The state of Ohio dropped its “The Heart of It All” advertising campaign long ago, but the slogan could certainly still apply to recruiting when it comes to the Big Ten.
The Buckeye State produces not only more than half of the new football Buckeyes almost every year but also a significant number of Wolverines, Spartans, Badgers, etc.
Of course, that is not news to the head coaches of those programs.
It probably explains why Wisconsin, a winner of the past two Big Ten championships and five in the past 20 years after going 30 seasons with none, has a pair of assistants assigned to recruiting the state.
It’s also why Michigan signed nine Ohioans last February and already has nine verbally committed for 2013.
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio signed seven Ohioans in 2012, giving him 24 natives of the state on his roster when the Spartans beat the Buckeyes last season for the first time since the turn of the century.
Then, of course, there is Ohio State, where Ashtabula native Urban Meyer has pledged to scour the country for the nation’s best football players but started his first full recruiting cycle as the Buckeyes’ head coach by snagging five-star southwestern Ohio prospects Jalin Marshall of Middletown and Cameron Burrows of Trotwood-Madison.
“It’s as strong as it’s ever been,” said Meyer, who last coached in his home state at Bowling Green in 2002. “One of the neat things about recruiting Ohio kids is that Ohio high school coaches are very involved. That makes it fun. You don’t have to deal with the seven-on-seven coaches. You’re not dealing with the uncle. Every once in a while you run into that, but for the most part, it’s been that way for as far back as I remember. I think Ohio is one of the top two or three coached states in America.”
Brady Hoke, preparing for his second season as head coach at Michigan and an Ohio native as well, pointed out Ohio has always been a key recruiting ground for the Wolverines. The Kettering native noted coaching and population are a key combination in the state’s prolific production of players.
"There's an awful lot of football players in the state of Ohio,” Hoke said. “It's always an emphasis. It's always been emphasized at a high level. I grew up there. We weren't very good, but we had the support."
There are plenty of players to go around, but the competition for the cream of the crop figures to be as fierce as ever, especially with more than just “the Big 2” battling for their services.
The growth of Dantonio’s MSU program into a 2010 Big Ten co-champion and a Big Ten championship game qualifier last season benefited from the downturn in the Michigan program prior to Hoke’s arrival as well as a greater concentration on out-of-state recruiting by former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel during the latter years of his tenure. The Spartans head coach, a Zanesville High School alumnus, sounded confident he can continue his team’s current run in his old backyard.
“I think we can maintain our relationships with (high school) coaches, but every year it's different players,” Dantonio said. “Coaches only take you so long, but I think if you treat people with integrity and are honest with them and establish strong relationships with them which I think we've done to the best of our abilities and are honest then those channels are going to always be open."
At Wisconsin, Bielema signed seven Ohioans in 2012 after bringing in four in 2011 and six in 2010. This year he is attacking the state without a key lieutenant, however, as recruiting coordinator Joe Rudolph left to become offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh. Rudolph is from western Pennsylvania but spent four years on Tressel’s staff at Ohio State in the middle of the past decade. He spearheaded recruiting of Ohio, a job that now falls to new Badger assistants Zach Azzanni and Eddie Faulkner.
"We divide Ohio into two different spots, but my recruiting coordinator was Joe Rudolph, who did the Cincinnati area, which is an area that's been very productive for us,” Bielema said. "Zach Azzani is doing a tremendous job for us. Eddie Faulkner handles the northern end of it. I know with my new hires I've probably had the best recruiting staff that I've had since I started."
Meyer returns to Ohio after two years at Utah and six at Florida. He had to fight two traditional in-state powers at the latter stop, something he does not have to worry about in Ohio. But if Ohio and Florida have anything in common, it’s that interlopers will be coming from across the state borders.
“It was tough at Florida because you have not just three schools – three powerful schools with powerful alumni bases and powerful fans,” Meyer said. “That was unique. Texas has two. California has several. Ohio – our neighboring states are knee-deep in it because there are such great players and great coaches. It is a little different.”
Although he has the luxury of living on top of a rich recruiting ground, Meyer knows he cannot live on Ohio recruits alone. That notion is also fed by the perception that more speed can be found among players from warmer climates, although Ohio historically produced such speedsters as Ted Ginn Jr. and Joey Galloway in scarlet and gray, not to mention Michigan’s Desmond Howard.
“You look at some of the great players Jim had historically – a lot of them are Ohio guys,” Meyer said. “We’ll cherry pick outside the state and speed is one of the things we’ll go look for. It’s not because a lack of, but that’s the same in Florida. Percy Harvin was from Virginia. Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey were from Florida. We’ll go cherry pick.”