A quick glance at national team recruiting rankings in recent years shows a decided trend where the Big Ten is concerned: Ohio State and Michigan have dominated the recruiting landscape.
Michigan's Brady Hoke and Ohio State's Urban Meyer have proven track records as recruiters
And that’s not all: Schools from outside the Midwest have come into the region and plucked off some of its best talent, denying the rest of the Big Ten a chance to compete with those two superpowers.
And one more news flash: The Big Ten -- individually, collectively or any other way you want to measure it – has a long way to go to catch the SEC juggernaut that has produced seven consecutive national championship teams.
The 2014 football recruiting cycle is only about halfway complete. But if these 247Sports team rankings hold up, it will mark the third straight year and fifth time in seven years where Ohio State and Michigan are in the top 10 while the rest of the conference languishes outside the top 15.
Ohio State’s hiring of Urban Meyer and Michigan’s hiring of Brady Hoke have spurred the rebuilding/reloading phases at those schools. OSU is working to overcome recent NCAA sanctions, while Michigan digs out after the disastrous three-year stint of Rich Rodriguez.
This should be an alarming trend for most Big Ten fans, who probably do not want to see Ohio State and Michigan run off and hide from the rest of the conference and who would also like to see their league back on competitive terms with the SEC.
Ohio State and Michigan pulled that disappearing act once before. During the stretch between 1968-77, those two schools held an iron grip on the Big Ten championship. They either shared it or one of them won it outright in each of those seasons. That time period coincides closely with the vaunted Ten-Year War between 1969-78 when OSU’s Woody Hayes and Michigan’s Bo Schembechler butted heads (and ruled the Big Ten).
It was during those years of dominance that the phrase “Big Two, Little Eight” was coined to describe the way those two schools controlled the rest of the Big Ten. In the years since, the conference has added Penn State and Nebraska with Maryland and Rutgers coming on board in 2014.
Are the years of the Big Two and the Little 12 right around the corner?
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald believes parity will keep Michigan, OSU from dominating Big Ten
“I guess we’ll have to see,” said Minnesota coach Jerry Kill during the recent Big Ten media days. “Some teams select and some teams recruit. We have to recruit at our place right now.”
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, a former All-American linebacker for the Wildcats, bristles at the notion that one or two schools will dominate the conference in the modern era. His own Northwestern team is coming off a rare 10-win season and an even rarer bowl win last year.
“Back when the Ten-Year War happened, Northwestern didn’t win many bowl games or even go to many bowl games did they?” Fitzgerald pointed out with a laugh.
Hoke said the coaching staffs at each school have to carve out their own recruiting strategy and niche with key prospects to be successful.
“I think every school has a blueprint for what they want in a student-athlete,” he said. “I think we all have to recruit the guys we need and who will be the best students and represent the program in the right way and will be competitive.”
Watching Them Walk Away
The 2013 recruiting cycle had to be considered a major disappointment for the Big Ten as a whole. Ohio State had the No. 2-ranked class behind Alabama, followed by Michigan at No. 4. Only two other Big Ten schools cracked the top 30 in the 247Sports.com rankings with Nebraska 22nd and Penn State 30th.
Worse yet, the Big Ten schools earned an “F” when it came to keeping the Midwest’s best players at home.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman knows he must keep his state's top prospects at home to reverse fortunes for the Fighting Illini
From the nine-state region where current Big Ten schools reside, there were 17 players in the 247Sports national top 100. Of that group, Big Ten schools watched nine of those prospects end up at other schools – including the top six.
That super six of Big Ten defectors includes Indiana linebacker Jaylon Smith (fifth overall) to Notre Dame, Pennsylvania offensive lineman Dorian Johnson (eighth) to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania wide receiver Robert Foster (18th) to Alabama, Indiana defensive end Elijah Daniel (27th) to Auburn, Illinois wide receiver Laquon Treadwell (28th) to Ole Miss and Pennsylvania linebacker Alex Anzalone (32nd) to Florida (by way of Ohio State and Notre Dame).
The top Big Ten signee from that nine-state region was Pennsylvania tight end Adam Breneman, who stayed home at Penn State. Michigan had four top-100 signees from that region, while Ohio State landed three.
