Tom VanHaaren had three dreams growing up. He wanted to be a professional golfer, work for ESPN and be a cast member on Saturday Night Live.
The first dream was thwarted, because golf is hard. The third, well, I guess you can never say never. But VanHaaren is currently living one of his dreams, working as a national college football and recruiting reporter for ESPN.
The gig came after beginning his post-college career in advertising. VanHaaren soon realized that wasn’t the career for him and began covering Michigan for mgoblog.com, where he started with what he described as a “test run,” because he didn’t have a portfolio to prove his journalistic capabilities.
VanHaaren then turned that opportunity into a job with ESPN, and he’s been there ever since.
Now, VanHaaren is releasing a book. The Road to Ann Arbor: Incredible Twists and Improbable Turns Along the Michigan Recruiting Trail, covers the recruiting stories of 14 Wolverines. It goes all the way back to the Schembechler era, beginning with the recruitment of Reggie McKenzie, through the Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr tenures and finishes off with Jim Harbaugh’s recruitment of Rashan Gary and Aubrey Solomon.
VanHaaren’s book goes deeper than just recruiting, though, delving into each player’s past and even some tidbits from their careers as Wolverines. Each chapter is packed with stories about the people who make up the history of Michigan football.
The Daily spoke with VanHaaren over the phone to ask him about the reporting for his book, the current state of recruiting under Harbaugh and a few good Bo stories:
The Michigan Daily: One of the things that really struck me is how thorough the reporting is, and how, in order to tell the whole story of a guy’s recruitment, you have to tell about who they are and where they come from. So, I’m curious, what was the timetable like on the reporting side of things?
Tom VanHaaren: … It was important to me to not just write this book from the player’s side of view and the player’s point of view and what he experienced. Because in recruiting, no matter when it happens, whether it’s Reggie McKenzie in 1968 or Braylon Edwards in the early 2000s or even now, you know, there’s two sides of things. And I think some of these stories, had we just pulled the players aside, we would have missed out on a lot of it. And so that was really important to me to get a Michigan coach, an opposing coach, family members. That was really, really important to me, and I’ll give you an anecdote to how important it was in a second here, but to answer your question: the total undertaking, from concept to finish, I want to say I’ve been working on this for two years. There’s 14 different players, and I tried to get ahold of four to five people for each chapter, so you can imagine getting ahold of 60 people, some of whom are in their 80s now, and they don’t have a LinkedIn profile, or they’re not on Facebook or wherever I can go and try to find them easily, that’s not the case.
The most difficult person for me to get ahold of was George Mans. And George Mans is a part of Reggie McKenzie’s chapter — the first chapter in the book — and George was an assistant coach. He actually played for Michigan, and then he was an assistant coach, and he recruited Reggie McKenzie and he had built a really good relationship with Reggie. So after I spoke with Reggie about his recruitment, he mentioned George a few times and said, you know, ‘If you can get ahold of George, he’d know my story too.’ The problem was this was back in 1968 when George recruited him, and, you know, I can’t remember yesterday let alone 50 years ago, a guy remembering something 50 years ago. I thought, ‘What the heck? I’ll give it a try. I’ll see if I can get ahold of him.’
I had a phone number for George, but I just couldn’t seem to get him on the phone. He called me back one time, and I happened to miss the call. I called him back immediately and he didn’t answer. I was just devastated, because honestly, I had been trying to get ahold of him for months now, to where it became a personal thing for me, just almost, I just need to get ahold of this guy just for my sake. And I thought to myself, you know, I’m trying so hard to get ahold of George Mans, and who knows if he’s even gonna remember the story. He could get on the phone and say, ‘I don’t really remember it. It was 50 years ago.’ So I was kind of taking a gamble, but I don’t know, something in me just said, ‘Just keep pushing. Just keep getting ahold of him.’
