The battle for the Midwest begins

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Thinking back to December of 2004, when Charlie Weis was working two jobs — one as the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, the other as the new head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish — Weis spent his days game-planning for a Super Bowl run and his evenings trying to build a coaching staff and recruiting class. While his work with the Patriots resulted in a Super Bowl ring, the results of those hectic two months on the college front were mixed.

Weis assembled a coaching staff long on experience, but his recruiting class was mediocre, his two most heralded recruits — wide receiver D.J. Hord and tight end Joey Hiben — finished their Notre Dame careers with two combined catches. That recruiting class, built by head coach Ty Willingham and salvaged by Weis had a distinct Midwestern flavor, with 8 of the recruits from traditional Midwestern states, and three more from Pennsylvania.

As Weis continued at Notre Dame, he and his staff cast a wider net for recruits, landing heralded prospects all across the country, including key recruits from states as diverse as California, Florida, Hawaii, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Weis built a coaching staff full of capable recruiters, and each had a niche — Brian Polian excelled getting players out of Southern California, Bill Lewis had success in the southeast, Bernie Parmalee and the Irish staff built a pipeline into Florida powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas. While Weis’ tenure at Notre Dame might be remembered more for his near misses (both on the field and in recruiting) the efforts by Weis and recruiting coordinator Rob Ianello on a national scale were impressive.

As the Irish make the transition to head coach Brian Kelly, and as news trickles in about his coaching staff, there is a distinct Midwestern flavor to the names being bandied about. It’s common sense — Kelly has spent his twenty years as a head coach in the Midwest — and most of the rumored staff has been around Kelly at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, or Cincinnati. You don’t have to have extensive coaching experience in a state to recruit well in it (Kelly’s Bearcats squad relied heavily on Florida recruits), and the Notre Dame logo gets you access in most high schools around the country, but Kelly’s decision to stay with coaches inside his circle makes the battle for the Midwest that much more crucial.

With the addition of Chuck Martin to the coaching staff, Kelly has a coach that knows Michigan high schools as well as anyone in the country, and probably better than anybody on Rich Rodriguez’s Michigan staff. Kelly’s success in Ohio this season, where he did his best to shed the little brother label to the home state Buckeyes, means Kelly will also go head-to-head with Jim Tressel for key recruits, especially in the southern part of the state.

Kelly’s entrance on the scene comes at a perfect time for Irish fans, as Michigan seems intent on shifting their recruiting efforts to Florida for an infusion of speed. Rich Rodriguez signed eight players from the state of Florida in his 2009 recruiting class, all but two of them skill players. With Kelly and Rodriguez running similar offensive systems, Rodriguez’s willingness to shift his focus away from the still fertile Midwest could be to the advantage of the Irish.

It’s tough to get a true gauge on Kelly’s first recruiting class, just as it was difficult to grasp Weis’ efforts back in that transitional season. Most of Kelly’s work this year is to hold on to the players the former staff picked up, and to add a few needs if they can. But make no mistake, Kelly’s in a much better place thanks to the tireless recruiting of the previous staff, and Kelly has acknowledged that point in his short time in South Bend.

As Kelly begins to get comfortable in South Bend, it’ll be interesting to see if he narrows his recruiting focus. I fully expect the Irish to be interested in more Michigan and Ohio players, and the Wolverines and Buckeyes have shown that strategy to be plenty effective. But for the Irish to be successful recruiting, they’ll need an ace recruiter like Tony Alford to continue to snag prospects nationally, as well as a coach like Bob Diaco to prove his mastery of the living room.

But with Brian Kelly and his new staff coming to town, Rich Rodriguez and Jim Tressel should be ready to do battle.