• Big Ten Battlegrounds: Take a look at the map for a data visualization of Big Ten recruiting during the past decade.
• Big Ten Turf War: See the research of the region's recruiting battle lines, past and present (Click here for the PDF)
• High School Hotbed: Also, check out the top high schools producing Big Ten recruits
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Winter in the Rust Belt.
Red dust settled on the windshield of a Lincoln Mercury, a morning greeting from the steel plants.
A Big Ten assistant coach pulled out of his hotel parking lot before dawn, punching the clock in the hottest high school football factory in the Midwest.
For nine winters, Glen Mason lived there. Before NCAA rules restricted contact with prospects. When the only limit on success was a man's work ethic.
He worked for Ohio State, toting his sales pitch to some of America's best gridiron towns. He bumped into rival coaches on highways, in diners, outside the principal's office.
Those days, assistants decided which prospects to pursue. Often, scholarship offers didn't come until right before signing day. Which is how Mason ended up at a basketball game in the winter of 1986.
At Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown.
Notre Dame wanted the kid. So did Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa. Mason had his work cut out.
That night, he witnessed toughness and tenacity rare even in the blue-collar, hard-luck Mahoning Valley.
He saw Bo Pelini play basketball and thought, “That guy's a football player.”
Twenty-five years later, Rust Belt economies have changed. So have the Big Ten and Bo Pelini.
But zoom in on the recruiting road map. Study the scholarship numbers from 2002-11, as The World-Herald did.
Ohio is still the manufacturing center for Big Ten football. A recruiting jackpot. Win battles in the Ohio high school hallways today, win conference championships in sold-out stadiums tomorrow.
“For us, Texas was the state you had to recruit to be competitive in the Big 12,” said John Papuchis, Nebraska's recruiting coordinator. “You could make the same argument for Ohio in the Big Ten.”
Consider the facts:
• Ohio, the third-largest state in the Big Ten footprint, sent 414 scholarship recruits to Big Ten schools over the past decade. Illinois was next in line with 259.
•Ohio had 741 players on FBS rosters in 2009, according to a Tulsa World report. That ranked fourth nationally (behind Texas, California and Florida) and exceeded the combined totals of Michigan and Illinois (709). Pennsylvania was second in the Big Ten with 401.
•Ohio has five of the top 20 metro areas in America in terms of producing FBS football recruits. Pittsburgh (20th) was the only other non-Sun Belt city on the list.
•Sixty-one percent of Ohio State recruits the past decade came from Ohio, by far the largest in-state percentage for a Big Ten school.
It's no coincidence the Buckeyes have won or shared six straight Big Ten championships.
Into this scene walks Nebraska, the Big Ten's fresh face.
Pelini and his coordinators grew up in Youngstown — “I know people all over the place in Ohio,” Bo says.
More important: The Buckeyes are soon to be hit with NCAA probation. Ohio State, Mason said, is “a wounded animal.”
“The whole Midwest opens up for Nebraska now,” said Chris Spielman, former Ohio high school legend and Pelini teammate at Ohio State.
“I think Bo is wise enough to tap into his roots in Ohio, to try to open up some doors. ... This is kind of an opening that Bo needs.”
Papuchis spent more than a week this spring in northern Ohio, learning the landscape, studying the five-county footprint that comprises the key battleground.
In southwest Ohio, Cincinnati and Dayton are thriving. Columbus is prolific in the center.
But most critical is a triangle in northeast Ohio — from Youngstown and Warren in the east, to Massillon and Canton 60 miles west, north 60 more to Cleveland.
That triangle covers 1,300 square miles (the same as a triangle from Omaha to Lincoln to Columbus) and contains 2.7 million people. Per capita, there's nothing comparable in the Midwest.
From 2002-11, the Ohio triangle churned out 182 Big Ten scholarship players. That's enough to stock an entire program.
Southeast Michigan produced roughly the same quantity, but with twice as many residents. Chicago produced roughly the same, but with roughly three times as many people.
These aren't simply warm bodies for the practice squad; they were stars during Ohio State's dominant decade: Troy Smith. Ted Ginn. Donte Whitner. Maurice Clarett. Beanie Wells. Dan Herron. Alex Boone. Kirk Barton.
From the triangle, Michigan landed Prescott Burgess, Mario Manningham and Shawn Crable. Northwestern got Barry Cofield. Iowa grabbed Ricky Stanzi from Lake County, just outside the triangle.
Why so many?
When recruiting took him to Youngstown, Glen Mason used to unwind at the Mahoning Valley Restaurant, an Italian place and favorite Cardinal Mooney hangout.
“All these guys would bring their families to the MVR,” Mason said. “They all grew up together, they went to high school together, they married girls from high school, all their kids played together. They had something there that money can't buy.
“They used to talk about the valley. Who would ever want to leave the Mahoning Valley? I used to think, gee, what's here? But they had roots there. A great feeling for the community.”
Friday night offered an outlet for that pride.
In today's world of Internet and cell phones, Mason said, kids don't spend hours in the backyard.
But Ohio is a still place where high school coaches drive players without fear that they'll quit. Still a place where strangers see the linebacker on the street and ask: You gonna win Friday?
“Some people might call it pressure, some people might call it emphasis,” Mason said. “But I think it really raises the performance of those kids.”
Soon Papuchis, like Mason 25 years ago, will be the young Big Ten assistant punching the clock.
He'll pass through Canton, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Birthplace of the first professional football league, in 1920. Dan Dierdorf and Todd Blackledge grew up there.
