As Ted Ginn Sr. imagined it, Jim Harbaugh is down at the corner store on St. Clair Ave., a main drag that cuts through one of Cleveland’s hardscrabble pockets. The neighborhood kids are there to greet the famous Michigan football coach and Ginn Sr. is right beside him, making introductions.
“Here goes Jim,” Ginn Sr. said playfully, continuing to indulge his fantasy.
But then Ginn Sr. snapped back to reality and mumbled, “I ain’t seen him.”
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He doesn’t know why and finds it rather strange that he hasn’t. But as he recalls, Harbaugh hasn’t paid a visit to Glenville High School, where Ginn Sr. presides over one of Ohio’s richest sources of football talent. No program in the state has more active players in the NFL than Glenville, where Ginn is the coach. Among its seven alumni playing on Sundays are former Michigan standouts Frank Clark and Willie Henry.
“I can remember a time when coaches had to come through Glenville — whether you wanted to or not,” Ginn Sr. said. “You had to have it on the schedule. …You’ve got to have Ohio players.”
But in recent years, Michigan has gone elsewhere to fill its roster. In the Wolverines’ last signing class, which featured 23 enrollees, none of their new additions were from Ohio. On the cusp of the early signing that begins Wednesday, only one of Michigan’s 21 commitments hails from Buckeye country — three-star safety Rod Moore of Clayton, a Dayton suburb.
As Harbaugh’s tenure has evolved, the composition of the Wolverines’ roster has become a reflection of a bizarre recruiting strategy that seems to have deemphasized the state across Michigan’s southeastern border. Following the recent departure of offensive lineman Zach Carpenter, the team has only 12 players from Ohio — 13 fewer than it had in 2014, the final year of Brady Hoke’s regime.
“It has to be noticeable,” said Steve Arnold, the coach of Warren G. Harding, a program on the outskirts of Youngstown. “Where are the Ohio kids at?”
The disbelief in his voice can be detected.
“If you’re in the recruiting department within that university,” he continued, “why aren’t you paying close attention to that knowing what type of football this state has and how good it has been to your program?”
It’s a pointed question but also a reasonable one. For years, Ohio supplied the Wolverines with some of their brightest stars. Their two most recent Heisman Trophy winners, Charles Woodson and Desmond Howard, are from there. So too are some of Michigan’s top contributors from yesteryear, including quarterback Elvis Grbac, receiver Mario Manningham and tight end Jake Butt.
“Of course, I am biased,” Butt said. “But there are some good football players in Ohio. You look at some of Michigan’s all-time greats …”
The history can’t be ignored, and if anyone is aware of it, it’s Harbaugh. He was born in Toledo and played for Bo Schembechler, who was raised outside Akron in the small city of Barberton. Schembechler forged Michigan into a power by mining his home state. In Harbaugh’s final year as Michigan’s quarterback in 1986, 25 of his teammates hailed from Ohio.
“Bo would get five or six a year from Ohio — mainly, northeastern Ohio because of his ties to Barberton,” said ESPN analyst and former Buckeyes quarterback Kirk Herbstreit. “And I mean that was always like if Michigan played Ohio State, they would have two or three on offense that started and two or three on defense, and that just seemed to be a thing, you know, for a long, long time. … I don’t follow recruiting closely enough to know why they’re not landing more Ohio guys.”
The steady and almost inevitable rise of the Buckeyes as college football’s most dominant program in the Midwest has had an impact. Since the arrival of Jim Tressel in 2001 and onward through the coaching tenures of Urban Meyer and Ryan Day, Ohio State has enjoyed 16 seasons with at least 10 victories and won two national titles. During the same period, Michigan hasn’t finished ranked higher than No. 6 and has suffered four or more losses a dozen times.
That includes this season, when the Wolverines have defeated only two of the six teams they’ve played. But even during the program’s gradual descent that marked Hoke’s disappointing regime, Michigan still made inroads in Ohio.
Hoke, a Dayton native, made it his mission to recruit there. As Ginn Sr. remembered it, Hoke called him the day he was hired at Michigan in January 2011 and made a plea.
