About a year ago, long before the first game that factored into the College Football Playoff and before his team played a down of Big Ten football, Rutgers coach Kyle Flood began to offer to recruits his vision of the era ahead.
In particular, Flood told them he found it difficult to believe that a one-loss Big Ten champion would miss the four-team playoff.
A month into last season, as the league sat squarely outside playoff speculation, Flood did not waver, bolstered by his confidence in Big Ten coaches and the respect he believed the league had earned.
“Players want to win championships,” Flood said. “They want to know if they’re on the right team and have the right season that they have access to a championship.”
His assertion proved correct, of course, as Ohio State roared to the finish, securing the fourth spot in the semifinals.
What the Buckeyes did next, though, sent ripples through the Big Ten landscape. Ohio State’s national title restored positive energy to the league. Packaged with a strong postseason by other conference teams -- the Big Ten won three of four games on New Year’s Day and finished 6-5 overall -- and the splash of Jim Harbaugh’s hire at Michigan, it shifted perception of the league from a doormat nationally to something of a force again.
In recruiting, dividends pay immediately.
Some Big Ten coaches, back on the recruiting trail for the past two weeks in the push toward signing day a week from Wednesday, have noticed a change in attitude from prospects who had grown accustomed to watching the league struggle on a big stage.
“A part of recruiting is perception,” Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said this week as he drove to recruiting stops in Indianapolis. “The perception of the Big Ten is that it’s on the rise right now. We enjoy that. We embrace that. We’re excited about that.”
So does a rising tide lift all boats in Big Ten recruiting? No consensus exists among league coaches. Wilson, whose program has qualified for one bowl game in the past two decades, and others said they welcome the flood of media exposure around Ohio State and Michigan this month as impactful for the entire conference in attracting prospects.
Minnesota defensive backs and special teams coach Jay Sawvel said he has heard the stereotype that Big Ten programs lag in athleticism.
It was justified at times, Sawvel said.
But the narrative can change. This bowl season helped. The Big Ten and SEC split four postseason meetings.
In four years at Minnesota with Jerry Kill, Sawvel said, he has found the Gophers received well by recruits. That reception has improved as Minnesota notched wins in the past 15 months over Penn State, Nebraska twice and Michigan.
“Our conference is known everywhere,” Sawvel said, “but it needed a step up in legitimacy. I think Ohio State’s run and what happened in other bowl games helped that a little bit. But what has to happen for the conference as a whole is for one through 14 to step up.”
Illinois recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh sees a change, too.
“It’s raised some eyebrows,” said Golesh, an Ohio State graduate who coaches tight ends and running backs for the Illini.
Golesh said he’s happy to use talk of a general upswing among the Big Ten as a selling point for Illinois in recruiting. He won’t go much further, though.
For instance, he has not talked once about Harbaugh with a recruit. How about Ohio State, which plays at Illinois in November?
“You find out what’s going to make the kid tick. You sell your program, your product, your fit and your coaching staff,” Golesh said this week while recruiting in Nashville. “I don’t think we’d bring up the success of another school unless you absolutely have to.”
"A lot of times schools from the South that come recruiting in our part of the country, part of their pitch is, 'If you want to play great football, you have to come to the South.' That's a tough sell nowadays. After this bowl season, you'd be hard-pressed to make that pitch to a recruit."Rutgers coach Kyle Flood
It’s no different at Michigan State, which claims four 11-win seasons in the past five years -- a record matched in the Big Ten only by the Buckeyes.
“We’re selling results,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday. “When we first came here, we were selling hope. We’re not selling hope now. That’s probably as big a difference as anything. The results are there. We’re putting a lot of guys in the NFL. It’s not a myth. These things are happening.”
Hope isn’t always a bad thing to sell, though, especially if it’s justified. Wilson, entering his fifth year at Indiana, said the Hoosiers have upgraded recruiting significantly since 2011.
The former offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, Wilson watched Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas Tech elevate their programs in recent years. Some of it came through recruiting success aided by competing every year with Texas and Oklahoma.
The Big Ten East necessitates a similar climb as top programs continue to raise the bar. Wilson said his staff doesn’t blink at the rising challenge.
“It enhances recruiting,” Wilson said. “Look at what Michigan State has done. At the end of the day, the power of the Big Ten is a positive. We have sold that in recruiting. Great players want a chance to prove themselves against other great players.”
Harbaugh’s staff, with barely a month to build a recruiting class, fights to finish in this last week as five Big Ten teams rate among the national leaders in ESPN’s class rankings. Ohio State is seventh, followed by Penn State (12th), Michigan State (28th), Wisconsin (29th) and Nebraska (32nd).
For Flood at Rutgers, the selling points of the Big Ten are no different. He believed in the league before its recent turnaround.
When he shared his feelings last year about a one-loss league champion, recruits believed him. Still, Flood said, he knows they heard a different message from coaches outside the conference.
“A lot of times,” Flood said, “schools from the South that come recruiting in our part of the country, part of their pitch is, ‘If you want to play great football, you have to come to the South.’
“That’s a tough sell nowadays. After this bowl season, you’d be hard-pressed to make that pitch to a recruit.”