Ever since he took the Ohio State job, Urban Meyer has seemed to go out of his way to piss off his counterparts across the Big Ten. But that's only reasonable, when you consider that he came to Columbus after his stint at Florida, right in the thick of the long-running reality show that is the SEC.
That's the conference where recruiting battles reach their crescendo with a mom running away with the papers before her son can sign his Letter of Intent, where a promise isn't a promise, even when it's branded in ink. Where coaches have figured out that most direct route to a high schooler's heart is through his girlfriend. It's a conference where the old saying, "If you're not cheating, you're not trying", is taken to heart, by fans and coaches alike, because, as the corollary goes, it's only cheating if you get caught. It's a conference where student-athletes are commodities to be tossed aside when the next big thing comes knocking.
And sure enough, it's a conference that's experienced a period of unprecedented dominance on the field, at least at its highest levels. The Alabamas and the LSUs and the Floridas of the college football world need only point to their trophy cases to prove that. As Penn State fans, and Big Ten fans, we can bitch and moan that the playing field isn't really level, but the fact is: that's of our own doing.
This is all a roundabout way of getting to the heart of the matter, but it's important to note the distinct philosophical difference between Urban Meyer and the rest of the Big Ten. For him, it's win at all costs, for the rest of us, more or less, it's a matter of self-respect. Although Bret Bielema lost any and all credibility he ever had by bailing on Wisconsin to take the job in Arkansas, he was right, a year ago, when he defended the Big Ten's honor and its gentlemen's agreements: "We at the Big Ten don't want to be like the SEC," Bielema said, "in any way, shape or form." Jim Tressel, like him or not, got that. He might've found himself embroiled too often in off-the-field scandals, but when it came to recruiting, he proved you didn't have to trample all over the very ideal of the Big Ten in order to succeed--or even to dominate--within it.
The SEC can boast the last seven national championships, but the Big Ten's led the country in Academic All-Americans for eight years. The SEC sends more kids into the NFL, but the Big Ten does a whole lot better preparing their student-athletes who go pro in something other than sports. Sure, maybe it's just a lame attempt at self-rationalization, but I firmly believe that when Joe Paterno said that success without honor wasn't something worth striving for, he set the tone not just for Penn State, but for most of its conference mates. He, of course, won some battles but lost the war; Nick Saban and Les Miles and Lane Kiffin and Urban Meyer are the progeny of the Jackie Sherrills and Barry Switzers of the world to whom Paterno refused to leave college football. Now, though, Urban Meyer wants to bring their mentality to Ohio State, and to the rest of the Big Ten, the last bastion of old-school values in big-time college football (Vanderbilt, Stanford, and some others notwithstanding).
There are a lot of readers, I'm sure, who I've just lost. They're probably doing this. But really? I don't care. That's their problem, not ours. I'll never be ashamed to be a Penn State fan, and I'll never be anything less than proud to be a part of a conference where, by and large, a team's won/loss record isn't the only thing that matters, much less its recruiting ranking. Here, Commencement Day is more important than National Signing Day. This isn't sour grapes: It's pride. The South still unabashedly honors a war that they were on the wrong side of. They commemorate the losing side of history that's long been left behind. Who's to say we can't do the same? At the very least, our romanticism is of a truly better time; we're to be admonished for our naivete, not reviled for our ignorance.
Anyway, all that adds up to make Urban Meyer's latest outburst even more insufferable. Now, you see, Urbz is throwing a bit of a tantrum because the rest of the Big Ten just can't catch up to the SEC, where even historically horrible programs can pull in recruits of national renown--among the Big Ten schools with more conference wins than Ole Miss over the past few years include Minnesota, Illinois, and Purdue. And everyone else not named Indiana. But Urban's not saying this because he really wants to raise the comparative level of competition within the Big Ten. Hate all you want, but this isn't pure hubris, either--he's not daring the rest of the conference to rise up and challenge Ohio State. Maybe, Meyer's worried that an undefeated Buckeye team wouldn't get credit for beating up on a bunch of overmatched conference foes.
Here's the thing, though: in the SEC, admonishing a school's recruiting prowess is fighting words. Here, it just prompts eye-rolls.
Never mind, of course, the fact that Michigan matched his recruiting class pretty much to a T, that Penn State would've been well on its way to doing just that if it weren't for the sheer egomania of Mark Emmert, and that Nebraska had a class on the verge of the top 10--much less the sheer presumptuousness of Meyer's douchery. And lest you think maybe Urbz was ust joking, let me ask you this: have you ever seen the man crack a smile? I'm not sure he understands the concept of humor. He's certainly showed in the last few days that he has no sense of irony--I'm sure if Bill O'Brien saw that quote, he'd have a few choice words for Meyer, or at least one choice finger. The best case scenario is that Meyer's just a pure concern troll. And that's the best case scenario.
But here's the thing, Urban: If you're going to talk the talk, you've got to walk the walk. To paraphrase Eminem, how you gonna trash talk us, Urbz, you just lost a top recruit! And not just any recruit, but a punter? A PUNTER? We built this conference on punting! Suffice it to say, this never would've happened if Jim Tressel was still in Columbus.
Oh, and what's that? Johnny Townsend ditched Ohio State for Florida? The same Florida that Urban Meyer burnt to the ground? The same Florida that Urban Meyer burnt to the ground so thoroughly that, in trying to sway a top prospect, he said he wouldn't send his son there, because of the dysfunction he helped foster?
Okay, that's trolling.
But you know what? Maybe there are some lessons he can teach the rest of the conference. Maybe that was one of them. I just wish I could get a syllabus of Recruiting 101 with Professor Meyer. Do you think he'd jump right in to "God told me in a dream that you belong at [insert school here]", or is that reserved for later in the semester? When does he break out "how to harass a prospect's coaches"? What other tricks, lifted straight from the SEC, does he have up his sleeve, ready to break out to a notebook-clutching cadre of Big Ten coaches? Surely, we have much to learn.
Brady Hoke's proven that you don't have to be a pompous ass to be an effective recruiter, even in the Big Ten. Quietly, and without drama, he just compiled one of the best classes in the nation. Unfortunately, I don't think that concept--humility--has even crossed Urban Meyer's mind.
It's a sad fact that for the next half-decade or so, barring a minor miracle in Governor Corbett's lawsuit against the NCAA, Penn State won't be able to really compete with the Buckeyes. By the time the Nittany Lions are a force again on the recruiting trail and on the gridiron, odds are that Meyer will be gone--I'm impressed that he's gone this long at Oho State without retiring even once. It's a damn shame that Bill O'Brien won't get a fair shot to give Urban Meyer his comeuppance, but the rest of the Big Ten will be lining up for their chance. While Ohio State loads up, and most of the rest of the conference willingly lags behind, Meyer's firmly painted a target on his team's back.
The SEC might be the only conference where a school's fans will root for their rivals, but here in the Big Ten, we've all got two favorite teams now: Ours, and whoever's playing Ohio State.
And maybe, just sometimes, the North will rise again.