Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez had just three weeks to assemble next year’s freshman class, but Signing Day treated the Wolverines’ coaching staff well.
Not only did it keep the majority of former head coach Lloyd Carr’s verbal commitments, it also pulled out some last-minute surprises before introducing the new recruits on Feb. 6.
Even though Michigan was pleased with its class, ranked 10th in the nation by recruiting website Rivals.com, other Big Ten coaches certainly weren’t pleased with some of the Wolverines’ late recruiting tactics.
For better or worse, it’s clear Rodriguez has already set a new standard.
Persuading Carr’s recruits
Rodriguez’s first priority was to make sure the 16 athletes who committed under Carr still wanted to be Wolverines.
“Obviously, there were a lot of new coaches and some new philosophies coming in – I didn’t want to assume anything,” Rodriguez said. “So we took the approach with them that this was the first time that the University of Michigan had talked to them.”
Rodriguez said he emphasized face-to-face communication between recruits and his “very personable staff” while trying to persuade commits to stick with Michigan, but with his busy schedule, much of the recruiting was also done over the telephone.
During the Wolverines’ trip to Florida for the Capital One Bowl, Rodriguez called wide receiver Darryl Stonum and his father to make sure the Sugar Land, Tex. native was still interested in coming to Michigan. Stonum enrolled early, began classes this semester and has already started training with the Wolverines.
Boubacar Cissoko, the first recruit of the 2008 class, scheduled a visit to Penn State after learning of Carr’s departure. After hearing media reports that Rodriguez had fired all nine of Carr’s assistant coaches, Cissoko told the Detroit Free Press in mid-December he was no longer committed. But by the end of December, Cissoko reasserted his status as a Wolverine.
The Charleston (W. Va.) Daily Mail wrote in January that Rodriguez had a head start on keeping Carr’s recruits because he started wooing them the same day he officially resigned from West Virginia. Records from his West Virginia-issued cell phone showed that he made calls to Cissoko and Traverse City lineman Rocko Khoury.
Regardless of the controversy surrounding the timing of Rodriguez’s cell phone calls, he successfully minimized Michigan’s losses.
Two of Michigan’s notable decommitments were h-back Christian Wilson and quarterback John Wienke. Wilson originally committed to the Wolverines in August, but after Carr retired, Wilson was unsure how he would fit into the new offense and defected to North Carolina.
Wienke, who committed to Michigan in July, switched to Iowa in December.
Rodriguez said he was told that “you lose as many as half of the commitments” after a coaching transition.
But in Rodriguez’s case, many recruits ended up coming to Michigan at the last minute.
Being a Michigan Man entails integrity and honesty.
But according to Purdue head coach Joe Tiller in his now-infamous rant to the Indianapolis Star, Rodriguez doesn’t fit that description.
“If we had an early signing date, you wouldn’t have another outfit with a guy in a wizard hat selling snake oil get a guy at the last minute, but that’s what happened,” Tiller said.
Tiller was referring to wide receiver Roy Roundtree, who had verbally committed to Purdue in May. The Boilermakers pursued Roundtree for two years, but the Trotwood, Ohio native visited Michigan on Feb. 1, received a scholarship offer on Feb. 5 and signed with the Wolverines the next day.
Roundtree wasn’t Rodriguez’s only Signing Day steal. Trotwood-Madison (Ohio) running back Michael Shaw had been committed to Penn State since August, but in January, after Rodriguez was hired, Shaw announced he would visit Michigan and Tennessee.
After taking his trip to Ann Arbor, he quickly changed his mind about his commitment to Penn State – and didn’t bother visiting Tennessee.
Shaw told news outlets he made his decision about 20 minutes before he signed his letter of intent on Signing Day. His last-minute departure no doubt left an unexpected hole in the Nittany Lions’ recruiting class that won’t be easily filled.
“Mike is a guy we have known about for a little bit,” Rodriguez said on Signing Day. “He’s a very conscientious young man.”
Michigan also snatched two touted prospects from SEC schools. Defensive back J.T. Floyd had been committed to Tennessee since his junior year of high school.
Floyd told Rivals.com in September 2006, shortly after he committed, that the atmosphere at Tennessee was a large factor in his decision.