And, while Smith and Johnson from that group ended up at instate schools, the moral of the story is that Big Ten schools that have struggled in recent years can’t afford to see top homegrown talent get away like this.
Tim Beckman, a former Ohio State and Oklahoma State assistant, is beginning his second season as the head coach at Illinois. Coming off a 2-10 debut season, Beckman understands how fertile the Midwest is and how important it will be to turning the Fighting Illini around.
“Just like any state, there are a lot of people going into Florida and a lot going into Texas,” Beckman said. “They are going to places that are good with high school football. The state of Illinois and city of Chicago are very good. We did a study last year based on the last 10 years and the guys who have been at the NFL combine. What states are they coming from? Illinois happened to be sixth. That’s in the top 10. You’re going to recruit those areas.
“The goal of any state institution is to keep the players at home. That’s what we have to build because that was not the structure previously. Instead of leaving, we ask guys to stay home. We say, ‘Illinois is your state and your home.’ ”
Newly hired Purdue coach Darrell Hazell, a former Ohio State assistant and Kent State head coach, talked about the Buckeye state as a key recruiting hotbed.
New Purdue coach Darrell Hazell says there is plenty of talent to go around in the Midwest
“You look at the state of Ohio, that was one of five states that typically produces more than 100 Division I players in the country,” he said. “There are a lot of other states up here that have marquee players. This region is being heavily recruited. But there is a plethora of talent in this Midwestern area.”
Kill said he and his coaches have increasingly seen coaches from schools outside the region travel in to hit the key prospects and move on.
“What people do is they go off of lists,” Kill said. “They’ll say, ‘Here are all the top players and there are 12 guys in Chicago.’ They’ll fly in and hit those 12 schools and they leave. Everybody is recruiting nationally. It makes it more difficult. In the old days, you didn’t have networking to see who was out there.
“This is my 31st year and helps me because we’ve been in six or seven different states. You go back to those relationships. There is no question there are more people recruiting nationally.”
Along those lines, Kill said he and his staff focus on what they want or need for their schemes and also on players they can develop.
“In recruiting, we try to focus in on what’s the best fit, what our need is and the upside,” he said. “You look at the No. 1 draft choice this year, the offensive lineman from Central Michigan (Eric Fisher), I think he was a two-star recruit. There are so many players out there who play high school football.
“The thing about kids is from 17 to 19, they change so much. Some are done with their growth spurts. We have offensive linemen at Minnesota who come in and put on two inches and 40 or 50 pounds. I think kids change so much the recruiting process becomes difficult.”
Fitzgerald said the answer for most Big Ten schools would be to focus on their home territory. His alma mater, though, with a reputation as one of the nation’s top academic schools can cast a wider net.
Minnesota's Jerry Kill scoffs at recruiting rankings, noting how his former school (Northern Illinois) just played in a BCS game
“If you look at this league, we’ve been national before anyone else at Northwestern,” Fitzgerald said. “We will start and end our recruiting in Chicagoland. We spread out into the Midwest footprint, but then we go nationally in scope. We’ve always had young men from Texas and Florida and California and along the Eastern seaboard.
“When I took over the program, we had a young man from Alaska, a young man from San Diego, a young man who went to prep school in New Hampshire and another young man from Miami. We’ve always been that way. We’ve had 26 different states on our roster.”
Fitzgerald was a Chicago-area product who decided to stay in his hometown for college.
“I’m a kid who stayed home for a reason,” he said. “I wanted my family to be able to experience it. All the sacrifice that my family did for me to be in that position, I thought an hour car ride to come see me play my seven home games was the least I could do. I still think that plays a big role.”
The Facilities Arms Race
At the Big Ten media days, a former conference head coach was outspoken about where he sees the conference falling behind.
“You just have to look at the facilities,” this former coach said. “Every SEC school has a palace where they practice and train. Ohio State and Michigan each have nice facilities. Northwestern and Minnesota are building some facilities.
“But the rest of them pretty much range from barely passable to outdated to just an out and out joke. You have to invest and re-invest to continue to be successful. These kids take visits to all of these schools. It’s only natural for them to look (outside the region) if there are better facilities there.”
