Brown: Is the Big Ten West in recruiting crisis mode?

Rick Brown

National Signing Day delivers a jolt of optimism, no matter how disappointing the previous football season was. But here's a slap of reality for some of you, courtesy of Big Ten Network football analyst Gerry DiNardo.

"I think the entire Western Division of the Big Ten, under the current rules and the present recruiting practices, are in crises," DiNardo said.

This has nothing to do with bells and whistles, such as Iowa's new football operations center, and everything to do with the NCAA Division I Manual. And DiNardo, a former head coach in the SEC and Big Ten, is waving a red flag.

The recruiting game has changed. DiNardo thinks schools such as Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota, all located miles from fertile recruiting turf, will be left in the dust if rules aren't changed. That's because more and more prospects are picking schools based on unofficial, not official, visits.

A school can pay for 56 official campus visits — covering transportation, meals, lodging, things like that. Official visits can only be made from August of a prospect's senior year to the weekend before signing day. An unofficial visit is when a prospect provides his own transportation and the school is not allowed to pay for anything other than three game tickets. Unofficial visits can be made any time.

For schools in the Western Division of the Big Ten, luring prospects to make unofficial visits is much more challenging than schools closer to deep talent pools.

An Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State, for instance.

"There are a lot of prospects that can drive to SEC schools, ACC schools, Big 12 schools like Texas," DiNardo said. "If I'm Iowa, I can get some kids from Chicago to drive my way. But if I'm in Lincoln, Neb., I've got a real problem getting kids on campus until I pay their way."

This never used to be a big issue, because most prospects wouldn't select a school until making official visits.

"Like when Bernie Wyatt was recruiting for Iowa, he was making a killing in New York and New Jersey," DiNardo said. "But the official visit would usually take place in December or January, before they made a decision. Now, 90 percent of the kids are making unofficial visits."

When Hayden Fry started to rebuild the Iowa program, Wyatt got players such as Owen Gill, Norm Granger, Ronnie Harmon, Keith Hunter and Devon Mitchell — all from New York or New Jersey — to make official visits. All signed letters of intent. Today, getting those long-distance players to make unofficial visits on their own nickel is challenging.

There's been talk of an early signing period for football. That would be disastrous for Big Ten schools like Iowa, DiNardo said, because it would allow programs with proximity to high-talent states to sign a bulk of their recruits early, "and then they'll come poach the Midwestern kids."

The one way to make it a more level playing field, DiNardo said, is to allow juniors to make official campus visits. That would also make an early signing period more appealing.

"If the Big Ten doesn't get a rule change, eventually it will be a crisis," DiNardo said. "Especially in the Western Division. Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State, they'll survive. Maybe nobody else will."

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.