I went as far as, George was, I believe, was a state representative. He was some sort of politician within the Michigan state government. And I called a government official to see if they had contact info or an address. And I ended up sending him a letter to try to get him to call me back. And then once he got that letter, he finally called me back. And lo and behold, all of my efforts paid off, because George somehow remembered the exact same story that Reggie did. Recruited Reggie McKenzie from 1968 and told me his point of view, and it was incredible to hear this man who is in his 80s now recall this story.
And I think one of the more impressionable quotes that I took away from a lot of these people and a lot of the coaches that I talked to, came from George. I stopped the conversation and said, ‘Listen, you’re telling me the same, exact story, so I know it’s true. I know it’s the right story. How do you remember this? Like, how is this possible?’ And he said, ‘In coaching or in football and in sports, there’s always certain people that make an impression on you, that leave a lasting mark on you.’ And he said, ‘You just happened to call me about Reggie McKenzie, and that’s part of the reason why I called you back, was because Reggie was one of those people for me. He left such an impression on me and what kind of human being he was, what kind of person he was, that the memory of that story has just always stuck with me. I always remembered it.’
George said Reggie actually went on to put on some local youth football camps after he played at Michigan, and George sent his kids to Reggie’s camps, which speaks to how much he thought of Reggie. So that was really cool for me, and it kind of speaks to the depth and the time and effort I put in to tell each side of the story and try to get, you know, as much sourcing and as much reporting as I could in this thing.
TMD: I wanted to ask you how you chose which players you wanted to include in the book. Was it things you had heard? Stories you had heard before?
TV: It was a little stories I had heard, and the genesis of this book, or I guess how I thought of writing this book, was I ended up meeting with one of Michigan’s former recruiting coordinators, Bobby Morrison, who worked under Bo, worked under (Gary) Moeller, worked under Lloyd (Carr). He had been at Michigan forever, and we were talking for a different story, and Bobby actually still, this was recently, maybe two or three years ago, Bobby still actually follows recruiting. And, after our conversation with what we were working on, he said, ‘You know, some of the stories that you write now about recruits. You should hear some of the stories that I have.’ And he told me a story about a player. And it was actually a story about Tom Brady, and it kind of sparked this interest in me. So I spoke with Bobby a little bit about some players that he thought would be good to write about.
So he gave me a few ideas, but really it was marrying who were notable and players who were always talked about and remembered as some of the great players for Michigan, marrying that with a great recruiting story as well. Because some guys, I talked to Ernest Shazor, which is a big name at Michigan, but his story was pretty cut and dry. He said, ‘I loved Michigan growing up. I went to camp. Michigan offered me, and I committed,’ and that was the whole story.
So it was really finding a player that everybody loved, a player that people remember, a player that people would know, but also one that has a great story. And Mark Messner has that, Tripp Welborne has that, Jarret Irons has that. Jarret Irons has a really cool anecdote with Lou Holtz that is so inappropriate, but so funny. People can read about it — the question that he asked Lou Holtz about Notre Dame, it’s one of the reasons why he ended up not going to Notre Dame is incredible. So yeah it was really finding the people that, you know, you look at and you think, ‘Oh, I remember that guy, he was awesome.’ Or, ‘I know that name.’ And then putting that together and blending it together with a good recruiting story.
TMD: That Shazor thing, so how many guys would you say you looked into and it just wasn’t something that wasn’t this long, drawn-out story?
TV: That’s a good question. I want to say it was six players that I talked to that did not end up in the book. So, I got pretty fortunate, just because I had a good idea of who I wanted to include, just because, you know, some of the bigger names like Tom Brady, I think people would be interested no matter what happened. Even though his chapter is actually pretty incredible too. You know, Jim Harbaugh, I thought people would be interested in no matter what.
So I got pretty fortunate that a lot of those guys, and I think, going back as far as I do — 1968, 1980s — I think people would find those stories interesting anyways when I first started this, just how they were recruited. Assistant coaches would hand out referral cards to high school coaches and ask high school coaches to put down names of any opposing players they played against. That’s how they found recruits. So I got pretty lucky that I thought that would be the case, that people would think those would be interesting anyways, and then I got lucky that the stories ended up being even more than I thought they would, being pretty incredible, with a lot of twists and turns, and being really interesting.
