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For a while, writers, including myself, have pointed fingers at demographic changes as a reason for the Big Ten's relative malaise. The states that make up the foundation of the traditional Big Ten footprint, like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, have been bleeding residents, diluting the talent pool. Budget cutbacks across high schools may have also had a negative impact on local player development. For anybody who can read a map, it appeared clear that in order to succeed, Big Ten schools would have to find players in new markets.
I've spoken to multiple people who work for either the Big Ten or the Big Ten Network, and all of whom have taken major umbrage at any insinuation that the league's decision to add Maryland and Rutgers was primarily motivated by television money. Multiple people have told me that the league's brass understands the need to move into new markets not just from a financial perspective, but from a talent acquisition perspective. The thinking goes, after all, that adding schools in Maryland and New Jersey will give increased exposure and opportunity for other Big Ten schools, especially those far away from the league's eastern border, to grab kids in more talent rich areas. In the long term, that can help stave off Big Ten decline.
Maybe that argument will turn out to be true. Right now, it isn't really helping the schools that need it the most.
In the 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes (so far, any way), Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana and Nebraska have failed to land a single player from Maryland or New Jersey. Per 247Sports, the four schools combine for only two real targets, a three-star running back for Illinois in DC, and a three-star running back in Maryland for Indiana. Purdue and Wisconsin have each received commitments from three players over those two classes.
That wouldn't be much of an issue if these schools were reeling in commitments from great players that just happened to live other places, but that isn't the case. Big Ten recruiting is a dead horse that has long since been pulverized past the glue stage, but in case you forgot, let's take another look at the 2014 recruiting class. Iowa, Minnesota, Rutgers, Purdue and Illinois all had recruiting classes ranked worse than 50, They had another three schools right on the cusp, with Maryland at 44, Northwestern at 47 and Indiana at 48. Only Ohio State recruited at an elite level (No. 3), and over the past few years, only Ohio State and Michigan have done it consistently, although Penn State is likely to join that mix soon, especially now that their sanctions are over.
That leaves a great bulk of teams in the 30-60 range for classes. If nine squads in the Big Ten are recruiting at that level, then your team probably can too and still win a bunch of games, but it's not a recipe for out of conference or bowl success. Matt Hinton has written extensively about this, and no matter how much certain fan bases want to explain this away, the fact remains that recruiting stars matter. Teams with "better" players win more often than teams that don't have them.
For too long, fanbases, and maybe even some administrations, have rationalized their recruiting malaise. "Elite recruits just will never come to our school. We just need to recruit 'our' guys and develop them. We don't even look at recruiting rankings."
The time for those excuses is over. Big Ten schools can all offer a superior education. Almost all of them are in some of the best college towns in the country. They have large alumni bases, excellent traditions and national exposure, as well as high level FBS caliber facilities.
If Mississippi State and Kentucky are able to do it, there is absolutely zero reason why Iowa can't.
Big Ten schools may lack many things, but they don't lack for resources, especially after the next television deal, which should create a financial pipeline strong enough to create a veritable Scrooge McDuck money pit. These are typically huge schools with strong football traditions. Outside of a ready made stash of high end talent right outside their campus gates, most Big Ten schools are just one thing away from repairing a shattered reputation and competing at a national level again.
Coaching. The Big Ten's coaches aren't what they need to be.
I feel like I've had to write this column about ever three months since I started with SB Nation, but it's still true. The depth of coaching talent in the Big Ten lags spectacularly compared to other power conferences, and it is the single greatest factor holding them back. It doesn't seem unfair to say that the league really only has three great coaches, in Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio, and (probably) James Franklin, although even is he somewhat of an unproved commodity. It has another fairly reputable recruiter in Brady Hoke, but there isn't necessarily any evidence that he's a particularly great on the field coach. After that, what's left?
Is Bo Pelini the next best coach in the conference? What about Gary Andersen, he of now questionable in game and press management decisions? Would he be the seventh best coach in the Pac-12 (Shaw, Helfrich, Leach, Rodriguez, Graham, Petersen?) Would he be the eighth best in the SEC? With only the possible exception of the ACC, no other conference boats the sheer magnitude of underwhelming head coaches as the Big Ten. Andy Staples is right. The rest of the league is still piddling along, trying to make a nice little team that could maybe make a Rose Bowl. That's not going to cut it.
Jerry Kill, Tim Beckman, Kyle Flood, Randy Edsall, and Darrell Hazell have done nothing to show they're anything more than replacement level. Pat Fitzgerald's last 12 months may have outed him as overrated, Hoke's administration has underachieved dramatically, and Kirk Ferentz is some kind of sorcerer, who is guaranteed to go 8-4 when you expect him to go 4-8, and 4-8 when you expect him to 8-4, and will charge you handsomely for the privilege either way.
The coaching issues aren't just with the head coaches at the middle-to-bottom of the league. After all, Urban Meyer and his staff were outcoached by their Virginia Tech counterparts and Mark Dantonio and co. failed to make enough adjustments to stay in the game in the second half against Oregon. There is also a lack of depth and talent in the assistant coaching ranks. Outside of Michigan State DC Pat Narduzzi and Ohio State OC Tom Herman, how many other coaches do you feel are ready for head coaching positions in the next two years? Maybe one more?
The conference had a chance to flip the script a few years ago, but many of those new hires are giving little evidence of panning out. Kevin Wilson at Indiana has at least turned the Hoosiers into something interesting, but the results in the win-loss column haven't come in yet. Beckman and Hazell, so far, have been disasters. It's not inconceivable Michigan, Maryland and Rutgers could all potentially be making coaching changes in the next year or so. Virtually everybody will be hiring new assistants.
Nothing will change, from recruiting to unimaginative gameplans to lagging student attendance, much less high profile egg layings, unless a wholesale improvement in the level of coaching, at every level, occurs.
The Big Ten has the money. It has the brands. It needs to ditch the excuses. Otherwise, we'll all have to keep cranking out this piece every 6-12 months, and all the TV sets in Prince George County, MD won't be able make a difference.