By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 6, 2012
CINCINNATI — It’s just past dawn on a day in early August here, though this scene could be found anywhere in this state: other big cities such as Columbus or Cleveland, smaller suburbs such as Pickerington or Lakewood, quainter towns like Findlay.
A group of 16- and 17-year-olds find themselves trudging across a vast grass field. The sun is beginning to peek through the clouds, and it is at the same time glorious and foreboding. Glorious, because the rays soften the gloominess of the long, arduous day set before these teenagers; foreboding, because the rays also promise misery once morning recedes into afternoon and the August heat begins to stifle them once again.
For young men to be awake this early on a late summer morning — the last days of freedom before the school year seizes their lives for nine more months again — they have to be either insane or they have to be football players.
These are the latter.
The same routine unfolds in every state across this country, which values its football as dearly as it does its freedoms. But there’s something different about football in Ohio.
It might not be a way of life here, but it’s a big part of life. Communities are centered around high school football teams; coaches are scrutinized as if they were coaching professionals; players engulf themselves in the sport. The state of Ohio is a football hotbed, and the talent that grows here and the intensity that envelops communities speak to that. It is, without a doubt, the locus of Midwestern football.
Brady Hoke knows all about Ohio high school football. He’s recruited the state almost his whole coaching career, which has most recently brought him to the head coaching position at Michigan.
But Hoke also grew up here. He saw the fervor firsthand as a linebacker and center (and senior captain) for Fairmont East High School in Kettering, a suburb of Dayton.
The passion permeates the state.
“Friday nights in Ohio are kind of important,” Hoke said.
Horace G. Prettyman arrived at the University of Michigan in 1882. He came from Bryan, Ohio, a town in the northwest part of the state that’s closer to the Indiana border than it is to Toledo, the nearest major Ohio city.
A “forward” for each of the next four years, Prettyman was the first Ohioan to play on the Michigan football team, three years after the first-ever group of Wolverines played their inagural game. He was joined by other Buckeye State natives beginning in 1886, and soon the quality of these Ohioans skyrocketed.
Pontius Miller, from Circleville, was the first Ohio-bred football player to become an All-American at Michigan as a tackle in 1913. The next decade saw four of his peers accomplish the same, including Benny Friedman, one of the most prolific quarterbacks in school history.
Men like Prettyman and Miller couldn’t have known it at the time, but they established a legacy that has been central to the storied tradition of Michigan football: dependence on players who hail from Ohio.
“It’s always been part of Michigan’s recruiting,” Hoke said. “We have two Heisman winners from the state of Ohio.”
They are Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson. Hoke went on to name other luminaries hailing from the state, including Bo Schembechler, Jerry Hanlon and Gary Moeller.
“It’s a big part of it. You’ve got a state that’s got great coaching, very passionate about the game of football,” Hoke said.
To put it bluntly, Michigan’s all-time success could not have happened without Ohio-born players. The state of Michigan produces some high-quality players, but not enough to fully support a dominant program.
Ohio, on the other hand, produces enough players to supply multiple programs, and it has.
Recent Ohio-born Wolverines include players such as Mario Manningham and Shawn Crable. Redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint and fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs are two of the more prominent names on Team ‘133’ who hail from the state.
All told, Michigan has had 126 separate players earn All-America distinction. Twenty-one of them, or about 17 percent, have been from Ohio.
Twelve of those 21 All-Americans have come in the last 43 years, dating from when Ohio native Schembechler assumed control of the Wolverines. The Ohio flavor has been more pronounced ever since.
And it’s only gotten stronger under Hoke.
When Hoke was hired by Michigan in January 2011, he and his staff made clear that recruiting the state of Ohio would be an emphasis.
“Obviously being the state right next door like it is, it’s a high priority,” said linebackers coach Mark Smith. “And from the standpoint of the quality of the football that’s produced in Ohio, you’d be stupid not to go in the state of Ohio.”
