefit of playing to a fan base with low expectations, so two wins over Michigan go a long way.

The point is that Rich Rodriguez has a very different mandate than Mark Dantonio. RR, in my opinion, was brought in to rebuild the foundation of the Michigan program so that its sustained level of performance was 10+ wins per season, rather than 8 wins. That is a big task, full of potential risk given that it constitutes tearing the entire program apart and rebuilding it from the ground up. But, we weren’t going to be a consistent 10 win program doing what we had always done, like it or not. In my opinion, it is worth going through the experience of the past two seasons if that sustained level of excellence can be attained in the future.