“I need to get back into Ohio,” Hoke told him. “You’ve got to help me.”
Ginn Sr. was happy to lend a hand. Recruiting is about relationships, and he knew Hoke from his days at Ball State. This was a man Ginn Sr. felt he could trust. Shortly after their conversation, Clark landed at Michigan and Henry followed him to Ann Arbor a year later.
Even when Hoke was fired, Ginn Sr. was hopeful the connection to the Wolverines would remain strong. Ginn Sr.’s son, the eponymous wide receiver who starred at Ohio State in the 2000s, played for Harbaugh with the San Francisco 49ers. So, Ginn Sr. figured they’d have a bond of some kind. The Glenville coach even called Harbaugh when he took the Michigan job.
“I thought we would have a pretty good relationship,” he said. “But some kind of way we never got it established. …They’ve got to come in here and repair it and come back with that concept of what it used to be. We don’t even have a threat of an Ohio kid going to Michigan no more. And that was one of the biggest threats.”
About an hour’s drive southeast in Warren, Arnold doesn’t understand why Harbaugh and the Wolverines haven’t made more of an effort in a state that produces the most talent in the region and is within close proximity of their program. But based on his personal experience, he claims the Wolverines have taken a passive approach.
What has befuddled Arnold the most is he has been receptive to Michigan in the past. Arnold has served at Harding in various coaching roles even before Manningham and former Wolverines linebacker Prescott Burgess roamed the halls as blue-chip prospects. Years later, when Harbaugh returned to Michigan as coach, Arnold risked alienating both his community and the Buckeyes by agreeing to host one of Harbaugh’s satellite camps in 2016.
But since then Harbaugh hasn’t been back, according to Arnold.
Michigan also hasn’t tried to reestablish a presence there, he noted. While cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich, a Youngstown native, has dropped by on occasion, Arnold said the outreach from Ohio State assistants Brian Hartline, Greg Mattison and Tony Alford has been more consistent. Whereas Ohio State has flooded the school’s mailbox with postcards and letters, Harding has received “not one” piece of correspondence from Michigan, Arnold asserted.
“You can take that as whatever,” Arnold continued with a hint of annoyance. “I am not saying Warren Harding is all that, but we’ve got guys. And we have had guys who have done well at Michigan. I think it’s really strange. I don’t know what their recruiting practices are, and I don’t know what region they’re aiming for.”
But Harbaugh insists the Wolverines have not neglected Ohio. Asked Monday if Michigan still prioritizes recruiting in that state, he responded, “Yes.”
Both Ginn and Arnold have arrived at a different conclusion. They see the Buckeyes, with their relentless recruiting approach, monopolizing the state’s top talent as other programs push harder than Michigan to build a pipeline and draw away quality prospects. In recent years, Notre Dame, Cincinnati and Kentucky have won recruiting battles in Ohio while the Wolverines have stood on the sidelines.
“Now we give other people a chance to infiltrate the area that should be dominated by Michigan and Ohio State,” Ginn Sr. said. “It don’t make sense.”
The absence of Ohio prospects in Michigan’s two most recent recruiting classes, Herbstreit noted, was “shocking.”
As the Wolverines have been exposed as one of the worst teams in the Big Ten this season, Herbstreit has theorized in different forums that their failures are tangentially related to their dwindling supply of Ohio players and a misguided strategy focused on courting New England’s best.
“I’m looking at the roster now and I’m seeing Connecticut and New Hampshire and Rhode Island, and I’m not saying they don’t play good football, there’s just a very different roster,” he said.
“It is what it is,” Arnold said. “But I think that is part of their struggles.”
Ginn knows it wasn’t always this way.
He remembers when Michigan was a factor in his backyard, battling Ohio State for the best players and going toe-to-toe with the Buckeyes on the field.
He turns wistful thinking about it, letting the nostalgia wash over him.
“I remember all the kids who left here,” he said. “Those were good years, man. Those were good times.”
Now, he can only hope they return and imagine what they’ll be like.