ANN ARBOR — Michigan and Rutgers might be further apart than the North and South Poles.
Not in distance — 618 miles separates Ann Arbor and New Brunswick, N.J. — but in prestige. Rutgers’ college football history begins and ends with the Scarlet Knights’ appearance in the sport’s first game. Chronicle Michigan’s 137 years and it reads like the Encyclopedia Britannica, never-ending pages about an indelible fight song and helmet and unforgettable players, coaches, and moments.
Yet these two programs at opposite ends of college football’s spectrum have started a budding rivalry. Aggressive recruiting is the culprit.
“There’s good football being played [in New Jersey],” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “There’s talent, great effort, and good coaching.”
Michigan has raided New Jersey in recent years, grabbing six players from the talent-rich state last year alone. UM’s roster has 10 players from the Garden State, and they aren’t just filling space. The names include Jabrill Peppers, Grant Newsome, Rashan Gary, Kareem Walker and Juwann Bushell-Beatty.
Harbaugh hasn’t only accumulated New Jersey players. He also hired the state’s best high school coach, Chris Partridge, who led powerhouse Paramus Catholic High School — the alma mater of Peppers, Gary, and Bushell-Beatty — to a No. 4 national ranking. Partridge was hired in January 2015 as the director of player personnel in recruiting, a position he excelled at. He was named the national recruiter of the year by Scout.com before switching to linebackers coach and special teams coordinator.
Offensive assistant Jedd Fisch also is from New Jersey.
“Chris has done an outstanding job,” said Harbaugh, who delivered the commencement speech at Paramus in June. “It’s been good having natives from New Jersey that have connected well [with recruits]. It’s been a positive.”
First-year Rutgers coach Chris Ash, who won a national championship as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, sent a loud message last summer when he scheduled a recruiting camp at Rutgers on the same day Harbaugh hosted a satellite camp 30 miles away.
Ash also invited his former boss, Urban Meyer.
“People can say what they want. I’m just excited about our event,” Ash said in June. “I’m really thrilled for the state of New Jersey. To be able to host two events like this is outstanding. It’s not about us and Michigan, it’s about trying to brand ourselves and promote the game of football.”
There was a social media tiff between the two programs, with Rutgers’ Twitter account vowing to “Fence the Garden” and Michigan responding with a post about “Jumping Fences,” a New Jersey columnist termed Harbaugh’s satellite camp “an act of war,” and a Rutgers’ secret society put a curse on the Wolverines.
Despite evidence to the contrary, Ash emphasized at Big Ten media days that there is no bad blood between Michigan and Rutgers.
“I’ll start by saying there’s no rivalry with Michigan yet,” Ash said. “I think it’s great for fans to get a chance in the offseason to talk about college football.”
The programs have split their only two meetings — Rutgers won in 2014 in New Jersey and Michigan won last season in Ann Arbor. On Saturday, Harbaugh and Ash will meet at midfield for their second conversation. The first came when Ash interviewed for a job on Harbaugh’s staff at Stanford.
“It’s the only time I’ve really had a conversation with him. But he’s a guy I’ve got a lot of respect for,” Ash told reporters Monday.
Ross Douglas, who transferred to Rutgers after graduating from Michigan, thinks Harbaugh’s quirks are misunderstood, which leads to vitriol from opposing fan bases.
“I personally think he’s a good guy,” said Douglas, a defensive back. “What he does to outsiders, what you call so-called ‘antics,’ he doesn’t do that to shed negative light on our team or anything like that. That’s just him being himself, and some people may misunderstand that. He’s outspoken, he’s different, he says what’s on his mind.”