Hazell said facilities are just one factor, however, in what prospects are looking for in a school.
“You’d be surprised of all the reasons why guys choose universities,” he said. “It’s uniforms, facilities and a lot of different reasons. If you don’t have a facility that competes with those other schools, it’s harder. When you sit behind the desk and hear why some guys pick a school, it’s not always the right reason.”
Kill said each prospect is different in terms of what he wants in a university.
“Some kids want to stay at home. A lot of them want to stay within that two- or three-hour radius. But kids are different. I have a daughter who is 25 who will be with me my whole life, I think. I’ve got one who is 22 and at Murray State in Kentucky. They’re two different kids.”
The information age – with so much data on schools, programs and coaches available on the Internet – has changed recruiting, Fitzgerald said.
“Just by the ability to have better transparency as a university across the board, kids and parents are able to do real-time research on schools,” he said. “I will go back 20 years ago to when I was a senior in high school and you knew nothing about the schools except what you received in the form letter, a hand-written letter, the May phone call and the times you did unofficial visits.
“Now there is just an unbelievable amount of information for parents and families to go out and find out about schools, coaches, programs, APR rankings, graduation rates, social issues, arrest records with the teams. We had no idea. There is a positive side to that, but you have to weed through that as a parent or as a prospect.”
Big Ten and Little 12?
Using seven years of data from 247Sports.com, Ohio State has had six top-10 classes nationally in the last seven years. Michigan is next with four top-10 classes in the same period. No other Big Ten school finished with a top-10 class in that same period.
In fact, broadening out to the top 25 classes over that same seven-year period, Penn State made the top 25 four times, Nebraska and Michigan State did it twice each and Illinois did it once.
It is curious that Wisconsin hasn’t finished with a top-25 class since 2007, when the UW class was 24th. And, yet, Wisconsin has won the last three Big Ten championships. But in that same stretch, Wisconsin has also gone 0-3 in the Rose Bowl.
This is the last year of the Legends and Leaders Division set-up, meaning it is the only year Ohio State and Michigan can play each other in the Big Ten championship game. Beginning in 2014, those two powerhouses will be together in the new Eastern Division.
Their recent recruiting success seems to say that the winner of their annual rivalry game will be the team to beat for the conference title. But Kill, for one, is not convinced that recruiting rankings are the end all, be all.
“When we were at Northern Illinois, I think we were dead last in recruiting classes in the MAC three years in a row … and that is the team that just went to the Orange Bowl,” Kill said with a chuckle. “I think Charlie Weis, didn’t he have the top recruiting classes at Notre Dame? And he lost his job.
“I still think is that four-star or five-star player is he done developing? Is he a finished product? There is a lot that goes into that.”
Kill admits that recruiting coverage drives interest in the sport year-round.
“As far as ranking recruits and classes for college football, I think it’s good,” he said. “I think everybody does it differently because we’re not at the same area or university as everybody else. Some schools can pick up a list and say, ‘That’s who we’re going to go get.’
“Other schools have to look at things and say, ‘This guy could be a great player and maybe even surpass this guy (on the list).’ You look at NFL teams. Even at that level, they draft who they’re gonna be. A lot of it is who you’re gonna be and what style you’re gonna play.”
Meyer said he and his Ohio State staff do not chase recruits based on individual or team rankings.
“It’s the competitiveness at the end of the year,” he said. “You want your class to be highly ranked so you can use that to help with other recruits. You can say, ‘You can help us be the number one class in America.’ But we don’t do that. That’s not how we recruit.”
Likewise, Hoke said the Michigan program goes far and wide looking for top talent.
“We’re very much a national school,” he said. “We are nationally recognized and we nationally recruit. I think a lot of the schools in this league are that way.”
Fitzgerald said the public perception of the conference goes beyond just what Ohio State and Michigan have done.
“We added Nebraska, so now you talk about the Big Four traditions with Nebraska, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State,” he said. “Most people knew about those programs because of their longterm tradition and success.
“For us, the Northwestern brand is being told and sold now more than it’s even been. For us, that’s been a big feather in our standpoint.”
