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October 19, 2012

Big Ten above the fray? Not so fast

MORE: Hoosiers making noise

Turns out, last winter's spat between Big Ten coaches resulted in more than a few cheap headlines and a temporary spike in page views for a opportunistic media outlet or two.

The remnants still bubble under the surface.

Recalling the fallout doesn't take a sharp memory. When four-star tackler Kyle Dodson flipped his commitment from Wisconsin to Ohio State on Signing Day 2012, Badgers head coach Bret Bielema publicly chastised Urban Meyer for employing the practice of recruiting players committed to other Big Ten schools.

"I can tell you this," Bielema told Sporting News in February. "We at the Big Ten don't want to be like the SEC in any way, shape or form."

But the worlds are merging anyway. Both Bielema and Michigan State assistant coach Pat Narduzzi made reference to a "gentlemen's agreement" between coaches in the conference to lay off of players verbally pledged to other member institutions. Less than a year later, the landscape is changing. Then, earthquakes tend to have that effect.

If such an agreement ever existed -- and it's unclear if it did -- it has since been chopped into confetti and set ablaze. There is no pact. There is no moral high ground -- imaginary or otherwise. Not anymore. Not since the public dustup.

Eight months after the argument, Big Ten coaches continue to walk on eggshells when discussing the topic. Was there ever a gentlemen's agreement? If so, was it dissolved in a ceremonial vat of acid this winter? They're questions that, even now, nobody wants to answer directly.

"I can't speak for all the coaches in the league, so you'll have to ask them if it's becoming more common," said Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who has been at the school since 2006. "As far as a gentlemen's agreement, I've never heard of anything of that nature.

"At the same time, I'm not going to have kids commit to another school and call me to say they want to visit. I tell them, 'that's great. If you want to visit, pick up the phone and call the other school to tell them you are no longer committed.'"

These days, the Big Ten features less finger-pointing and more action. Legends, Leaders; it doesn't really matter. Intraconference poachers are at work and becoming unabashed. Turns out, Big Ten recruiting practices are identical to that of every other conference. Just ask Illinois.

The Illini lost a commitment from defensive end Kenton Gibbs last month, and it didn't happen by accident. Gibbs received a nudge. The reason he gives for his change of heart is the kicker.

"Coach Bielema told me there was a lot of time between now and signing day," said Gibbs, who now lists Wisconsin as one of the favorites to secure his commitment. "I thought about it and realized he's right. I don't know everything about Illinois, so after I thought about it, I didn't see a reason that I shut down my recruitment."

Not very gentleman-like, is it?

It's easy to call the move hypocritical. It's just as easy, however, to see it as the Big Ten deciding to join 2012. For better or worse, the nature of today's recruiting beast is as such:

"A bunch of other Big Ten schools still recruited me (while committed to Illinois)," Gibbs said. "It's not like they were going to stop calling me or telling my coaches to have me call them."

Gibbs is by no means the only example. David Kenney, the No. 10 weakside defensive end in America, broke his commitment to Iowa recently and now seems on the verge of making a pledge to Indiana. Four-star cornerback Keelon Brookins flipped from Minnesota to Wisconsin in July.

The modern age has officially reached the upper Midwest.

"The days of unspoken rules and silent respect for the committed are long gone," said Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell. "College football is a cutthroat business with big dollars on the line and you either play ball the way everyone else does or you're in the unemployment line. The Big Ten needed Urban Meyer to boost them into this age of recruiting."

Nebraska's Bo Pelini, though not exactly trumpeting his thoughts on the matter, is possibly the most forthright when it comes to the changing paradigm. His take is simple: If a committed player can help the Huskers shows interest in the program, he'll be recruited.

"I don't know if when a kids committed that means he's done," Pelini said. "Some kids are and some guys aren't. A lot of times, it's based on if they show interest in us. If he fits our program, we'll continue to recruit him. We're not going to actively go after somebody who is committed. It all depends on what's coming from them.

"We don't get into it very much and I don't think most of the league schools do it very much, either.

They're certainly starting to, though. And maybe that's fine.



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