INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 03: Head coach Bret Bielema of the Wisconsin Badgers looks on against the Michigan State Spartans during the Big 10 Conference Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 3, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Bret Bielema doesn't like Urban Meyer's relentless recruiting style, preferring a system that's easier for Wisconsin, but not as good for recruits themselves.
On National Signing Day, former Wisconsin Badgers commit Kyle Dodson announced he'll instead play for the Ohio St. Buckeyes. Wisconsin thus became the next Big Ten school to fall victim to Urban Meyer's recruiting tactics, joining Penn State and Michigan State in giving up a four-star player to Columbus. Before Wednesday had ended, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema had already publicly accused Meyer of "illegal" recruiting and said he'd called to tell him to cut it out.
One day later, Bielema talked to the Sporting News, saying he'd taken it to his athletic director and the conference commissioner while listing only one specific issue he had with Meyer.
One issue Bielema would talk about -- and it's perfectly legal under current NCAA rules -- is Meyer's recruitment of players who already had given verbal commitments to other Big Ten schools. It has been a longstanding "gentlemen's agreement" in the league that coaches wouldn't recruit players who had publicly given commitments to schools.
He wasn't alone in preferring the Big Ten's traditionally un-warlike recruiting atmosphere. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio, who lost top-10 defensive end Se'Von Pittman to Ohio State, called Meyer "pretty unethical." (Worth noting Meyer's new archrival, Michigan coach Brady Hoke, sees no problem with open season.) And it calls to mind former Purdue coach Joe Tiller's "wizard hat" comments about Rich Rodriguez after Roy Roundtree switched sides. But Bielema's made the biggest fuss about it this time around.
If Meyer's actually broken NCAA rules in his weeks in Columbus and Bielema has proof, then we'll assume the matter's already been passed along. But regarding Bielema's notion that a verbal commitment, which either a coach or recruit can break without any penalty, should bind against open market competition, it's easy to see he's wrong. If there is a gentleman's agreement in place, then it's only good for coaches, not recruits.
It would be easy to call Bielema a bully, someone who only wants to fight when he has the advantage. From scoring 142 points in two games against Indiana to going for two while up by 25 against Minnesota to playing maybe the nation's least-ambitious out-of-conference scheduling, Wisconsin's got no problem with throwing its weight around on the field and when deciding which teams to play. Relentless competition during fourth quarters of games against basketball schools, but not in recruiting.
But it's worse than that. If Bielema doesn't like having to outwork a superior foe, then that's on him. But the idea that Big Ten recruits shouldn't get to go through the same process as Pac-12, Big 12 or SEC kids is a Big Ten problem, not just a Bielema problem.
In a way, being the subject of post-commitment recruiting by another school gives a kid an agency that he doesn't have if a verbal is an instant hands-off signal. Lest we forget, recruits aren't products being stolen by rival institutions, but people making choices of their own. If a recruit hears a better pitch than the one he's tentatively agreed to, then good for him for having the chance to take it.
Meyer has explained it simply. He contacts recruits who've committed elsewhere, asking them if they're interested in his school. If they aren't, he moves along. If they are, then game on. As we've seen, many of them are.
We can be sure every five-star recruit in California, Texas or the Southeast ends up at exactly the place he really wants to be, no matter where he may have committed back in August. But in a more gentlemanly region, the same market isn't at play. The first school to win him over keeps him, and that's that.
No, Meyer isn't embarrassing the rest of the Big Ten's coaches just for the benefit of students. But blaming him and him alone for a decommit is like blaming the other guy for an unfaithful spouse or a poached employee. It takes two responsible adults, and pinning it all on Meyer is meant to make us forget Dodson and Pittman, grown-ass men with minds of their own, would rather play for Meyer than for Bielema or Dantonio. That kind of thing hurts sometimes.
Plus, doesn't this just tell future recruits that Bielema isn't going to be willing to fight for them?
"We at the Big Ten don’t want to be like the SEC in any way, shape or form," Bielema said on Signing Day, leading to instant jokes about national championships and Ohio State's bowl history against the SEC. He's right to think the Big Ten shouldn't cost itself its standards, but in a changing college football world, where schools can compete down to the number of years worth of scholarships being offered, the Big Ten would be wise to let a true recruiting market take over.
Meyer loves the competitive aspect of recruiting. He's said before he wants to have the No. 1-rated recruiting class every year, even though he knows ratings are meaningless. To SEC and Pac-12 coaches, recruiting is the same as it is to many of us: the second sport of college football. Some Big Ten coaches don't feel the same way, and that's bad not only for the conference's postseason chances, but bad for recruits as well.