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Big Ten football: Getting better already?

We've spilled a lot of digital ink discussing how the Big Ten was not in place to compete long term without some significant structural changes. Now that we're a few months into the summer, we take a look at whether they're starting to make some of those needed changes.

You have nowhere to go but up, big guy.
You have nowhere to go but up, big guy.

A lot of writers were more than happy to throw dirt on the grave of the Big Ten, non-Ohio State and Michigan division. Heck, we've grabbed a shovel ourselves at least once. The conference's dismal bowl record, their embarrassment in big out of conference games, their demographic challenges, and the fact that the conference included both Iowa AND Illinois all invited criticism. It's one thing to be horrible, but the Big Ten was both bad at football *and* boring, a deadly combination.

Why was the conference so bad? There were a variety of factors, some of which can't be addressed immediately. You've probably heard about population shifts outside of the midwest thanks to declining heavy manufacturing in the region, and you've probably also heard that just about everybody in the conference changed coaches in the past three years, and some of those hires turned out to be terrible.

But some problems can be addressed quickly. We also know that Big Ten assistant coaching salaries lagged behind other power conferences. Bret Bielema specifically mentioned that as a reason he wanted to bail from Wisconsin and try his hand at Arkansas. We also know that recruiting, outside of Ohio State and Michigan, the Big Ten has...underwhelmed, to put it charitably. To put it less charitably, you might say they've totally sucked.

In case you needed a refresher, here is how the Big Ten looked in their 2013 recruiting classes, per the 247Composite rankings:

2013 Recruiting Class Rankings (247Composite)

#2 Ohio State

#5 Michigan

#22 Nebraska

#30 Penn State

#36 Michigan State

#38 Wisconsin

#40 Maryland

#41 Indiana

#48 Illinois

#50 Rutgers

Ohio State and Michigan near the top, then a wide chasm between everybody else. Not exactly the best look when you want conference-wide sustainability. Let's take a look at how things are looking now*:

2014 Recruiting Class Rankings (247Composite)

#6 Michigan

#11 Ohio State

#13 Northwestern

#15 Penn State

#18 Rutgers

#21 Michigan State

#29 Wisconsin

#42 Iowa

#44 Illinois

* = I know, we're talking about recruiting rankings in late May, so we can take that with an industrial sized grain of salt, but the important thing here isn't the numbers per se, rather the early promising movement. That's seven Big Ten schools that have improved recruiting class rankings from the previous season, with Northwestern and Rutgers as particularly stark examples.

Not only are these numbers getting better, but some of these schools are doing a much better job at recruiting outside their footprint. Northwestern's high rating is buoyed by two recruits from Texas. Purdue has a Texas commit as well. Penn State has a verbal from North Carolina. Wisconsin ushered in a fullback from one of the most un-Madison like places in the country, Salt Lake City, Utah. It isn't just Ohio State and Michigan with a more national reach right now, and that's going to be critical in helping teams grow moving forward.

What about coaching salaries? Are teams looking to shell out a little more coin? A recent Freep article suggests that yes, yes they are.

Of the 10 schools that reported salary data (Northwestern didn't because they're private, Penn State didn't because of a state law), eight Big Ten schools increased their assistant salary budget, with Wisconsin and Nebraska increasing their total budget pool by over half a million bucks. Only Illinois decreased their budget by an appreciable amount (nearly $250,000). Ohio State remains at the top (you might say they're a Leader and a Legend in this regard, but only for one more year) with a $3.46 million dollar budget pool. You can see the entire salary database here.

Bucky's 5th Quarter broke down who is making the most and least in the conference. Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is the leader with an annual salary of $750,000. Three Ohio State coaches are in the Top 10, with Luke Fickell's $600,000 the leader, tied for third in the conference with Michigan's Al Borges (lol). You expect the list to be dominated by Ohio State and Michigan coaches, but Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck is second on the list at $700,000 a year, and Wisconsin, Purdue, even Illinois, have coaches in the Top 10.

The bottom is full of schools you'd probably expect, with Illinois, Purdue, and Indiana filling most of the slots, with the curious exception of Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith, who "only" makes $155,000. Should the Buckeye wideout corps have a big year, he should be in line for a nice tidy raise.

What does all of this mean exactly? Is there a direct correlation between cutting assistant coaching checks and football success? Not exactly. Paying a crappy assistant coach an extra hundred thousand dollars won't magically make him a better coach. It *does* help keep talented assistants from being poached by other schools though, or hire better ones when they need replacing.

Is the Big Ten ready to start claiming multiple playoff bids on an annual basis? Probably not. Rebuilding talent pipelines and coaching credibility takes time, and it's possible that Big Ten coaching turnover might not be done yet (who wants to bet Tim Beckman is around in five years?). It's also possible that come signing day, this recruitment improvements might be evaporated and we'll be having the same sort of cynical discussions. For now though, we can see some schools making a real dent in the recruiting and institutional investment gap, and eventually, that should pay dividends on the football field.