Los Angeles Times
Adding to Big Ten expands options
UCLA and USC joining the conference means new recruiting opportunities for all.
INDIANAPOLIS — Having devoured In-N-Out burgers, strolled the Santa Monica beach and enjoyed a visit to Little Ethiopia, Keeanu Benton gets the allure.
“Who doesn’t want to go to Cali?” the Wisconsin nose tackle said Wednesday with a laugh.
In the years to come, UCLA and USC will enjoy some natural advantages in their pursuit of high school prospects from Big Ten territory. The beaches. The weather. The (animal style) cuisine.
Those pluses will be magnified by the Bruins and Trojans playing a handful of games each season in the Midwest and on the East Coast once they join the Big Ten in 2024. Players who grew up on Illinois farmland can go to college in Southern California while playing within several hours’ drive of their home once or twice a season, allowing their families to see them play in person.
“They’ll try to come in and poach players out of our area, our neck of the woods,” Barry Alvarez, the former longtime Wisconsin coach who now serves as a special adviser for football for the Big Ten, said of UCLA and USC during Big Ten media days at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The opposite applies as well. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose roster includes eight California natives — not to mention transfer punter Luke Akers, who spent two seasons at UCLA after growing up in Tennessee — sees the oppor
tunity for more California dreamin’.
“Absolutely, it’s going to help,” Fitzgerald said, noting the availability of lowcost f lights between Chicago and Los Angeles that would allow families from Southern California see their sons play conference road games without taking out a second mortgage on their homes.
While his next recruiting class is largely set, Illinois coach Bret Bielema said he foresaw his recruiting venturing more heavily into California — where star quarterbacks, wide receivers and running backs sprout like citrus fruit — starting with the class of 2024.
UCLA’s move to the Big Ten will turn longtime friends into rivals.
Ohio State coach Ryan Day said he was on the 16th hole of a New Hampshire golf course with Bruins counterpart Chip Kelly when Nebraska coach Scott Frost, a mutual friend, called to deliver the news that UCLA and USC were joining the Big Ten.
“We found out about halfway through that hole that we were in the same conference together,” Day said, “and we had a great laugh about that.”
The chuckles could cease once the coaches start competing for the same standout wide receivers from Southern California and top offensive linemen from cornfed states in the Midwest.
Fitzgerald probably knows the California landscape as well as any of his Big Ten rivals, having been responsible for areas spanning the San Fernando Valley up to San Luis Obispo, over to Fresno and down through Bakersfield and Palmdale when he was a linebackers and special teams coach at Idaho.
“I’ve got a pretty good understanding of the Valley — the Tom Petty song [“Free Fallin’ ”] notwithstanding,” Fitzgerald cracked.
Like in everything else, location will matter when recruits are weighing their options.
“When you’re picking your second home,” said Penn State safety Ji’Ayir Brown, a New Jersey native, “me personally, I didn’t want to be too far away from my first home, so that played a [big role] in my recruiting process, but everybody’s different.
“Some people like to go far away from home, some people like to stay close to home, so I’m guessing it depends on what kind of kids you’ve got.”
Consider Nittany Lions teammate P.J. Mustipher the ultimate homebody, then.
“No West Coast teams,” said the defensive tackle who hails from Owings Mills, Md. “I wasn’t going out to the West Coast — I’m an East Coast boy, man. That’s too far for me. I ain’t leaving my mama. I thought I wanted to be far away from my mom and dad and I’m only 2½ [hours] and that’s kind of too far some days, but nah, I ain’t [doing it]. Who wants to go out to the West Coast if you’re from the East Coast?”
Benton, who once thought he was going to become a carpenter or electrician out of high school because he didn’t receive any scholarship offers until the end of his junior year, might have the best advice for any suitor hoping to land prospects: Show early devotion.
“Wisconsin was the first to give me a try and this is where I really wanted to go,” Benton said, “so it wasn’t really a question.”