In a week in which USC was stripped of their one BCS title and Ohio State continued on its merry road to NCAA hell, I’m thinking about the parallels between the two programs. Both hired new coaches for the 2001 season. Both had growing pains in 2001 before dominating their conferences in the rest of the decade. Now, it turns out that both were looking the other way while their players received improper benefits.
So here’s my hypothesis: Ohio State and USC are similar programs in that they sit in the best recruiting areas in their respective conferences. There are more players from Ohio on Big Ten rosters than there are from other states. Ditto for players from Southern California on Pac Ten rosters. USC and Ohio State dominated the Pac Ten and the Big Ten in the Aughts by controlling local talent. (If I had a nickel for every reference to Jim Tressel’s proverbial wall around Ohio.) With fans following recruiting to an increased degree on Rivals and the like, keeping top talent at home became more of a priority for these programs. Nothing will anger Ohio State fans more than Ohio players going to Michigan and coming back to haunt the Buckeyes. (Ask an Ohio State fan about what state produced Michigan’s two Heisman winners in the 90s.) Thus, both USC and Ohio State had an incentive to look the other way on rule-breaking in order to create an environment that would be attractive for recruits. Because instate recruits are more likely to visit campus frequently and their coaches will be plugged into what’s going on at the major school in the area, a reputation that players get extra benefits will be especially valuable in keeping local talent.
If this hypothesis is right, then members of the Big Ten and Pac Ten ought to be royally pissed at Ohio State and USC for creating an uneven playing field. Big Ten programs rely on Ohio and Pac Ten programs rely on SoCal. USC and Ohio State dominating in-state recruiting was a zero sum game. Not only were they locking up top talent, but they were doing so at the expense of their conference rivals. USC cheating to keep the best players in Southern California is different than Washington or Arizona hypothetically cheating to keep their in-state players at home because there are a lot more top players in former area. It’s the difference between taking money from the petty cash box and robbing a bank. Also, dominating in-state recruiting by using a reputation for extra benefits is different than cheating to to get out-of-state talent because the former is zero-sum. Ohio State beating Florida to a top player in the Sunshine State only impacts Big Ten teams in that they have to play that player; Ohio State beating Michigan and Penn State for a top player in Ohio is worse because Ohio State gains a player and their biggest rivals lose one. Breaking rules to keep players in the conference’s most fertile recruiting ground is a zero sum game.
If this hypothesis is right, then we ought to give extra credit to Texas, as it is the third school that fits the description of USC and Ohio State. Assuming that this description is correct and trumps Rachel McCoy's inadvertent admission, then Mack Brown and Texas deserve compliments for avoiding the temptation to employ every means – legal and otherwise – to lock up the talent in Texas upon which the rest of the conference depends. Texas hasn't dominated the Big XII in the same way that Ohio State and USC dominated the Big Ten and Pac Ten and Texas's apparent ethical behavior might be the reason why. Then again, it might be a simple matter that Oklahoma has Bob Stoops, a superior coach to the guys in charge at Ohio State and USC’s traditional rivals in the Aughts.
As far as our favorite conference is concerned, the SEC has its own cheating issues, but talent is too diffuse for a similar situation to spring up. Because there are plenty of blue chip players throughout the region, there is no one school sitting in a recruiting area upon which they and the rest of the conference relies. Thus, no school has such a strong incentive to improve its own place and screw its rivals at the same time by ignoring rules violations that aid in recruiting. I never thought I’d write a post concluding that, in at least one respect, there are lesser incentives to cheat in the SEC than there are elsewhere, but there you go.