With Signing Day just a week away, congratulations are in order to the Big Ten conference.
For many years the league’s collective recruiting efforts lagged far behind the SEC’s, if not others. But for 2016, Ohio State is in position to land the conference’s first consensus No. 1 class of the Internet era. Archrival Michigan will likely join it in the Top 5, while Michigan State (No. 7) and Penn State (No. 11) are in or near the Top 10 on Scout.com. That’s quite a departure from just two years ago, when No. 5 Ohio State was the lone Big Ten school higher than 19th.
But all that newfound success comes with a cost that most Big Ten fans won’t readily admit to — which is, they can no longer claim moral superiority over the SEC or any other league when it comes to shady recruiting practices. The conference that once prided itself on so-called gentlemen’s agreements and honoring commitments is no different from anybody else.
Just look at what Michigan savior Jim Harbaugh is doing in order to restore the Wolverines’ rightful glory. Simply put, he’s running off prospects with longstanding commitments to the Wolverines to make room for others.
Chicago-area offensive tackle Erik Swenson, who committed to former coach Brady Hoke way back in 2013, says he found out last week he needed to find anther school. On Monday, Florida defensive end Rashad Weaver, who committed to Michigan last June, tweeted that Harbaugh told him of a "50-50" chance there’d still be room for him come Signing Day. Weaver is looking elsewhere.
Because coaches can’t comment on unsigned recruits, we only know one side’s version of events. A report surfaced last week that Michigan began backing off Swenson way back to last summer, which his high school coach denies. Nevertheless, it’s a bad look for Michigan.
All told, nine Wolverines recruits this cycle have decommitted, including five this month. It’s safe to assume they weren’t all voluntary.
Harbaugh is hardly the first coach to pull scholarship offers at the 11th hour. We’ve heard similar tales from jilted recruits before, including those involving Louisville’s Bobby Petrino and Tennessee’s Butch Jones this time last year.
"I wouldn’t say it’s rare," said Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell, "but [Harbaugh] is a bit of an extreme example. … I don’t think it’s wrong to be honest with [a recruit] and say it’s not a fit. My problem is with the timing."
As SBNation’s Bud Elliott wrote: "I often hear the refrain on social media that kids drop schools all the time, so schools should be able to drop them. But the key word here is ‘kids.’ Kids are going to act like kids, but schools are run by adults and should act like it."
There’s a twinge of hypocrisy to see this happening up north, where fans have long cast aspersions at Southern schools for what they perceived to be ethically questionable methods of "roster management."
About five years ago, there was mass uproar about the seedy practice of oversigning, with Alabama’s Nick Saban the primary target. The media (myself included) helped guilt the SEC into adopting stricter measures. But nowhere was angst greater than in Big Ten country, where the league’s own self-imposed limits gave fans a convenient excuse why SEC schools kept winning national championships while Big Ten schools kept losing Rose Bowls.
Five years later, Michigan itself is expected to sign as many as 30 players this recruiting class, which means it, too, will need to clear room. The same folks who used to cry bloody murder about SEC recruiting tactics now find themselves in the awkward position of rationalizing Harbaugh’s recruiting practices. You know these are strange times when even Ohio State folks are defending Harbaugh.
Like it or not, this is recruiting in 2016. It just took the Big Ten a while to get on board.
It was only four years ago, in fact, that then first-year Ohio State coach Urban Meyer drew ire from his league counterparts for having the audacity to "flip" other teams’ commitments — a commonplace practice elsewhere.
"We at the Big Ten don’t want to be like the SEC in any way, shape or form," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema — who left for an SEC job about 10 months later — said at the time.
Today, of course, nearly the entire conference does it. Not coincidentally, the Big Ten is landing better recruiting classes — which started when league schools began hiring more cutthroat recruiters.
When Penn State made Vanderbilt’s James Franklin its head coach in early 2014, the high-energy salesman immediately tried to poach the bulk of his Vanderbilt commitments. (He got five.) Shortly upon his arrival at Michigan last year, Harbaugh flipped four-star quarterback Zach Gentry from Texas. Earlier this month, Meyer reeled in two longstanding Maryland commits that hail from that state.
The days of a so-called "gentlemen’s agreement" in the Big Ten are ancient history.
"Urban Meyer did the Big Ten a huge favor by coming and introducing the league to Big Boy recruiting," said Farrell.
He also did the conference a solid by winning a national championship in 2014.
The league that took the brunt of so many punchlines for nearly a decade is now flexing its muscle both on the field and in recruiting. Ohio State and Michigan get the lion’s share of the pub, but 2015 playoff participant Michigan State is using its newfound cachet to land nearly as many blue-chippers as those bluebloods. Penn State under Franklin is recruiting at its highest level since the late ’90s.
Flipping committed recruits is no longer controversial. If anything it’s expected. But dropping them at the 11th hour, while not illegal, is undeniably callous. Clearly Harbaugh’s sole focus is to build the best possible roster. Swenson and Weaver have their entire academic and athletic futures at stake.
When the faxes roll in next week, Big Ten fans should still give each other a much-deserved pat on the back. Just make sure they wash their hands first. When it comes to recruiting, theirs are now dirty just like anybody else’s.