Hoke was thrown into the fire recruiting-wise due to the timing of his hire, with National Signing Day less than a month away. After making sure the recruits who had already committed to Michigan under former coach Rich Rodriguez would be retained, Hoke went to work on adding more players, including four Ohioans — defensive end Keith Heitzman, linebacker Antonio Poole, defensive end Frank Clark and since-departed cornerback Tamani Carter.
But Hoke’s recruiting genius in his native state fully emerged in recruiting the class of 2012, his first full group with the Wolverines.
All told, he signed nine players from Ohio, including one five-star (offensive tackle Kyle Kalis) and four four-stars, according to Rivals.com’s rankings. Three of them — linebacker Joe Bolden from Cincinnati Colerain, safety Jarrod Wilson from Akron Buchtel and tight end A.J. Williams from Cincinnati Sycamore — saw playing time in Michigan’s season opener against Alabama last Saturday.
For the class of 2013, Hoke has already secured nine more Ohioans, including six four-star players.
Simply put, no previous Michigan coach — at least recently — has done better in Ohio than Hoke has so far.
In his two full classes, Hoke has landed 18 players from the state, with a star average of 3.7 according to Rivals. By comparison, Rich Rodriguez signed 14 Ohioans in his two full classes as Michigan head coach, with a star average of 3.1. And in Lloyd Carr’s final six full recruiting classes from 2002-07, the Wolverines signed just 12 players from Ohio, albeit with a 3.6 star average.
“I think that it’s a combination of Michigan being a high-profile school in the Midwest and Brady Hoke putting a focal point on the state of Ohio,” said Rivals.com Midwest Analyst Josh Helmoldt. “It’s come together and allowed them to really make a strong dent in the top talent for that state.”
Hoke’s efforts are especially notable when compared to his predecessor’s. As the numbers indicate, Rodriguez recruited Ohio strongly. But he focused just as much on Florida, where his staff had ties and where he had recruited in the past.
Rodriguez emphasized Florida as much as Hoke’s staff emphasizes the Midwest.
The current staff has four assistants specifically assigned to Ohio. Smith and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison focus on the major hotbeds — the southwest section around Cincinnati and Dayton and the northeast section around Cleveland, respectively. Offensive coordinator Al Borges and defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery also help out.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, had four coaches assigned to Florida. While that state produces even more talent than Ohio, the competition is greater, with three in-state powers — Florida, Florida State and Miami — and the rest of the South also making a concerted effort to recruit there.
It was like Rodriguez was searching for a fountain of youth in Florida. Hoke, meanwhile, has already begun mining the Potosi that sits next door.
“You’re just kind of getting who you can, when you can (in Florida),” Helmholdt said. “I think when you’re looking at building a class, which involves both getting talent and also addressing needs, you are able to accomplish that much better when you start with securing your needs at home and in the Midwest.”
But what of the elephant in the room, the power that sits in the middle of the state and has traditionally had its pick of the surrounding talent?
It’s no wonder Ohio State is one of the top programs in college football. It has an unending supply of top high school football players a short distance away, and many of them grow up dreaming of wearing the scarlet and gray.
Michigan, then, has always found itself fighting an uphill battle in trying to recruit the state of its biggest rival. On the face of it, it’s a bit silly that the Wolverines would invest so much time, effort and money in what is essentially enemy territory. Realistically, Michigan will never out-recruit Ohio State in Ohio.
But that doesn’t mean that the Wolverines can’t pick up at least a few solid prospects every year — or do even better, as has been the case under Hoke.
“Ohio State can’t get them all,” said Mentor High School coach Steve Trivisonno, the coach of 2012 defensive lineman recruit Tom Strobel.
Plus, fewer Ohio recruits than expected grow up diehard Buckeye fans.
Current Ohio-native Michigan players such as redshirt sophomore linebacker Jake Ryan, fifth-year senior offensive lineman Patrick Omameh and fifth-year senior tight end Brandon Moore, for example, all said that they didn’t grow up rooting strongly for Ohio State.