“The stadium is just crazy, that’s a big thing for me,” he said. “I can’t wait to get to play in front of 108,000. That’s a great opportunity, especially coming from my high school where we might be lucky to get 1,000 people there for a big rivalry game. I can’t wait to get here.”
His comments, made nearly one and a half years ago, could easily refer to the Big House. And next year, Rodriguez said, the Greenville, S.C., native has a good chance to see the field as a freshman.
Offensive lineman Ricky Barnum, who had been a Florida commit since January, decided to visit Michigan the weekend before Signing Day and inked his letter of intent with Michigan days later. Rodriguez said former South Florida offensive coordinator and current quarterbacks coach Rod Smith had been recruiting Barnum “for some time over the last year or two” and that he was “tickled to death” the Lakeland, Fla., native decided to play up north.
How committed are they?
After the tumult of Signing Day, the definition of a “verbal commitment” is seemingly open for debate within the Big Ten – and that’s not to everyone’s liking.
“There has been an unspoken rule that if a guy commits (to another school) and you’ve been recruiting him hard, you always call them up and say, ‘Are you sure about this?'” Tiller said to the Indianapolis Star. “If he says yes, you back off.”
But Rodriguez offered a different take.
He said athletes will sometimes commit before visiting other campuses or weighing all their options, and coaches should understand that players may change their minds.
“Sometimes coaches will tell you, when somebody verbals, that just tells you who you’ve got to beat to get him,” Rodriguez said. “If somebody verbally commits to your institution, but they continue to visit, that verbal commitment is not a real solid verbal commitment.
“That’s like you say you’re engaged to someone but you continue to date. Your fiancé ain’t going to be very happy.”
To improve recruiting practices, Tiller said he supports an early Signing Day that would theoretically eliminate Roundtree-esque scenarios. Under that system, athletes would be able to sign a binding letter of intent in the first half of their senior year.
Interestingly, despite his success with last-minute switches, Rodriguez also said he supports the idea of an early Signing Day similar to the one in basketball. The date would most likely be in mid-December and would cater to athletes with long-term verbal commitments, like Shaw to Penn State or Roundtree to Purdue. Coaches would also benefit because they would have more time to fill holes in their recruiting classes.
Rodriguez is on the board of the American Football Coaches Association, and he said the group has talked about implementing an early Signing Day for years.
“It really makes too much sense,” Rodriguez said. “Hopefully, we can get that done. There are always going to be signing-day surprises, but that would clear up a lot of the mess.”
Of Michigan’s 24 recruits, just five are in-staters.
And despite the presence of a football power in Columbus, the Wolverines continued their traditional success in Ohio by grabbing seven players – the most from any state in this year’s class.
Some of the Ohio recruits also received offers from Ohio State, but usually after Michigan had already been pursuing them.
Columbus native and offensive lineman Patrick Omameh was originally committed to Cincinnati, but changed his mind days before Signing Day after Michigan and Michigan State showed interest. The same day he announced his verbal commitment to Michigan, the Buckeyes offered him a scholarship. But Omameh stuck with the Wolverines.
“You always have to be focused on in-state and any state that borders you,” Rodriguez said. “You want to see if you can get a few guys, and there are a lot of great football players in the state of Ohio.”
The Wolverines also signed three players from Florida – Barnum, quarterback Justin Feagin and wide receiver Martavious Odoms.
Odoms committed five days after Signing Day after narrowing his choice to Michigan and West Virginia. The class is Michigan’s largest from Florida in the last eight years.
Rodriguez also praised running backs coach Fred Jackson’s recruiting success in Texas. Jackson convinced Stonum, running back Sam McGuffie and multi-threat athlete Terrence Robinson to commit to Michigan, and his success is a sign the Wolverines will be looking in warmer climates more often.
Both Smith and linebackers coach Jay Hopson have southern recruiting ties. Smith’s South Florida stint lasted six seasons. Hopson was at Southern Mississippi for six years and was the defensive coordinator at Mississippi in 2004.
“There are a lot of great football players in Florida,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of those guys will leave, particularly to a place like Michigan. We will be in Florida quite extensively in the future.”
PREVIOUS COMMITMENT: Florida
PREVIOUS COMMITMENT: Penn State
PREVIOUS COMMITMENT: Purdue