ROSEMONT, Ill. – The word “holistic” got thrown around so much during this week’s Big Ten Joint Group Meetings that it felt like the conference was running a new-age medicinal clinic on the side.
That’s the buzzword league administrators have used for months in describing how they want to tackle recruiting reform. It’s one reason why you didn’t hear a huge Big Ten outcry during the satellite-camp debate. Conference leaders would rather examine recruiting from top to bottom than howl over a single issue.
“We can hunker down now that we’ve got the camp thing settled down a little bit,” Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst said. “We can talk about it all holistically, comprehensively. It will be fun.”
For sure, there are many recruiting topics that are of far more importance and interest to the Big Ten than satellite camps. Allowing for earlier official visits is a critical piece, particularly for schools like those in the West Division that are located far away from talent hotbeds (and whose local weather can be iffy in the fall). Big Ten leaders want to dissect the entire recruiting calendar and, possibly, draw up a new one.
In theory, making major changes such as these should be easier with the new NCAA governance structure, which allows Power 5 conferences to write many of their own rules. The trick, however, remains in pulling together a consensus on how to script those rules – not just between leagues but oftentimes within the same conference.
While the Big Ten generally is a harmonious group that rarely displays the kind of backbiting seen in other leagues such as the Big 12, it still can’t always get on the same page in recruiting proposals. The needs of, say, Ohio State aren’t going to be the same as those of, for example, Iowa. Earlier visits might help Wisconsin but don’t matter nearly as much to Maryland. Ask several Big Ten coaches and athletic directors about an early signing day, and you’ll likely get a multitude of answers.
“I’m not sure if we’re necessarily going to have one voice, with 14 institutions and 14 different coaches,” Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said.
This has long been the problem in instituting major changes in college football, whose gridlock makes Congress look like a next-gen computer processor. It’s a sport still dominated by regionalism and self-interest. That was perfectly exemplified by the satellite camp vote, when some conference representatives voted against their league’s wishes and even counter to their own school's desires, while the ACC and SEC dug in to protect their own turf.
It’s always funny during the annual American Football Coaches Association national convention in January to see coaches spend hours in a committee room trying to come up with recruiting solutions, only to walk out in the same place they began. Or as Nebraska basketball coach Tim Miles joked during this week’s Big Ten meetings, “These things never get solved, anyway. But it sure feels good to sound off about it.”
So how does the Big Ten make any progress with its reform goals? The league boasts some powerful voices. Not just commissioner Jim Delany, but also Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, who is chairman of the NCAA Division I council, and Eichorst, a member of the Division I Football Oversight Committee. Both can be influential leaders for the league’s causes if they so choose.
“There are times you have to put on your [conference] hat based on where you’re at, and then there are times you have to take it off in the room with other committee colleagues,” Eichorst said.
The conference has chosen to fight most of its battles behind the scenes, as evidenced by its lack of public ruckus (one prominent Michigan coach excluded) in the satellite-camp controversy. But a little more vocal lobbying might help from a league that often likes to view itself as above the fray. The Big Ten also will need to build partners for its crusade, as it cannot usually count on the SEC and ACC to see things the same way in recruiting.
The Big Ten certainly can’t go it alone.
“That unified voice has to be beyond the league,” Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said.
If the Big Ten is to lead the charge toward change, it must first build a consensus within the conference on which proposals to float. The league has taken a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats approach to things like revenue sharing and needs to do the same on recruiting rules, even if those don’t benefit every school equally.
And then the truly daunting work begins: getting other leagues on board.
“These are competitive people, and we’re in competitive institutions,” Phillips said. “But I feel that holistically, at the end of the day, everybody does want what’s best for college football.”
There’s that word again. Holistic. We'll have to see how realistic it is.