COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The proof shows up on national signing day, but the real evidence of just how far the Big Ten has come in four years can perhaps only be felt behind the scenes by the guys working tirelessly on the recruiting trail.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the league started turning a competitive corner after Urban Meyer arrived in the league and exposed, for example, the concept of so-called “gentlemen’s agreements” as a problem that left the league at a disadvantage against the far more ruthless recruiters of the SEC.
Meyer had been one of them for years at Florida, and when he arrived in 2012 with so much fanfare and a knack for flipping talent to join Ohio State, that mindset instantly produced results for his new program -- and, in equal measure, made him a target for some around the league for disrupting the status quo.
Even four years later on a couch in his office, Meyer still throws his hands up, shakes his head and struggles to understand what the big deal was about recruiting previously committed players. And now that the rest of the conference has seemingly come around on the importance of dialing up the recruiting intensity year round -- and perhaps because there’s also a new outsider building his roster with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind -- it should come as no surprise that the on-field product is making headway against the SEC and the Big Ten is again establishing itself as one of the toughest places to win in the nation.
“People asked about this when was I hired, and it was like people assaulted me at those meetings,” Meyer said. “I was like, 'Where is this coming from?' I’ve recruited for 25 years, I’ve never heard someone say some Ohio kid wants to come to Ohio State, don’t take him [because he committed elsewhere]. Are you nuts?
“So, recruiting has been amped up in the Big Ten. It has been. Everybody has, and you have to. As a result, the Big Ten Conference went like this [on an upward trend]. You can have a gentlemen’s agreement -- but first of all, there wasn’t one, because I asked. I was like, ‘What are you guys talking about?’ One guy said that to some writer.”
That guy is actually now swimming in the shark-infested waters of the SEC with Bret Bielema now at Arkansas, but it’s no longer all that safer to take a dip in the Big Ten with Meyer, Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, Penn State’s James Franklin and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio all increasing the stakes in the chase for the nation’s top targets.
It’s not exactly a new development that the powerhouses in the Big Ten are capable of putting together top-20 classes, as all four of those programs did on the first Wednesday in February this year. But for those involved in the process, there has been a noticeable shift in philosophies as the league tried to rebound from a couple lean years that had turned it into somewhat of a punchline. And perhaps with a couple exceptions for some unorthodox methods used by his rival, the man who helped lead the charge is relishing the rise of both the Big Ten and the improved competition.
“In 2012, I was kind of shocked,” Meyer said. “I came from the SEC, where it was very aggressive recruiting. When I say aggressive recruiting, I’m not saying rules violations. I’m not saying that. Your job as the football coach at Ohio State University is to go represent Ohio State with class, integrity and get the best football players in the country. What’s happened, you see in the Big Ten right now, everything from stadium atmospheres to money being spent on coaching staffs, as a result you’re seeing some excellent football teams competing at the highest level. Is that good for the Big Ten? Go ask [commissioner Jim] Delany how it’s going. It’s going pretty well; we have great football programs in the Big Ten Conference.”
At the top, there’s no really no doubt about that anymore after a national championship in 2014 from Ohio State and three bids to the New Year’s Six from the Big Ten in 2015.
The next step, though, is building more depth behind the conference elite if it’s going to truly stack up with the SEC.
“The top of the league, it’s a street fight,” Meyer said. “It’s a street fight. It’s not quite top-to-bottom yet, but they’re coming. I can’t talk about the Pac-12 because I wasn’t in that league, and I understand the Big 12 and the ACC are all very good.
“But right now it’s still the SEC, and I think top to bottom, we’re not where the SEC is yet. However, the top is pretty close.”
The gap appears to be shrinking, but there’s still plenty of work to be done to erase it. And more often than not, that process starts on the recruiting trail. It obviously doesn’t include gentlemen’s agreements.