TMD: The foreword, for readers, is from Brian Griese. He works at ESPN, obviously, but what kind of relationship do you guys have? How’d you approach him to write that?
TV: Yeah, that’s a good question, and I think he probably sticks out to people as an interesting name, because he was a walk-on. But, you know, I had known just from previous readings and doing some research that Brian had some opportunities to play elsewhere and play at other schools on scholarship. So I thought it could be an interesting twist to the book that it spoke to what Michigan had meant to him. And it spoke to what Michigan offered him, really, that he passed up scholarship opportunities to take a walk-on role. And then how he fought to get to the position where he’s in.
And his chapter is interesting, because all the chapters go a little bit beyond their recruitment into their time at Michigan. Brian’s goes pretty far past his recruitment as well, and he shared some information that I had never heard about his time at Michigan and his willingness to work and his willingness to stay and put in the work and try to earn a starting spot. So that kind of came together pretty well, and I think it just gives a different dynamic to the recruiting process that walk-ons sometimes turn out to be a guy named Brian Griese, and that can be something great.
So I had known a little bit about that. I didn’t know a ton, and I approached him and said, ‘You know, I think you’d be a great addition to the book if you wouldn’t mind,’ and he was willing to do that, which was pretty cool, because I do think it adds a really cool story and a different aspect to the book.
TMD: When you were talking to Aubrey Solomon’s mom or Rashan Gary, what do some of these high school players — how do they react to Harbaugh going go-karting or sleeping over at player’s houses?
TV: I think it depends on the player, and I think that Harbaugh and his staff have done a good job of identifying when to do that and when not to do it if that makes sense. You know, a coach has to coach his players in different ways, and I think they need to recruit players in different ways as well, because everybody has a different personality.
So I think they’ve done a good job with that, and speaking of Aubrey Solomon’s instance, the go-karting experience was an all-day visit for them. They planned it that way on purpose too. It details this in the book, that, I believe it was Martin Luther King Junior Day or it was a day that Aubrey had off from school, and the Michigan coaches knew that. He had that whole day off from school. So they planned their in-home visit with them on that day so that they could spend the whole day with them and do some family things. You know, Chris Partridge and Don Brown and Jim Harbaugh were making arts and crafts with Aubrey Solomon’s sister. To hear that and say that out loud, it’s funny, but you think about it as a parent, and this is what Aubrey’s mom said, that as a parent, you’re entrusting these coaches to take care of your son, and to see that side of a big-name coach and a football coach and a guy that is everywhere in the media like Jim Harbaugh is, to see that side of him, especially for parents, I think that rings true for them. Because it shows a softer side. It shows a side that they do care about them as people and not just football players, and I think that’s important to parents especially. So when they do it, I think if you look at the people that they’ve done it with, Quinn Nordin the kicker, I think he’s, probably self-admittedly, a little bit of a different guy himself, and I think that probably fit with his personality. So they’ve picked the right players to do it with, and who they’ve done it with has definitely resonated positively from what I’ve been told.
TMD: When Harbaugh first came in, he kind of set the world on fire based on the way he carried himself, but also his recruiting tactics were working. I mean, they landed Rashan Gary and had some pretty high recruiting classes there. The last couple of years, they’re still pretty good classes, but it’s fallen off a little bit. From your perspective, do you see any reason to worry at all about Michigan’s recruiting?
TV: No, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. I think what normally happens — there’s a normal cycle for any new coach, and I think that’s probably true for Michigan and Jim Harbaugh as well. Initially there’s some excitement and there’s a level of media attention, and especially with someone like Jim Harbaugh, where he got a ton of media attention. He got a ton of hype. That initial excitement level got a lot of prospects real excited about Michigan. They had a really good marketing plan, you know, with the satellite camps and getting Michigan’s name out there in different areas, in Georgia. So they did a good job jumping on that attention early on and capitalizing on that.
