An Excerpt from The Road to Ann Arbor, by Tom VanHaaren
Many years ago, when MGoBlog was just starting to be more than a small community of nerdy Michigan fans , this guy Tom from the message board was so friendly that the recruits and coaches and family just gave him honest answers to earnest questions.
When I came on in 2009 as a part-time copyeditor, Tom was already officially on staff. When a five-star defensive tackle began to waver in his commitment, readers would put up TomVH bat signals, and ask Tom to hold them. Soon, ESPN came calling, and Tom left for the big time.
But you can always come home, and today for the first time since pre-Ace, I'm proud to have the opportunity to print a TomVH article on this site, because he's written a book. Specifically THIS book:
It's about—what else—great Michigan recruiting stories over the years. It covers the crazy recruitments of Michigan greats like Reggie McKenzie, Jim Harbaugh, Jamie Morris, Mark Messner, Tripp Welborne, Desmond Howard (and his tagalong Elvis Grbac), Jarrett Irons, Brian Griese, Tshimanga Biakabutuka, Tom Brady, Braylon Edwards, Chad Henne, Rashan Gary, and Aubrey Solomon. And that has led Tom back to where it started. He can't hold you anymore, but you can buy this book, and feel held once more.
Okay, well, since it's yours now, here's an excerpt from The Road to Ann Arbor: Incredible Twists and Improbable Turns Along the Michigan Recruiting Trail, by Tom VanHaaren, presented with permission from Triumph Books. It covers the split between five-star Georgia prospect Aubrey Solomon and Michigan after his commitment, and their subsequent reconciliation over a moral lesson that frankly we could use some more of in this conference these days.
For more information and to order a copy visit www.triumphbooks.com/roadtoannarbor, but of course you've done that already.
[Hit THE JUMP for the excerpt]
Aubrey has already taken a visit to Michigan and committed on the spot—without checking with his mother, Sabrina Caldwell. He's also made it public, which Caldwell specifically told him not to do. Then Michigan made a stupid mistake.
Solomon's first game for Michigan was in the Jerrydome [Chris Cook]
Opposing coaches tried to pry Solomon away from Michigan, especially because they all knew that Caldwell wasn’t on the visit.
They didn’t need to do much, though, because Caldwell was still upset with her son that he committed without her. While she said she was standing behind her son’s decision, she still had some doubts since she neither saw it for herself nor met any of the coaches. The opposing coaches didn’t have to wait long to get some help from Michigan either. In August of 2016 before his senior season, a recruiting assistant at Michigan sent Solomon and Caldwell a thank you card for attending a recruiting event that had just taken place in Ann Arbor. Unfortunately for the assistant, neither Solomon nor Caldwell were at the event. The cards thanked them for coming, said it was nice to meet them—and to add to the error—Solomon’s name was even spelled wrong. Caldwell got a Grinch-like smirk and sat at home waiting for her son to see the mail.
Her son came home, and she handed him his mail, waiting to see his reaction. Now Solomon was upset, too. He was upset not only that they spelled his name wrong, but also that they sent the thank you card in the first place. “The thank you card made me feel like, Dang, I’m not really important to this staff like they said I was. It just built up because my mom was already not happy I committed, so I said I need to reevaluate the situation and decommit to take a couple steps back,” Solomon said. “Coach Partridge was cool with it and said he was upset that I was decommitting but that they wanted what was best for me. He said they still had love for me and that they were still going to recruit me.”
The opposing coaches received word that this happened and pounced. Reporters ran with the story almost immediately, and it spread quickly that Solomon was decommitting from the Wolverines.
He started to have doubts about everything Michigan had said and thought that maybe he just needed to stay closer to home to be near his mother and family. Solomon was ready to write off Michigan, but another phone call came in that was crucial to Michigan’s standing after the mail snafu. It was Harbaugh, wanting to talk to his buddy, Caldwell. Harbaugh joked with Caldwell initially but then cut to the chase. He asked her to send a picture of the mail to make sure it was something sent by the Michigan coaches.
