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COLUMBUS — A year ago, after Ohio State mowed through what came to resemble the Big One and the Little 11, coach Urban Meyer pointedly said the conference needed to improve.
Careful what you wish for?
Probably not, but Meyer’s world is changing.
The Buckeyes’ path in the new Big Ten East will be meatier than expected as the nation’s richest conference — a league whose resources and tradition have badly outstripped its on-field success — is suddenly beginning to flex its financial muscle.
Take last week as a snapshot.
There was Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio telling a rapturous basketball crowd at the Breslin Center, “We will be back!”
The Spartans beat OSU in the Big Ten title game, took down Stanford in the Rose Bowl, and finished third nationally for its highest ranking since being No. 2 in 1966. Dantonio brushed off overtures, instead signing a new pact reportedly worth $4 million per year.
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There was Michigan throwing cartoonish bags of cash at one of the nation’s highest-profile assistants to fix its woeful offense. Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier made $680,000 last year and — according to multiple national reports — will bank at least $850,000 as one of the five highest-paid assistants in college football. (The contract is not yet available, and Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon debunked the reported figures.)
There was Penn State introducing Vanderbilt’s James Franklin as its next head coach, the traditionally plain power diving into the modern era with a cannonball splash. Long past are the antiquated days of 2010, when the late Joe Paterno gladly collected $1 million. Franklin will make $4 million this year.
While Penn State still faces sanctions — scholarship limitations and two more years of a bowl ban — the darkness continues to lift from a sex-abuse scandal that left its storied football program one step short of the death penalty. The 41-year-old Franklin transformed a longtime doormat into a top-25 program at Vanderbilt, and promised the Nittany Lions would soon be back as national contenders in a swaggering introductory press conference.
“We are going to dominate the state,” Franklin said about recruiting. “We are going to dominate the region.”
Back in Ohio, Meyer’s right-hand man and Buckeyes director of player personnel Mark Pantoni posted on Twitter, “B1G conference got better today.”
What all this means for Ohio State remains to be seen.
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The loss to Michigan State aside, the Buckeyes remain the league’s kingfish. For all the promise of the Spartans’ thrilling Rose Bowl win, it was their first BCS appearance. Ohio State’s 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl was its national-best 10th.
The Buckeyes are 24-2 in Meyer’s first two seasons and continue to clean up in recruiting, both in-state in a backyard that serves as the North’s most fertile base and beyond.
Per Rivals.com, OSU is on course to sign a second straight No. 2-ranked recruiting class. Penn State’s haul is the next highest at 16th while Michigan (25th), Wisconsin (27th), Nebraska (33rd), and Michigan State (34th) fall behind.
Yet the landscape is changing. It was only 2012 when MSU went 7-6, Michigan descended back to the mean, and Bret Bielema cited Wisconsin’s inability to competitively compensate his assistants in bolting for Arkansas of the Southeastern Conference. Ohio State’s two top rivals in the Leaders Division, Wisconsin and Penn State, went a combined 16-10.
Now a league-wide commitment to narrow the gap on the SEC — the winners of seven straight national championships before Florida State overthrew Auburn in last week’s final BCS title game — is assuming a new urgency. With MSU keeping Dantonio and Penn State luring Franklin, five of the nation’s 11 highest-paid coaches reside in the Big Ten. The others are Meyer ($4.3 million), Michigan’s Brady Hoke ($4.15 million), and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz ($4 million).
The cash-grab additions of Maryland and Rutgers — a debated move that expands the Big Ten’s reach but dilutes its football — also incidentally leaves OSU with a more challenging road in a realigned seven-team division. Along with Indiana, Maryland, and Rutgers, the East includes the Big Four of OSU, Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State.
Michigan State’s 42 wins during the last four years proved 2012 was an aberration, while Michigan, which has lost at least five games in five of the past six seasons, and Penn State have too much support, history, and — most importantly — resources to not be snoozing giants. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, Michigan, OSU, and Penn State all pulled in at least $59 million in football revenue as the league’s three richest programs.
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Penn State presents an especially intriguing case, with the worst-case scenario of two years ago giving way to the best case of today.
At Vanderbilt, an academic power miscast in the nation’s top football conference, Franklin reportedly made $3 million per year and was enjoying unprecedented success. He was one of the nation’s hottest coaches, the man behind the Commodores’ three straight nine-win seasons and back-to-back top-25 finishes — just the second and third time in the program’s 124-year history they were ranked in a season-ending poll. His 2014 recruiting class ranked among the top 25 nationally.
Yet the suburban Philadelphia native wanted to come to State College, and Penn State made the commitment, instantly enhancing the stock of a program and the conference.
Franklin won the press conference running away. He called Penn State his dream job, promised Beaver Stadium would be filled 107,000 strong every Saturday, vowed to never turn down a requested appearance — “People ask us to blow up balloons at their kid’s birthday party in the backyard, we’ll do that,” he said — and, of course, said PSU would dominate the region in recruiting.
Perhaps Franklin meant the Mid-Atlantic region. (Penn State has not swiped a four-star recruit from Ohio since Youngstown linebacker Michael Zordich crossed the border in 2008.) But a reporter asked if that could be taken as a warning to Meyer.
“You can take it as a guy that is passionate about being at Penn State,” Franklin said. “You can take it as a guy who takes tremendous pride in the high school players from this state. You can take it as a guy that has the utmost respect for the high school coaches in this state. ... We’re going to focus on us, and by focusing on us, we’re going to be able to reach our dreams.”
Ohio State remains the big dog, but per Meyer’s wish, the gap may be closing.