And then what happens in that cycle is that initial excitement tends to fade down back to a normal level. And what the prospects then want to see is they want to see progress on the field and they want to see that it’s moving forward. Because early on, the reason that there’s a new coach there, they’re selling that they want these prospects to come in and help push things forward and help rebuild the roster and help, you know, move things in the right direction. So after a few years, you know, you want to see that progress.
So I think that’s probably where a lot of recruits were at in this 2018 class, that they wanted to see it on the field. And Michigan obviously had a tough time with a lot of injuries at quarterback. They had a little bit of a revolving door there at quarterback. And they’ve dealt with offensive line issues. They’ve made a lot of changes this offseason, especially with guys like Al Washington, Sherrone Moore. Those guys, I think have brought a little bit of youth, and Ed Warriner as well, have brought a little bit of stability and excitement along the recruiting trail. And I think this season, you know, if Shea Patterson can stabilize that quarterback spot, and if Ed Warriner can get this offensive line to be a little bit more cohesive, I think that they’re gonna show a lot on the field this year, if those things can happen, that I think recruits will start to see that it’s headed in the right direction.
And we’ve seen that a little bit with this recruiting class, as well, this 2019 class. There’s a little bit more of an uptick in terms of where they’re ranked and who they’ve gone after. We have them at No. 10 overall right now. So I think they’ll be fine. I think this season, though, is gonna be important just to show prospects that it’s headed in the right direction.
TMD: I do want to finish by asking about the book again. I kind of wanted to leave it as more of an open question. Did you come across a favorite story … or maybe a favorite guy to report on or something?
TV: Oh man, that’s a tough question. I can definitely give you another one. I would say, and I’m not just saying this because I wrote this and I’m trying to get people to buy the book. But I truly, honestly think that there’s something about each chapter that I think Michigan fans will really, really like. And I think, probably, what I would say overall is a lot of the early guys, the guys that played for Bo, it seems like everybody’s got a Bo story, you know, and everybody including the Bo story of how he recruited them and what he said. And I’ll give you two of the Bo stories that stick out to me.
Jim Harbaugh had one where, you know, I spoke to Jim for his chapter. I spoke to his mom and his dad as well, and a couple other coaches that recruited him, and Jim said that he had his high school film was actually a spool tape. It wasn’t even a VHS. And they only had one of them. So in order to get it out to college coaches, they had to mail it out and then get it back and then mail it out again and then get it back. Jim’s mom, Jackie, actually told a story, where, you know, obviously they were friends with Bo Schembechler, because Jim’s father, Jack, coached at Michigan. So they had moved out to California, and Jackie was out having lunch with Bo and his wife. And Bo sat down and looked at Jackie and said, ‘Hey, I’d really like to see Jim’s tape. Would you mind giving it to me?’ And Jackie looked at Bo and said, ‘Well sure, Bo. Right now it’s at Ohio State, so you’re gonna have to go and get it,’ and started laughing. And she said Bo just looked at her with this scowl, a typical Bo look, like ‘you’ve gotta be kidding me.’ That one tape that they had is at Ohio State.
And then … Mark Messner has a really good one. So Mark actually took a visit to UCLA, and Mark told me that to this day, he still does not know how Bo Schembechler did this. But Mark’s parents picked him up from the airport from his trip to UCLA, were driving back to his house from the airport and they pulled up to his house, and they saw a car in the driveway. And they pulled into the driveway, and out of this car pops Bo Schembechler and Gary Moeller. And Mark said, ‘To this day, I have no idea how Bo knew that I was gone or I was coming back from this trip and when I was coming back to be in the driveway of my house.’ So Mark gets out of the car. Bo gets out of the car. Bo walks up to him, hands him a VHS tape, and all he says – he looks him right in the eyes and says to him, ‘You’re a Michigan man.’ And walks away, gets back in the car and he and Gary Moeller leave. That was the only thing he said to him. And Mark looks around and was just like, ‘What in the world was that about?’
So those two stories I think are especially funny in terms of having a Bo story and having a story about how he recruited them.
VanHaaren’s book can be bought here. It goes on sale Sept. 4. Thanks to Tom for participating in this Q&A.