Hoke was helped, too, in the 2012 class by the tattoo/memorabilia scandal that hit Columbus and eventually forced the resignation of former coach Jim Tressel. The uncertainty surrounding the Ohio State program caused several recruits to re-think their plans.
Kalis and Strobel, for example, both were Ohio State fans, and they have said they likely never would’ve considered Michigan were it not for the doubts that arose concerning the Buckeyes. Kalis, in fact, was initially committed to the Buckeyes. But each decided to look at the Wolverines in the wake of Ohio State’s issues.
That pair and the other Ohio recruits have been sold on Michigan because of the way that Hoke and his staff operate.
“Really down to earth,” said Sycamore High School coach Scott Dattilo, who coached Williams. “That’s the one thing about Coach Hoke that jumped out. I’ve known Coach Smith for a while, very easy to talk to him, but Coach Hoke’s just a down-to-earth guy. I can see why kids would be drawn to him. Doesn’t come off as holier-than-thou head coach.
“Just one of the guys that comes in and talks football, and I think that’s an appealing trait.”
The coaching staff, including Mattison — who has a reputation for being one of the best recruiters in all of college football — knows Ohio well, and it doesn’t put on any pretenses when it recruits there. Genuineness is what most recruits point to when asked about the Michigan coaches, according to Helmholdt.
Dymonte Thomas, a safety/running back from Marlington High School in Alliance who is committed to Michigan for 2013, even said that Mattison is “pretty much like another dad for me.”
It’s that comfort level that Ohio recruits have found with Hoke and company that has spurred the staff’s recent recruiting successes. They’ve landed seven players with offers from Ohio State; Rodriguez had none, and Carr had just four in his last six full classes.
Like Thomas, Pickerington North High School tight end Jake Butt, another 2013 commit, said he thought he’d “never go” to Michigan before Hoke’s staff began recruiting him.
“After visiting for the Ohio State game, the Michigan-Notre Dame game, getting to see games like that, it really just got my heart into Michigan,” Butt said. “You know what? It wasn’t even hard at all (to pick Ohio State’s biggest rival).”
Unsurprisingly, Thomas and others have heard it from their friends and other locals, all of whom chide them for going to That School Up North. But that has done nothing to sway them.
“I still feel great about it,” Thomas said.
It’s easy to find stats that show how strong of a state Ohio is football-wise. In Rivals.com’s national high school rankings, only Florida, Texas and Georgia have more than the four teams that Ohio boasts in the top 50.
According to ProFootballReference.com, Ohio is tied with Georgia for having produced the fourth-most amount of players currently in the NFL.
It’s more difficult to put your finger on why Ohio is so good at football.
Sure, there’s population — it’s the seventh-largest state in the country by that measure. But New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania all have bigger populations, and none match Ohio’s football prowess (though Pennsylvania nearly does). Michigan and North Carolina come close to Ohio’s population figure, but they don’t hold a candle to the quality of Ohio’s football either.
When you talk to high school coaches — the ones who see the interest more acutely than anyone else, who feel the pressure more strongly than anyone else — you find that even they don’t have a firm answer.
The only possible explanation is passion.
“When you go to a game, there’s 8-10,000 people in the stands,” Trivisonno said. “It’s a tougher state, blue-collar state, that people work hard at and enjoy football, love football. There’s great tradition, obviously, with the Hall of Fame and all that.
“I just think it’s a state that loves the game of football.”
As Hoke said, Friday nights matter in Ohio; think Friday Night Lights, but without the over-the-top-craziness that apparently permeates the culture in Texas.
That passion manifests itself in one of the best concentrations of talent in the U.S., in some of the most diligent and determined coaches in the country, and in a visceral, almost indefinable tie between communities and teams.
In some ways, the history of Michigan football is the history of an Ohio foundation. That foundation includes two of three Heisman winners, two of the previous four head coaches — including the most iconic — and some of the best players in Wolverine history.
That foundation includes Brady Hoke, and his focus on his home state of Ohio — a focus that has yielded results unmatched in recent years. And there’s no reason to believe the run in Ohio won’t continue.