Once it was verified that Michigan had made the mistake, Harbaugh offered up his apology and told her his first act in righting the wrong was that she was to have direct contact with Harbaugh with any questions or concerns she had. He was going to get this rectified and he would be an integral part of her son’s recruitment. That impressed Caldwell to the point that she was now telling her son that Michigan should not be out of the race. “I thought that was a class act. So Aubrey said, ‘You didn’t want me to be with them anyway,’ and I said, ‘I probably didn’t help. But it takes somebody strong to say, hey, okay we messed up, but give us this opportunity to make this right,’” Caldwell said. “To call immediately when it happened, now I’m curious about this school. When I think about what my son could be as a man, you have to own up to mistakes—even if it’s not yours—so I said, ‘Give them a chance and don’t write off Michigan.’”
Normally a decommitment would be a bad thing for a school, and it would be difficult to get back in the race. But in this situation, Michigan actually benefited from the decommitment and the mail mistake in a variety of ways. For one, the target was now off its back as some SEC schools felt that Michigan would drop down his list.
Partridge said that it was almost a relief to have Alabama and Georgia start recruiting against each other instead of the two schools ganging up against Michigan. It allowed Harbaugh, Partridge, and Michigan to fly under the radar and recruit him without the negative pitches coming their way.
It also opened up Caldwell’s eyes to how her son would be treated and the type of coaches he would be around in Ann Arbor. And when Solomon committed to Michigan, Caldwell took note of all the SEC fans on social media that had raked her son through the coals for leaving the SEC and heading to Michigan. She noted that the fans had been very negative toward her son when he committed, but now they wanted him to pick their favorite school. That turned her off toward some of the SEC schools because, as she told her son: “If the fans were like this now when he is a recruit, how will they treat him when he makes a mistake when he’s a player?”
When his senior season arrived, Solomon took a step back and reevaluated what he really wanted and what schools would be in the mix for him. He decided to heed the advice of his mother and not write off Michigan. The Wolverines made his top four along with Alabama, Georgia, and USC, which had crept into the picture. Most of his top schools had remained a constant, but there was one school that was never truly in the picture because of the lack of communication.
“Florida State dropped the ball because had they recruited my son the way they should have he would be at Florida State. My daughter went to FAMU, which is right by Florida State, and he wanted to be right by his sister,” Caldwell said. “When we tried to call to do an unofficial visit, we either got the answering machine or no answer, so we couldn’t get a hold of them. By then he was down to his top four, and Florida State tried to come to one of his games and said, ‘Oh, Mrs. Solomon, how are you doing?’ I haven’t been Mrs. Solomon for a long dang time, so I looked and saw the Florida State shirt, shook my head, and kept walking.”
Solomon was mainly focused on his senior season and his high school team, so he asked the schools recruiting him to respect his space and give him some time to enjoy his final season. Most schools abided by that and limited the time they were in contact with him and his mother.
The communication with Caldwell remained open, however, and as Harbaugh had made himself more and more available to Caldwell with direct contact, she took note of it. Caldwell only had the cell phone numbers for two head coaches—Jim Harbaugh and Georgia’s Kirby Smart—who were recruiting her son. “Some coaches sent their minions to contact me and then the coaches would get on the phone.
Alabama was really notorious for this, ‘Ms. Caldwell, Nick Saban wants to get you on the phone in an hour.’ Well I’m busy in an hour,” Caldwell said. “It’s not personalized, and you want to personalize the experience. You don’t want me to think that my son is a football mule, but when you send your minions to contact me and then get on the phone? No, I don’t think so.”
As that communication remained open, Caldwell was becoming more and more familiar with the coaches and the programs. As Solomon made his way through his final season, the two prepared to start his official visits. They initially planned to take all five official visits, but he narrowed his list down to four because he didn’t want to waste any coach’s time by taking a visit to a school he was less than interested in.
He also thought about taking an official visit to Georgia, but he and his mother had been there so much that they decided not to spend the extra visit. Besides, Caldwell had previously asked her usual questions and never felt as though they were answered properly.
