All’s Fair in Love, War and Recruiting
By Paul Myerberg // Feb 3, 2012
Forget about the fact that Urban Meyer has only been at Ohio State for two months, because it doesn’t matter. Ignore the fact that he’s still seven months away from actually leading the Buckeyes onto the field in a game that counts, because it doesn’t mean a thing. Meyer may be new in town, but that hasn’t stopped him from climbing into the head of nearly every coach in the Big Ten, thanks to a national signing day haul that left all but Michigan’s Brady Hoke in the dust. It’s Hoke, after all, who went toe-to-toe with Ohio State’s newly-minted recruiting giant and more than held his own; it’s also Hoke, reached for comment yesterday, who told an Ohio television station that recruits who have given another program their verbal commitment are still fair game.
Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema thinks otherwise: he thinks that the Big Ten should adhere to a gentlemen’s agreement that, according to Bielema, has defined the conference’s recruiting efforts for generations. At its core, this agreement makes verbal commits — that’s a non-binding, unofficial commitment, by the way — out of bounds for any coach working within the conference.
There are things more antiquated in college football than the Big Ten’s perceived gentlemen’s agreement. Here are a few: leather helmets, the Wing T, a Notre Dame national championship, cowboy collars, the Gotham Bowl, one-bar facemasks and the Veer.
There is nothing sillier than a scorned coach actually believing this agreement exists. And if there is anything sillier than believing in the Big Ten’s holier-than-thou recruiting approach, it’s that a coach less than two years removed from breaking the cardinal rule is proclaiming its merits from the nearest soapbox.
In the fall of 2010, Bielema and Wisconsin hosted then-Iowa commit Melvin Gordon for its home date against Ohio State. Gordon gave the Badgers his verbal commitment shortly after his visit, later inking his letter of intent of national signing day.
Gordon was a “young man that was committed to another school, actually in our conference, early on,” said Bielema following last February’s national signing day. But he “came to the Ohio State game and saw the light and changed his mind.” So, in Bielema’s mind, what he did in 2010 has no bearing on the absolute indignation he flashed over Meyer’s ability to swing offensive lineman Kyle Dodson away from Wisconsin and to Ohio State.
“We at the Big Ten don’t want to be like the SEC — in any way, shape or form,” Bielema told Sporting News’ Matt Hayes. When it comes to recruiting differences, when one coach wants to speak with another’s verbal commitment, Big Ten coaches “settle things among ourselves,” said Bielema.
Ignore the hypocrisy, though it’s difficult to wave aside the idea that Bielema is picking and choosing his battles in the most childish fashion possible: I’m angry now because I’m the one getting hurt, but I’m fine when it’s someone else getting their panties in a bunch. Bielema dropped 83 points on hapless Indiana in 2010; what’s worse, showing up an overmatched foe on a fall Saturday or showing up an overmatched coach in February?
Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi gnashed their teeth over Meyer’s pursuit of defensive end Se’Von Pittman, a former Michigan State commit who signed with the Buckeyes on Wednesday. Meyer, from his side, said that the pursuit was mutual, that Pittman was as interested in Ohio State as Ohio State was in him. Seems like Michigan State, after having such friendly dealings with Jim Tressel, Dantonio’s former boss, was upset that Ohio State’s new head man didn’t extend the same recruiting courtesy. In case the idea has yet to hit home: The new boss is nothing like the old boss.
There are Big Ten coaches who — and this is based merely on perception — could call out Meyer for dipping his toes in their recruiting pool; Joe Paterno would have qualified, for instance, and for a present-day example, I think Pat Fitzgerald’s name carries enough weight to make his coaching brethren stand up and take notice. Bielema’s name doesn’t carry that sort of gravitas. How could it, seeing that he’s a season away from beating Meyer to the punch?
But the bigger issue here is the idea that Meyer, in the span of two months, has reversed the Big Ten’s laissez-faire approach to the recruiting trail. His own approach to national signing day is the equivalent of Blackbeard trolling the West Indies: What’s yours is yours, until it’s mine. Meyer’s recruiting approach is all SEC, all the time.
And the rest of the Big Ten is on notice. Stay the course, sticking to this ridiculous notion of a gentlemen’s agreement that leaves little to chance? At the same time, this method leaves little opportunity for the late-in-the-game additions that often push a program’s class into the top 10 nationally. Alabama might strike early, for example, nailing down 10 recruits before September, but the Crimson Tide’s class was the best in the nation because Nick Saban had no compunction about raiding ships throughout the SEC.
The choice is simple. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Not trying to keep pace with what Meyer is doing on the recruiting trail will lead Bielema and Wisconsin — or another would-be conference power — into second-tier oblivion, fighting for second place and a secondary bowl. Hoke gets it, which might explain how he was able to retain most of his class despite Meyer’s arrival; it might also explain why Michigan is in a better place today than the program has been in years.
The Big Ten will catch up. And those who don’t will straggle along, fighting for a piece of the pie until they realize that the only way to succeed is to play the game. Bielema should save his Big Ten-themed soapbox for a topic like four-year scholarships, a neat and tidy rule picked up by most of the league’s 12 programs that reflects well on the conference as a whole.
Don’t want to be like the SEC? Well, too bad: you no longer have a choice. And based on recent history, the Big Ten could use a little SEC flavor; this is the league that has won six straight national titles by hoarding every nugget of talent it can find, whether that talent lie in its own backyard, across the country or on another team’s list of verbal commitments.
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Tags: Brady Hoke, Bret Bielema, Mark Dantonio, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Recruiting, Urban Meyer, Wisconsin
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