Two weeks ago, former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said that in order for Jim Harbaugh to be successful at Michigan, he's going to have to successfully recruit the state of Ohio.
Apparently Harbaugh was listening.
The new Wolverines head coach sent shockwaves through the Ohio high school coaching community on Friday when he announced he had hired Rick Finotti as his director of football operations. The former head coach at St. Edward's in Lakewood, Ohio, Finotti led the Eagles to a 62-15 record and two state championships—including one in 2014—in his six seasons at the Ohio powerhouse just west of Cleveland.
The director of football operations isn't traditionally a recruiting position in a football program, but that shouldn't stop Finotti's hiring from increasing Michigan's presence in the Buckeye State.
"He gets you a foot in the door. You’re not looking for a guy necessarily that’s going to deliver kids for you on a silver platter," Rivals.com recruiting analyst Marc Givler told Bleacher Report. "You’re kind of looking for a guy where, ‘OK, this guy has coaching connections in Northeast Ohio, a lot of friends in the coaching community in Northeast Ohio, and when we go in that door, we have a familiar face, a mutual friend, a mutual contact now that can kind of help bridge that gap."
Givler agrees with Tressel's premise that in order for the Wolverines to return to national prominence, they'll need the help of Ohio. From Bo Schembechler to Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson to Harbaugh himself, history is littered with examples of Ohio natives playing key roles in Michigan reaching its highest of heights.
But while Harbaugh was born in Toledo, he spent his college career in Ann Arbor, NFL career across the country and coaching career on the West Coast. Despite his infamous bonding trips to Youngstown during two-game road trips with the 49ers, Harbaugh's ties in Ohio are limited and could be even harder to create with the recent success of Urban Meyer at Ohio State.
The hiring of Finotti could help fix that and will only add to a staff that also includes defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, who both played and coached at Bowling Green. Finotti's presence should especially help in Northeast Ohio, which typically produces the state's top talents, many of whom have come from his now-former employer.
"He’s always going to be a big name at St. Ed’s for what he’s done there and that program is probably not going to stop producing talent anytime soon," Givler said. "Any connection into that program is going to be valuable.”
Harbaugh's hiring of Finotti is just the latest splash he's made since taking over the Michigan program nearly three months ago and provides additional insight into a recruiting strategy that hasn't been hard to figure out. Upon arriving in Ann Arbor, the former Wolverines quarterback unsuccessfully attempted to lure recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow from Kentucky, before hiring Chris Partridge as his recruiting operations coordinator.
Partridge, like Finotti, comes to Michigan from the high school ranks. At powerhouse Paramus Catholic High School in New Jersey, he coached current Wolverines defensive back and former 5-star prospect Jabrill Peppers, as well as defensive tackle Rashan Gary, the top-rated player in the 2016 class.
"I definitely think there’s some strategy involved there with recruiting," Givler said of the hirings of Partridge and Finotti. “I think he wants to hit the ground running."
Thus far, Harbaugh's recruiting impact at Michigan has been minimal, at least on the surface with the Wolverines only possessing two commitments in their 2016 class, which currently ranks 39th in the country. As for recruiting Ohio, Harbaugh seems to be taking his time there too, with ElevenWarriors.com director of recruiting Jeremy Birmingham telling Bleacher Report, "Harbaugh has not stepped foot in Ohio at a single high school since he’s been hired.
"So I guess whatever in-road he can make, you don’t blame the guy for doing so."
Givler, however, has a theory on Harbaugh's recruiting tactics and slower-than-expected pace, noting that Michigan started its spring practice on Feb. 24, which came at least one week—and in some cases, two or three weeks—before most other schools started their spring sessions.
With a new staff and so many unknowns on the Wolverines roster, Harbaugh is admittedly still in the evaluation phase of his process, with spring recruiting still on the horizon.
"I think that was strategic," Givler said of Michigan's early spring practice start. "I think they just said, ‘We don’t know what we have, we have highly recruited guys that were recruited highly coming out of high school, but were they mis-ranked? Were they mis-evaluated? Do we have talent at this position or that position?’
"I think they’re trying to answer all of those questions and then decide, ‘OK, now we know what we have, the spring evaluation period starts in a few weeks, now that we know what we have, this is how we’re going to attack it.’ It’s been a little slower than most people expected from a recruiting start, but I think there’s a reason for that."
Once that time comes for Harbaugh to hit the trail hard, he certainly seems well equipped with the likes of Partridge and Finotti aiding his efforts. Givler also noted Finotti is a great football mind who could help with X's and O's, game-planning and building a winning culture and could eventually transition into a role as a position coach on Harbaugh's staff down the line.
But regardless of what Finotti's job title winds up, his connection to the Buckeye State can't be overlooked. Both Tressel and history have suggested as much, as any success found by the new Michigan regime will come with an inevitable ingredient.
"Michigan has to have success in Ohio," Givler said. "Whether hiring Finotti is going to be the key to that or not, they need to make moves to make sure they have success in Ohio. I can’t point to a time in their history where they’ve been nationally elite and didn’t have good Ohio players on their team."
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.