The Big Ten Should Embrace Deregulated Recruiting

Patrick McDermott

When the NCAA attempted to pass new recruiting rules earlier this year, Jim Delany and the Big Ten stood in the doorway. They should have run that money train all the way to the top of college football.

As widely known and expertly reported yesterday by The Gazette's Scott Dochterman, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, along with university administrators and coaches, actively worked to stop an NCAA push to deregulate recruiting earlier this year. Proposed NCAA rule changes would have allowed programs (let's face it, football and maybe men's basketball) to make unlimited contact with recruits, send unlimited printed materials to prospects, and hire non-coach recruiting-only staff. The SEC prepared for the change by lining up potential scouting and recruiting specialists -- NFL scouts, among others -- and proposing six-figure salaries for the new recruiters. The Big Ten, on the other hand, advocated for the status quo. As Dochterman reported, the Big Ten's opposition rallied around a text message sent from Urban Meyer to Pat Fitzgerald:

In mid-February, Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer sent a text message to Northwestern counterpart Pat Fitzgerald, writing "that there are already teams that have made plans to have separate scouting depts. [sic]. there has already been nfl scouts that have been told they will be hired to run the dept. (hired for over 200k). I checked with an NFL friend and he confirmed that there was much conversation about this. Appealing to scouts because of no travel. Also, there has been movement to hire Frmr players/coaches with big names to work in that dept. and recruit full time. This will all happen immediately once rule is passed. Thought u should be aware if [sic] this nonsense to share with who u feel can assist."

Meyer's text was circulated among Big Ten presidents and officials on Feb. 14. The email also included a scholarship offer of a freshman running back, which prompted Fitzgerald to write "This is what's wrong with recruiting."

Let's start from this premise: Offers to freshmen running backs are absolutely what's wrong with recruiting. Caring remains creepy, boys and girls, and an all-out recruiting bonanza in which top players are more-or-less harassed by recruiters for more than two years is a Cormac McCarthy-like apocalyptic vision of the future.

But that's not what had Urbz concerned. Meyer's text was not about unrelenting pestering of top talent, but rather the creation of separate scouting departments (gasp!) manned by actual experienced scouts and former players (zoinks!) who are paid more than $100,000 a year (zut alors!) to identify and land high school players. This was the same concern of Kirk Ferentz:

Several Big Ten coaches voiced their concerns publicly to the changes, including Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, who said college athletics could become like Major League Baseball where the New York Yankees "start in the inside lane every year. They've got the biggest payroll."

As Spencer Hall pointed out yesterday, the idea that Urban Meyer and Kirk Ferentz, the two highest-paid coaches in the conference, are pleading small market status is inherently absurd, but the issue isn't what these coaches make for running a football team. It's what the universities make that is important, and it's this massive financial superiority that should have the Big Ten signing off on deregulated recruiting.

For Maryland, the Big Ten was a lifeboat. The Terps' athletic program was deep in the red, shedding non-revenue sports and preparing to cut more, when Jim Delany came to town carrying canvas bags with dollar signs on the side. Reports indicate that Maryland (and, by virtue of that, every other school in the Big Ten) is set to make $100 million more than ACC universities in conference revenue over the next seven years. For those who did not major in math, that's more than $14 million a season. That's $12 million more in Maryland's first year, escalating to nearly $20 million when the Big Ten negotiates its next television contract. While per-institution revenues from the new SEC/ESPN deal have been estimated at nearly $30 million per school per year, the Big Ten's projected figures -- $45-49 million per year in the late 2010s -- dwarf that number. The Big Ten makes so much money that it simply bought Maryland solely for its television market.

The Big Ten athletic departments, while quick to show their empty pockets to every booster who will listen, are awash with cash. Iowa built new practice facilities for basketball, wrestling, golf, rowing, and football in the last half-decade, expanded Kinnick Stadium, and are in the process of replacing the speakers and televisions in the arena -- speakers and televisions installed just six years ago -- for a cool $9 million. Iowa's biggest budgetary outlay is debt service, because big projects require big loans that lenders are happy to give the Gary Barta gravy train. And Iowa is far from alone in this, as stadium improvement and expansion takes place across the conference. The reason that Kirk Ferentz and Urban Meyer and the other ten coaches in the league can make absurd amounts of money to coach football is because football generates exponentially more than their salaries. Ferentz getting $4 million is patently absurd, but so long as the stadium fills up seven Saturdays every autumn, he's worth twice the price. And as long as the on-field product remains desirable, the amount of money the Big Ten can bilk from cable operators and television networks appears endless.

Big Ten football might be a money machine, but the quality of the product is down. Penn State is still facing crippling sanctions, Nebraska shows no signs of returning to the sustained level of play they had in the 80s and 90s, Michigan is still recovering from the disastrous Rodriguez era, Wisconsin is breaking in a new coach, Iowa won four games last year, and the rest of the conference remains middling. The forward pass is dying across the league -- nine of the league's twelve teams ranked 86th or worse in passing offense in 2012 -- as programs struggle to find effective skill position players. Demographics might be the biggest concern; with every season, a higher percentage of top talent is located in the Deep South and West Coast.

The easiest way to improve that product, to make it increasingly desirable to those who provide the money that keeps it moving forward, is to improve recruiting across the conference. Nobody is arguing about Ohio State or Michigan, which can open the door and collect four-stars like trading cards. But if the rest of the conference wants to get into the game -- if Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin want to start landing classes like Ole Miss -- they need to stop acting like the Kansas City Royals and use their one huge advantage -- that pile of cash -- to improve the quality of players on the field, and do so by molding the rules to their advantage. The Big Ten should be on the forefront of pay-for-play in the revenue sports because it is the league that can best afford it. It should (and, to its credit, does) promote better scholarship terms for players in all sports, again because the money is there and could become the determining factor.

And yes, the Big Ten should embrace the deregulation of recruiting personnel, so that coaches should take a million or two of that absurd sum of money -- money that is coming from the cable bills and ticket purchases of its fans -- and spend it on massive scouting and recruiting staffs, blanketed across the country, identifying and offering the nation's best players. No conference -- not the Pac-12, not the ACC, not even the mighty SEC -- can match the Big Ten, dollar for dollar. They have the B1G stack. So why not muscle into the middle-class SEC's territory with it? If it means a better product on the field, a product finally worthy of the hundreds of millions of dollars fans across the Rust Belt pay to watch it, it is money well spent.

Ferentz is right that money can win college football if spent correctly, can give the rich teams an inside track to the promised land. He just doesn't understand the most important thing: He, and every other Big Ten coach, is managing the Yankees.

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