She figured if they failed to answer any of her questions on the previous visits, it wouldn’t change now so they decided that Michigan, Alabama, and USC would get his three official visits.
In her communication with Harbaugh, he had noted that he wanted to make sure they answered every question she had. So if she wanted to send them her questions ahead of time, they would make sure they were prepared to answer them. That sparked an idea to even the playing field for everyone. Caldwell decided to create a questionnaire of 31 questions with space for responses that all three schools would receive ahead of their visit.
Georgia only filled out a questionnaire once the coaches found out they wouldn’t be getting Solomon on an official visit. Then the staff told her they were preparing their answers. Caldwell also recalled that Alabama did not fill out the questionnaire but still received an official visit from her son. The first question on the list asked if her son could choose his own degree. And then the follow-ups: why or why not can he choose his own degree and who aids in ensuring it’s a good fit? The second question asked if the football practices are predicated on the time of day or the type of degree being pursued. The questionnaire then asked what services exist when a student needs further help with their studies and how often players are required to seek out tutors.
The first 12 questions on the questionnaire dealt with education, which was what Caldwell was concerned about. “The Michigan visit was the first visit, and they set the bar high. The moment I got off the plane, Devin Bush picked us up and he handed me a folder that had responses to all my questions,” Caldwell said. “That’s when I knew that’s where I wanted my son and I hadn’t even opened the folder yet. He gave a folder to my son, so I had one, and my son had one, but when they gave me that folder, I knew they were serious about my son.”
The visit could not have gone any better for Solomon or Caldwell.
Others were present, but Harbaugh mentioned to Caldwell that they had fixed some of the issues that led to the coaches sending the thank you letter and spelling her son’s name wrong. That they identified and fixed the issue impressed Caldwell because it demonstrated Harbaugh handled problems well. The coaches were prepared for this visit, and Partridge said he knew that football was going to have to be at the back end of the visit, but it still needed to be covered. They were also able to connect Solomon with Rashan Gary’s mother, who was visiting her son at the same time. Gary was the No. 1 ranked prospect in the country and had been in Solomon’s shoes just the year before. So Solomon was able to get the perspective of a mother, what they saw, and how Michigan had treated them even after the recruiting process.
The trip went as well as it could have, but the coaches still had to worry about the Alabama visit and the USC trip. Alabama’s visit came only weeks after his Michigan trip, and the emotion of it all caused Solomon to make a quick statement about how he felt about the Tide. “After I took the Alabama visit, I was feeling really good and named Alabama my leader. My Michigan visit, I learned some new things I didn’t know, but I was excited right after Alabama,” Solomon said. “Then I thought about it a little more, and Alabama was a good school, but the academics at Michigan put Michigan back ahead. Then I went to USC, and everything changed. So after the USC visit, I went back and said it was between Michigan and USC because they had all of what we were looking for.”
The Wolverines and USC were out in front, but Michigan had to weather one more storm in early January. While Solomon was out at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, he was recorded by some fellow Georgia prospects on video saying, “Fuck Michigan.” The video went viral, and many thought that it meant Michigan was out of the running. Not among the many that thought the Wolverines were out, however, were the Michigan coaches. Partridge and Harbaugh handled the mishap in the best way possible. This time, however, it was Solomon doing the apologizing to Michigan rather than the other way around. During his conversation with Partridge, the Michigan assistant coach told Solomon that he completely understood and that he, too, said “fuck” all the time. He understood but also reminded Solomon that the Georgia prospects he was around at the time of the video may not be the people with whom to surround himself.
Solomon explained to Partridge that a recruit asked him how he felt when Michigan got his name wrong on the thank you card and Solomon replied by cursing. He further detailed that it wasn’t how he felt currently, but he owned the mistake and apologized. “That made me closer with the staff with them trying to help me clean up my mess. I talked to Coach Partridge and Coach Harbaugh, and they both told me the same thing,” Solomon said. “‘You’re young, people make mistakes, but it’s what you do after the mistake that matters.’”