COLUMBUS — Pete Werner was not considering Michigan when he committed to Ohio State.
But the Wolverines played a major role in the linebacker’s decision to decommit from Notre Dame and eventually sign with the Buckeyes.
“When I was a recruit, I was [in the] first row, and I saw Curtis Samuel run that ball in the end zone, and that kind of brought me here,” Werner said. “That was crazy. It was the factor. I saw that, and I was like, ‘Whoa, are you kidding me? I gotta come here.'”
It wasn’t the first time Werner had heard about Ohio State and Michigan, of course. He grew up in Indiana, so he was aware of The Game and the magnitude of it, at least peripherally.
But that moment changed his recruitment.
Zach Harrison, an Ohio State freshman defensive end who was a 5-star recruit, seemed all but locked in with the Wolverines at this a year ago. Then he watched the Buckeyes dismantle the Michigan defense last November, a game that helped turn the tide in his recruitment and led to him staying home in Columbus.
The greatest rivalry in sports hasn’t been much of a rivalry on the field recently with the Buckeyes having won 16 of the last 18 tries against Michigan. But that dominance comes in large part by emphasizing this game, and for Ohio State that starts the first time a recruit hits campus.
“In recruiting we talk to them right from the get-go,” first-year coach Ryan Day said. “That’s one of the reasons why some people come to school here, is for the rivalry. We make such a big deal of it. As you know, when you walk in the building, it’s all over the place. We talk about it all the time, talk about it recruiting in all areas, strength and conditioning, football, other areas.
“It’s something that you just ingrain. The more these guys are in the program, the more they get it.”
The expectations in Columbus aren’t changing no matter who is wearing the whistle.
When Jim Tressel walked onto the hardwood floor at the Schottenstein Center on Jan. 19, 2001 and promised a change, things changed. Ohio State hadn’t won in Ann Arbor in 14 years, but Tressel took his outmatched team north 310 days later and left victorious, setting a tone that’s been loud and clear since.
Urban Meyer grew up inundated by the rivalry against Michigan and embraced it even more than Tressel — almost at times to ludicrous levels.
“I never understood the rivalry, but I was wearing a blue tank top in the facility and one of the hosts was like, ‘Do you have a jacket or anything? Take that off because you’re not allowed to wear blue,'” said Wyatt Davis, a California native who took unofficial visits to Ann Arbor and Columbus on consecutive days in June of 2016 .”I’m just kind of sitting there like, ‘Well, it’s like 100 degrees in the summer and I got a full jacket.’
“Word got to Coach Meyer, and I had the jacket on. He unzipped it and he was like, ‘Do you have that ugly color on?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ He’s like, ‘Don’t ever do that again.’ So I was like, ‘Okay, well, yeah, I definitely won’t do that again.’ But no, that made me realize that this is real. This is very historic and we take that very serious around here.”
Davis committed Ohio State six days later.
The dedication and respect for the rivalry has driven the Buckeyes program for the last 18 years. It’s also fueled that drive because everything that Ohio State does on and off the field is pushed by the need to be better than the guys working against them 165 miles north of Columbus.
That focus has been the genesis of game-changing recruiting programs like Real Life Wednesday and Brand U, implemented by Urban Meyer to offset the idea that Ohio State was just a football factory — a point of contention often espoused by rivals who had fallen behind on the field.
“I thought Ohio State was just a football factory that didn’t care about its players,” said two-time Buckeyes captain Jordan Fuller, who made official visits to Ann Arbor and Columbus in back-to-back weekends in January of 2016. “To be honest, it came down to trusting and believing that Ohio State would develop me the most on and off the field. [Athletic director] Gene Smith said that he would mentor me after one of my visits, Real Life Wednesdays were in place and they were producing great NFL talent.”
Fuller committed to Ohio State a week later.
Ohio State has made winning this game the expectation. And in the last 15 years, the Buckeyes have regularly beaten the Wolverines everywhere it counts, including the recruiting trail.
The Buckeyes have signed the highest-ranked class in the Big Ten every year since Meyer’s arrival, and Ryan Day hasn’t slowed down. Ohio State is so focused on its rivals that inside of Mark Pantoni’s office, the director of player personnel has a running list of Wolverines recruits so that there’s no doubt what is coming down the pike and a plan in place to beat them.
“We put their recruiting list on the board, compare our guys to theirs just about every day, every week — something that Mark looks at every day,” Day said. “Part of how you live this rivalry is you compare yourselves every day against them. It just gives you some awareness of where we’re at, the battles that we’re in against certain guys. We rank our people. We just want to always know exactly who those guys are because we know we’re going to be playing them.”
“That’s what’s important.”
In Columbus, it’s important 365 days a year. And on the recruiting trail, it’s been a difference-maker for Ohio State when The Game finally arrives.