Phil Harrison

Harrison: How The Big Ten Got Its Mojo Back

The Big Ten is no longer the laughing stock of the power-five conferences. Just how did it get back to the top of public perception?

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It wasn’t long ago when the Big Ten was a punching bag for other parts of the country.

Between grits and sweet tea, those from the SEC laughed at the very notion of the conference being able to stand toe-to-toe with the speed and athleticism in the southeast.

Out west, as folks were enjoying their Starbucks, wine, and fusion salads, they all scoffed at the Big Ten’s abilities to match the glitz and glamour of teams like USC, UCLA and Oregon.

And who could blame them? There were some flashes of success, but more often than not teams like Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State often flailed and flopped like a fish out of water on the big stage and fed into the perceptional reality.

But that’s not the case any longer.

A turn in fortunes

There are those who still refuse to give the conference credit for a revival of sorts, but there have been clear signs and results to state otherwise. Ohio State won a national title by running right through the heart of the south by beating big, bad Alabama, and then dismantling a flashy Oregon squad in 2014 to complete the deal.

Also in 2014, Michigan State beat an explosive Baylor team in the Cotton Bowl, and Wisconsin beat Auburn from the SEC in the Outback Bowl.

There’s been more, too. Last year, the Big Ten had several teams kicking the door down at the top of the College Football Playoff all the way through the end of the season. Three teams got into the New Year’s Six bowl games.

And now comes this year.

Yeah, North Dakota State beat Iowa, and Western Michigan is the best Big Ten team in Illinois, but it’s been a terrific September for the conference.

In Week One, Wisconsin took down a roster full of NFL talent when it kicked aside LSU in Green Bay.

Two Saturdays ago was a banner week with Ohio State beating Oklahoma in Norman, Michigan State taking care of business in South Bend, and Nebraska notching a win against Oregon at home.

And although the Coaches and AP rankings don’t mean squat in the grand scheme of things, it does speak to the turn in perception, with three Big Ten teams appearing in the Top Ten of both.

So what happened? How did the Big Ten go from a conference perceived to be just a bit better than the MAC, get its bearings straight and right the ship in just a couple of years?

Haul in the big fish

The league now has big-time coaches. Coaches, you could argue, that are a bigger name brand than the schools they represent. Don’t believe it? Then maybe this will change your mind:

Yes, it all started with the hiring of Urban Meyer. No offense to Jim Tressel who was more than fine in his own right and could rock a sweater-vest, but the hiring of Meyer on November 28, 2011 made a statement that Ohio State was ready to once again compete — and win — national titles by throwing money at the problem.

You know the numbers to some extent – Meyer is flat-out getting paid. And so are his assistant coaches, but he’s not the only rockstar coach making waves in the Big Ten.

When Ohio State is having success, a certain School Up North begins to throw up in its mouth a little. So … in comes Jim Harbaugh, his khakis, and his Twitter handle.

Harbaugh has quickly turned Michigan into a winner again. He and Meyer are destined to have a few exchanges in the media, and a few awkward moments on the football field for years to come unless one gets the itch for the NFL.

That’s not all either. Penn State went out and got Bill O’Brien and then James Franklin. The success has yet to follow in Happy Valley, but the recruits and brand-names are there and something’s bound to begin to build at the foot of Mount Nittany.

If not, the administration will likely give it a go with another big-name to try and reel in the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State.

It’ll take time, but Illinois is now also trying to close the gap with the hiring of Lovie Smith. In fact, there are several former NFL head coaches now in the Big Ten – four at the moment.

Ohio State even has a former NFL head man on staff as an assistant coach with Greg Schiano calling the shots on defense.

Nick Saban at Alabama and Bobby Petrino at Louisville are the only other former NFL head coaches wearing the headset for the remaining Power Five conference teams.

Mark Dantonio figured things out at Michigan State, but by and large, the hiring of Meyer has brought about an arms race of sorts in the conference that until that time, held on to what has always been a yearly inflow of cash from media, royalties, and licensing that could fill a fleet of Brink trucks.

The Big Ten, and not the SEC, has in fact pull in more cash than the SEC, in most years, even in the lean years.

A passing of the baton?

As these better coaches are now entering the league and establishing themselves, the pendulum has begun to swing. The SEC is still a solid conference, but the coaches, and players in the Big Ten are now on equal footing — and if hasn’t happened already — are on the cusp of surpassing the league from top to bottom.

The Big Ten has the best non-conference record than any of the other Power Five conferences this year at 32-8. That stat used to belong to the SEC almost yearly. The Big Ten East might just be the best division in college football — not the SEC West– and certainly not the SEC East. Big Ten teams are starting to appear more frequently in the upper crust of recruiting rankings.

And you can bet the SEC knows it and is feeling the pinch. It has turned straight-up hypocritical with some of the criticism of things coming out of the Big Ten:

But it started with Meyer. He’s the only current head coach in the Big Ten with a national championship and he’s on the prowl for more, and he’s bring the rest of the league with him.

Like in past years of Big Ten glory however, it might be the head coach of the Maize and Blue standing in the door frame, refusing to let him kick it in. Or it might be a Les Miles or Tom Herman in the near future. You never know.

As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats.

Phil Harrison is the lead Big Ten writer for Catch his analysis and opinion all-season long.