He'll pass through Massillon, where every baby boy at the hospital receives a miniature Tigers football. Where the best eighth-grade football players are held back one year — redshirted — so their bodies are more ready for Friday nights four years later.
Massillon vs. Canton McKinley may be the best high school rivalry in the country. Before Don James won a national championship at the University of Washington, he was a 17-year-old quarterback for Massillon.
Looking back, James said, he's never been that excited (or nervous) on a football field.
James credits the boom of Ohio football to Paul Brown, who won six state championships at Massillon in the 1930s.
“It was business,” James said. “He organized it and worked out kids year-round. He took it serious, instead of just playing nine or 10 games in the fall. That caught on.”
Brown won a national title at Ohio State. Then he founded the Browns and the Bengals. He mentored the game's next generation of great minds. Men like Weeb Ewbank, Ara Parseghian, Don Shula, Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh.
Brown was the patriarch of Ohio football, but another native son, Woody Hayes, represents the Big Ten. Hayes, prior to Ohio State, coached at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. You know who one of Hayes' first assistants was?
A man named Schembechler.
Enduring hard times
Papuchis will pass through towns where the game's best coaches learned to throw a spiral.
Through Ashtabula, where Urban Meyer grew up. And Painesville, Shula's home. Through Elyria, Les Miles' old stomping grounds. And Berea, Jim Tressel's backyard.
Through Kent, where Nick Saban got his first graduate assistant's job. Through Gary Pinkel's hometown, Akron, which is also home to one of the state's top football prospects last decade — LeBron James.
Through Alliance, where Len Dawson lit up the scoreboard.
Through Stow, home of Larry Csonka. Do football players get any tougher? Twenty miles up the road, the folks in Mantua might argue. They raised a kid named Jack Lambert.
Every one of those towns is in northeast Ohio. And most are in the 1,300-square-mile triangle.
Papuchis will see them all. He'll also see abandoned buildings.
U.S. population has dramatically shifted south the past half-century.
In 1960, Ohio had more people than Florida and Texas. Since then, Florida has grown by 14 million people, Texas by 16 million, both tripling in size.
Ohio has added less than 2 million, growing by just 18 percent. But industrial hubs like Youngstown are half the size they once were, victims of factory closings. Some of those guys at the MVR had to leave to find work.
On the way to Cardinal Mooney, Mason used to drive by Youngstown Sheet and Tube, one of the world's largest steel plants. It stretched for blocks. One day Mason drove by and the plant was gone, torn down.
“It was mind-boggling,” he said.
Football has moved south, too. And changed so much that Woody Hayes would barely recognize it.
It's a speed game now, with an emphasis on spreading the field and finding open receivers. Players in Florida, Texas, California and Georgia can play 7-on-7 outdoors 12 months a year.
Can the Rust Belt keep pace? Coaches wonder. What if unemployment keeps driving people south? What if hotbeds go cold?
It has happened in parts of western Pennsylvania. What if Ohio is next? What happens to the Big Ten?
Someday Ohio State and Michigan may have to worry. Not yet.
Not when a town of 45,000 (Warren) is still sending 16 players to Big Ten schools every decade, and four to the NFL.
Not when one-third of Jim Tressel's recruits grew up within 80 miles of Cleveland.
In the past decade, the Buckeyes signed more kids (17) from one Cleveland high school — Glenville — than from California, Texas, Illinois and Indiana combined.
In Ohio, the forces of tradition are stronger than economic evolution.
Bo's next move
Here's the question in Lincoln: Can the Big Ten's newest member take advantage of Pelini's connections and the Buckeyes' tumult? Momentum can turn quickly.
In 1987, a year after Pelini graduated from Cardinal Mooney, a star tailback was making headlines in Cleveland.
But Ohio State fired Earle Bruce that fall. And Desmond Howard didn't want to be part of rebuilding a program. He chose Michigan, where he won the Heisman Trophy.
“The first time I set foot on Ohio State's campus was in a maize and blue uniform,” Howard said.
Brady Hoke, the new Michigan man, has invested fully in Ohio. So has Michigan State's Mark Dantonio. Both are Ohio natives and both have seized top-tier prospects from the Buckeyes' backyard since Ohio State came under fire. Wisconsin and Iowa recruit Ohio intensely every year.
Is there room for Bo? “I would hope so,” he said this week.
Pelini nabbed two Ohioans in the 2011 class — Kevin Williams and Max Pirman. Blue-chip defensive end Greg McMullen is committed to the 2012 class.
Four former Big Ten coaches interviewed for this story had different takes on Nebraska's future recruiting in Ohio.
One said the Huskers can maintain their Texas and California ties and still have the right pieces to win a Big Ten championship. Don't change for the sake of change.
Another coach said they'd be crazy not to invest in Ohio, which is a better fit (both in culture and weather) than Texas ever was. Besides, Texans will be harder to lure now that Nebraska isn't playing there.
Mason, the former head coach at Kansas and Minnesota, warned against emphasizing too many recruiting areas. A coaching staff can spread itself too thin. But he suggested Nebraska start working the same roads he did 25 years ago. You never know what you'll see on Friday night in a slumping steel town.
Mason remembers Pelini crashing to the gym floor in pursuit of a loose ball. He remembers visiting with Pelini's dad at the family home.
Bo was no shoo-in for Ohio State.
“I had a lot of options,” Pelini said. “It came down to the end.”
After college, Bo took off to start a coaching career. He moved through Iowa, San Francisco, New England and Green Bay. Through Nebraska, Oklahoma and Louisiana. Now Lincoln again.
But to build the Big Ten's best program, Pelini may need to return to Ohio and persuade the best prospects to do what he didn't.
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