Restoring The Big In Big Ten
Conference coaches pay lip service to the notion that the Big Ten is “the best conference in the country.”
The fact is that has not been the case in quite a while. Here is some evidence of how things have gone in recent years for the Big Ten:
* In the 15 years of the BCS format, SEC schools have combined for nine national championships including the last seven in a row. Big 12 teams have two titles, while the Big Ten, ACC, Big East and Pac-12 all have one championship. Ohio State won that only title for the conference in the BCS era in 2002.
* The Big Ten hasn’t posted a winning record in bowl games in a single season since going 5-2 in 2002. For the last 11 years, the conference has gone .500 or worse in bowl games each year. That includes a dismal 2-5 mark last season.
* The Big Ten puts a lot of its eggs in the Rose Bowl basket. Other than three years in the BCS era, the conference has been represented in Pasadena every year since 1946.
The conference won four straight Rose Bowls between the 1996-99 seasons with Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin (twice) winning for the league. The Big Ten did not have a Rose Bowl rep in the 2001, 2002 or 2005 seasons. In the other 10 Rose Bowls since 1999, the Big Ten is an atrocious 1-9 in Pasadena. The lone win in that stretch was by Ohio State over Oregon in the 2010 Rose Bowl.
With Oregon, Stanford and UCLA all joining USC as Pac-12 powers, the Rose Bowl could be an uphill battle for Big Ten teams for years to come – barring some kind of seismic shift in talent.
* And the bowl battles against SEC teams have been anything but good for Big Ten teams. Since 1992, Big Ten teams are a combined 21-30 (.411) against SEC opponents in bowl games. Three of those wins – two by Penn State and one by Ohio State – have been officially vacated by NCAA sanctions. That drops the record to 18-30.
The Big Ten just announced renewals of contracts with the Capital One and Outback bowls. They have played SEC opponents at the Capital One/Citrus Bowl in Orlando every year since 1992, posting a 9-12 record. The agreement with the Outback Bowl in Tampa stretches to 1995. In that period, Big Ten teams are 7-11 against SEC opponents at the Outback Bowl.
Big Ten coaches were asked what they can do to restore the roar in their conference.
“We just have to keep competing,” said Illinois’ Beckman. “The big thing, too, is getting the right fit when you’re out recruiting. It’s not always about the five-star. It’s about getting a young man that fits. A.J. Hawk, when I coached at Ohio State, was not a five-star recruit. But he ended up being the best linebacker in the country.
“Find the players that fit your program and fit that mold, that will make your team better and create more victories for bowl games.”
Purdue’s Hazell was an assistant at Ohio State for seven years. In six of those years, the Buckeyes played in BCS bowls including a pair of national championship games. He talked about the formula Big Ten teams need to follow to success.
“There are a lot of things that have to go into it,” Hazell said. “The Big Ten schools need to go out and find some marquee players outside the region. There is enough talent up here to be successful against some of those other teams.
“We have to play better in those games and the bowl games. That’s one part of it. We have to position ourselves to be in those (national) championship games. But it’s going to happen.”
NU’s Fitzgerald added, “I believe you have to recruit nationally. For us, it’s always been a part of our equation. I can’t speak for the other Big Ten schools, but we know we have to make our money in the Big Ten footprint. We then have to be national in scope to go get the best student-athletes we can get to help us win championships.”
Ohio State’s 2002 national championship team, coached by Jim Tressel, had 15 Ohio products in its 24-man starting lineup (including specialists) for its Fiesta Bowl win over Miami (Fla.). Included in that group were standouts like tailback Maurice Clarett, linebacker Matt Wilhelm, safety Mike Doss and others from Ohio.
That win shows it can be done with Midwest players. But Meyer, who won two national titles at Florida and now roams the sidelines for the Buckeyes, readily admits they must be the right Midwest players.
“I think there are enough good players in the Midwest, but you’d have to get them all,” Meyer said. “There are too many good schools. There are four or five in the Midwest right now that are beating each other up pretty good.
“I think you are going to have to go and cherry pick outside the region. To answer the question, yes, there are enough players in the Midwest. But you’d have to get them all. It’s impossible to get them all, so you have to go outside the region.”