Big Ten's cure might be patience
There is no quick-fix solution to the Big Ten's recent struggles.
Throw money at the problem? The league already is rolling in dough, thanks in large part to the Big Ten Network. Big Ten teams (other than Nebraska, which isn't getting a full share yet) raked in more than $24 million per school from the conference last year, outpacing everyone, including the mighty SEC. New facilities are being built all over the league at an unprecedented pace.
Even schools such as Indiana, Minnesota and Northwestern either recently have done or are in the midst of planning major on-campus projects to benefit football.
Coaches' salaries? The Big Ten doesn't pay quite as much as the SEC, but the league has four of the 15 highest-paid coaches in the country, with Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz among the best paid in the business. Assistant coaches' salaries in the conference have lagged at times but are on the rise.
The Big Ten is too stodgy in its style of play and too beholden to tradition, you say? Spread offenses have proliferated around the league, as well as dual-threat quarterbacks. Nebraska and Wisconsin will be the latest teams to don alternate uniforms this weekend in Lincoln. Heck, even Penn State put player names on its jerseys this year. Michigan has started playing night games in the Big House.
The reality is, all the resources for success are there. Except maybe real estate.
The population shift from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt has thinned the recruiting pool in the Midwest for Big Ten schools. There's a reason the SEC and other warm-weather schools have been dominating college football: They have better access to more great players.
"If Michigan was located in the state of Florida, its tradition, history and stature alone would put it where Florida State and Alabama are now," ESPN recruiting expert Tom Luginbill said. "What prevents that from happening is what's in their backyard."
Luginbill pointed to Notre Dame's success this season, which most people attribute to the strength of the Irish defensive front. Notre Dame's three starters on the defensive line are from Georgia (Stephon Tuitt), Florida (Louis Nix) and Texas (Kapron Lewis-Moore). No wonder the Irish want to align with the ACC.
It's not just that athletes are better in warmer climates. They play more football there. Former Purdue coach Joe Tiller recalled the differences between recruiting Drew Brees out of Texas, where his team played 32 games his final two years of high school and went through spring practices, and Kyle Orton from Iowa, where his team did not have spring football.
There are plenty of great players in the Midwest, enough to field a team. The problem is that there are some big-time programs up here all going after the same guys.” -- Ohio State coach Urban Meyer
"Kyle was a talented guy, but early in his career, he wasn't as ready to play a Big Ten schedule when he was a sophomore, really," Tiller said. "He played for us, but it was a big learning experience. Whereas Drew, he fell in there and looked like he spent his life there. Any state that has spring practice has an edge over the competition."
The question is, how do Big Ten teams talk that talent into leaving the South for the chillier temperatures of the Midwest? Most league schools recruit Florida, and several dip into Texas. Nebraska recruits nationally and has several players from California on its roster. It's harder and harder for Big Ten teams to simply rely on talent from Ohio or Pennsylvania.
"There are some great football players in the Midwest, but I would probably agree that there are not as many as in other areas of the country," Meyer said. "There are plenty of great players in the Midwest, enough to field a team. The problem is that there are some big-time programs up here all going after the same guys."
When every league team is recruiting Ohio, that thins the pool. When a great player from the Midwest does come along, "you can't let him go anywhere else," Luginbill said. "He's got to come to your place." A prominent example is defensive end Noah Spence, who was rated a top-five national prospect out of Pennsylvania in the Class of 2012 and wound up at Ohio State.
That's why the best sign for the Big Ten's return to prominence might be the way Michigan and Ohio State are recruiting. They are scooping up the top prospects in Ohio and Michigan, and, particularly in the Buckeyes' case, adding stars from around the country. Ohio State has played for the BCS title three times since 2002 and looks ready to get back to that level soon under Meyer. Michigan might have taken a step back this season, but second-year coach Brady Hoke is assembling a roster that will look more like the great Wolverines teams from the past few decades.
So the cure for what ails the Big Ten might just be patience. Let Meyer and Hoke use their schools' phenomenal resources to rebuild league superpowers. Hope Nebraska can climb back to being Nebraska. Pray programs such as Michigan State and Wisconsin can keep pace. Wait for Penn State to come out of its NCAA sanctions.
That's not guaranteed to work, either. But there are no easy solutions to the Big Ten's current mess.
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