Once upon a time - say, until five years ago - recruiting in the Big Ten was pretty staid.

Once upon a time - say, until five years ago - recruiting in the Big Ten was pretty staid.

Sure, it was competitive. But there were unwritten guidelines and minimal flash when it came to getting prospects to sign on the dotted line.

Those days are long gone. First came coach Urban Meyer to Ohio State at the end of 2011. He has been relentless in pursuing the top talent, no matter where it was or whether a player had already pledged his services to another school.

Predecessors John Cooper and Jim Tressel were superb recruiters, willing and able to go across the country for talent. But Meyer has turbo-charged recruiting. The Buckeyes have finished in the top five of Scout's national rankings in four of his five seasons.

"You'll hear high school coaches and prospects and their parents say all the time that Urban Meyer brought the SEC to the Big Ten - the style of athlete and player," said Steve Wiltfong, director of recruiting and recruiting insider for 247Sports.

Then came Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, hired a little more than a year ago. As competitive and hard-working as Meyer, Harbaugh has added sizzle with unorthodox recruiting gimmicks. He has climbed trees and had sleepovers at prospects' homes. Signing day in Ann Arbor turned into a "Signing with the Stars" gala, complete with former Wolverines such as Tom Brady on hand to welcome recruits.

Meyer has taken notice.

"We certainly monitor everything," he said. "Not just them, but the Eastern side (of the Big Ten) is one of the most competitive conference divisions in college football. So we know everything that everybody is doing."

Ohio State and Michigan are the Big Ten's historical powers, but Michigan State under Mark Dantonio has established itself as an elite program. Penn State is still recovering from the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and the jury is out on coach James Franklin. But his passion for recruiting is unmistakable.

Even the weaker teams in East Division have potential. Kevin Wilson is highly regarded at Indiana - at least for the Hoosiers offense. Former Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, now coach at Rutgers, vows to keep much of New Jersey's ample talent at home. New Maryland coach D.J. Durkin's program should be boosted by an infusion of money from Under Armour.

"I'll tell you this about our conference: They're recruiting their tails off," Meyer said. "The Big Ten is on fire right now. And I can tell you on a national respect (level), I can feel it. I've heard about it. Guys are really working. So it's very good for the Big Ten Conference right now."

The Big Ten had five teams in Scout.com's top 25 recruiting rankings, the most in at least 15 years. How much of that can be directly attributed to the effect of Meyer and Harbaugh is impossible to determine.

"I can't really point to one school and say, 'Wow, this school knew they had to compete with Urban Meyer and had to up their game,'" recruiting analyst Bill Greene of Scout said. "I don't see it."

But Greene does believe the tactics by Meyer and Harbaugh have changed recruiting in the conference. Meyer's pursuit of previously committed players has caused others to do the same.

"I think that was culture shock to the conference," Greene said. "Now the other guys are doing it to each other. The old gentlemen's handshake agreement, you can forget that."

The ripples from Harbaugh's innovations have yet to reveal themselves, but it seems to be merely a matter of time.

"We monitor the best recruiting schools in the country and see what they do," Meyer said. "We're going to look at mailings (and) graphics. However, we have to remain true to ourselves and who we are."

So if a recruit wants to have Meyer sleep over at his house, would he do it?

"No," he replied.

Even in recruiting, there are some limits.

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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