A battleground visit in the Ohio State-Michigan football war

A battleground visit in the Ohio State-Michigan football war

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MADISON, N.J. — In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Urban Meyer, three assistant coaches and an athletics-department staffer boarded a private plane headed east for New Jersey, where the Ohio State contingent planned to spend five hours planting its flag alongside Rutgers in this talent-rich state.

The event held here on the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University was hosted by Rutgers and its first-year coach, Chris Ash, but the Scarlet Knights were the undercard, for all intents and purposes: Meyer was the star, and was introduced as such — with Ash calling his recent two-year stint as the Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator a “privilege and an honor,” and crediting Meyer with giving him “the opportunity to host this event.”

The bond between these two would-be rivals, seen tightest between the two head coaches, was further illustrated by the appearance of new Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, who previously transformed Rutgers from national punchline to annual contender. Twice Schiano received ovations: once upon Ash’s introduction, and then at Meyer’s behest.

Meyer’s message, meanwhile, was simple: I’m here because of my great respect for the coaches and players in New Jersey, he said — adding that it reminded him of the landscape and culture among Ohio high schools — and I’m here because of my respect for Ash and Rutgers.

“Anytime you go on a two-year run like we had there, there’s a lot of investment,” Ash said. “Those bonds just don’t go away. Are we competitors on the field and recruiting? Yeah, absolutely. But we’re also friends and I don’t want to ruin those relationships.”

Left unsaid — or at least largely brushed aside by Ash, Meyer and Schiano — was the camp’s proximity to Paramus Catholic High School, which simultaneously, 30 miles to the east, was holding a satellite camp starring Jim Harbaugh, the Buckeyes’ fiercest nemesis, who co-hosted the event with Maryland’s D.J. Durkin, once the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator.

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Wednesday drew in bright colors the secret battle occurring beyond the quotes and outside the white lines, one that pits Ohio State and Michigan — one of the most bitter rivalries in college football — in a war once removed: Ohio State is battling Michigan, as always, but by proxy.

The Buckeyes are aligning with Rutgers and Ash, and the Wolverines are affiliating themselves with Maryland and Durkin; in each case, the alliance is fueled by ties between the two coaching staffs. Stranger still, each side is aligned with a program from within its own conference, let alone its own division.

“I commend Coach Harbaugh,” Ash said. “He’s doing a great job of getting his brand and Michigan’s brand out there around the nation and promoting the game of football. And what’s he done is forced a lot of coaches to think outside the box.”

Rutgers will commend Michigan; Ohio State will remain silent. These camps are about “coaching and teaching,” Harbaugh said, and not recruiting. “You can believe it or not, I don’t care,” he added. If neither will admit to the other’s presence, one thing is obvious: Rivalry has no offseason.

The battle is fought through support. Initially, the camp at Fairleigh Dickinson was headlined by Rutgers and Temple; that changed once Michigan announced its attendance with the Terrapins at the camp in Paramus, drawing Meyer and the Buckeyes into the fray.

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The trip would serve three purposes. Ohio State’s attendance would not just bolster Ash’s credibility among local players and coaches but increase the program’s own name recognition in New Jersey, where the Buckeyes struggled to gain a foothold during the most recent recruiting cycle. If unmentioned, stealing the Wolverines’ thunder provided the most immediate payoff.

Said Schiano: “Hey, rivalries are rivalries for a reason.”

For one day — and very likely beyond — the battleground for this proxy war was New Jersey.

Earlier on Wednesday, Paramus Catholic staffers arrived on campus to find the school littered with Rutgers paraphernalia, including magnets, teddy bears and packets of paper strewn on across the 50-yard line; it was an act of “vandalism,” the school president said.

A pro-Rutgers group calling itself the “Order of Bulls Blood” took credit, writing in a letter — one that surreptitiously told Harbaugh to engage in a sex act — that they “have had enough of Michigan.”

“Tonight sparked the beginning of the end for Wolverine Football, and no longer will they return to their former glory,” the letter read. “The Curse of the Bambino reigned for 86 years, Michigan’s will last for 28.”

In response, Harbaugh wrote on his Twitter account: “History has documented many ‘secret orders’ that have brought our country great shame.”

Both Rutgers and Ohio State have reason to fear Michigan’s inroads in this state. The Wolverines signed six players from New Jersey in February, including the nation’s consensus top-ranked recruit in defensive tackle Rashan Gary. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, have signed just four in-state prospect during the past three recruiting cycles.

“I think everyone for years has realized how much talent is in New Jersey,” said Temple coach Matt Rhule. “Every school is known; everyone is fighting for the same kids.”

It’s a “battle state,” per Schiano, who added that Rutgers “fought like crazy” — often unsuccessfully — to turn itself into the prime destination for nearby recruits. “But it’s a challenge, for sure.”

The in-state tussle has led to a slogan: Let’s put a fence around the Garden State, Rutgers has said, and keep New Jersey’s best prospects at home.

“Especially when you’re a new coach, a new program, it is a lot about marketing yourself and putting together events that people get excited about,” said Ash. “That’s what we’re doing.”

And they’re doing so with an ostensible rival within its own division, albeit one allied against a common cause. As in any proxy war, the enemy of your enemy is your friend; Ohio State’s bond with Rutgers, already formidable due to Meyer’s connection to Ash, has been strengthened further by Michigan’s controversial foray into adversarial territory.

“It’s not about us and Paramus, us and Michigan,” Ash said. “I don’t feel that. You guys may feel that. Honestly, I’ve put my head down and gone.

“It’s about us trying to brand ourselves and promote the game of football. Unfortunately, I think it’s been portrayed that way. That’s not what it’s about. We’re out here just trying to have a good time and coach some ball.”

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