When Urban Meyer came to Ohio State on Nov. 28, 2011, the Big Ten had bottomed out.
The league's highest-rated team in the BCS standings was No. 10 Wisconsin, guaranteeing no Big Ten representation in the national championship game for the fourth consecutive season. Penn State was embroiled in scandal, weeks removed from Joe Paterno's firing. Ohio State was headed toward its first seven-loss season since 1897. The Buckeyes' 24-17 loss to Florida in the Gator Bowl would be part of a 4-6 bowl record for the Big Ten, the league's eighth non-winning record during bowl season in nine years.
Despite the windfall from the Big Ten Network and the league's overall media rights agreement, several programs lagged in facilities, recruiting budgets, coaches' salaries and other areas. ESPN's 2012 national recruiting class rankings featured no Big Ten teams in the top five and, more damaging, only Ohio State (No. 6) and Michigan (7) in the top 25.
The league needed a jolt.
Meyer immediately provided one, especially when it came to recruiting. As Meyer retires from Ohio State, his impact on a league he dominated -- three conference championships, division titles in all seven seasons, a 54-4 record in conference games -- is undeniable.
"Not only has he elevated the quality and status of our program, but his presence has elevated Big Ten football," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said Monday during Meyer's retirement news conference. "To compete with Urban-coached teams, our Big Ten colleagues have had to elevate their programs."
The Meyer effect was felt most on the recruiting trail. Meyer didn't care about the Big Ten's outdated gentleman's agreement not to pursue players verbally committed to other league schools. His first full recruiting class in 2013 ranked No. 3 nationally, according to ESPN.
He would bring in top-10 classes every year, including ESPN's No. 2 class in both 2017 and 2018.
"Urban had won national championships at Florida," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN. "He was from Ohio, played at Cincinnati, had success at Utah and had a national presence. Urban articulated the fact that this is a national game and you have to recruit nationally. You have to go after the best players, wherever they are, and I think our coaches have done that.
"It's not like that was a secret, but he certainly articulated in a clear and straightforward way. There's nothing wrong with that challenge."
Other Big Ten programs accepted it. Penn State, also led by a coach who came from the SEC in James Franklin, made gradual strides in recruiting, leading to a 2018 class that ESPN ranked No. 4 nationally. Michigan landed Rashan Gary, the top-rated recruit in the 2016 class. Programs like Michigan State, Nebraska and Maryland signed top-25 classes.
Elite-level athletes like Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore, Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons and Maryland running back Anthony McFarland are entering the league more often now. While Meyer isn't solely responsible for the talent upgrade, his early words and actions jump-started others.
"Certainly he deserves credit for leadership and saying we need to improve our recruiting," Delany said.
"When I was in the SEC, they said certain things about the Big Ten," said Indiana coach Tom Allen, an Ole Miss assistant from 2012 to 2014. "There were several years in a row where the Big Ten would get to the BCS [bowls] and then got a little exposed in some ways. Even when Alabama played Notre Dame, they got exposed a little bit and they kind of got labeled, 'They're just a Big Ten-type team.' I think that label's gone away.
"Coach Meyer, he started all that. He brought that mentality to the Big Ten. He modeled it after it was done down there, and it's changed everything. We're recruiting at a higher level, which has helped the speed and the number of athletes."
NFL scouts have told Allen that they've seen a difference in Big Ten players during the time period that coincides with Meyer's Ohio State tenure. More Big Ten players are on the NFL radar now, which Allen links directly to the recruiting approach Meyer brought.
"Even just coming in and going after guys that were committed somewhere else, that ruffles some feathers [in the Big Ten]," Allen said. "That's just commonplace in other conferences, especially down in the South. That whole concept and really the beginning of it, it just became, 'Hey, if we're going to beat those teams down there, and we know we're probably going to meet one of them when it counts, then we better be recruiting like they do.'
"His actions and his plans and the way he structured his staff, it's forced everybody else, you better get on board or get run over."
Since Meyer's arrival, Big Ten programs have been bolder about coaching hires, coaching salaries, recruiting budgets and facilities. Penn State (Franklin), Michigan (Jim Harbaugh), Minnesota (P.J. Fleck), Nebraska (Scott Frost), Purdue (Jeff Brohm) and Illinois (Lovie Smith) all hired high-profile coaches.
Big Ten veterans say the new perspectives accelerated league development, helping results in nonleague play and major bowls.
"Them coming from the Southeast Conference, Harbaugh probably brings a little bit of an NFL model to it, a Pac-12 model to it," said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who has held his post since 2007. "There's been a lot of change in this conference the last 10 years with coaches, but innovative. It's a fresh conference, it's very innovative."
The Big Ten better reflects its resources in football. Almost every program has built or upgraded its facilities since Meyer's arrival. Northwestern, which for years had arguably the worst facilities of any Power 5 program, built a lakefront palace that drew national acclaim. Other programs with shoddy facilities like Wisconsin and Purdue also made major improvements. Personnel departments have grown, a nod to Meyer and Ohio State's success.
Although Meyer is responsible for the Big Ten's only national championship during his tenure (2014), the league has eight New Year's Six bowl wins since 2013. It had just three wins in the big bowls between the 2006 and 2012 seasons. The Big Ten's 7-1 bowl record after the 2017 season -- highlighted by wins in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl, PlayStation Fiesta Bowl and Capital One Orange Bowl -- marked its best showing since a 5-0 record in 1998.
"There's been an influx of strong coaching, strong leadership and improvement in recruiting," Delany said. "I don't think there's any doubt about that."
There were more questions in November 2011, as Meyer's Ohio State tenure began ominously. Weeks after his hiring, the program received a bowl ban for 2012 for violations under previous head coach Jim Tressel. Despite no postseason prospects, Meyer led Ohio State to a 12-0 record in 2012, the program's first undefeated season in a decade.
"You've got a guy who came from Florida to an Ohio State team that's not understanding what Ohio State is," Buckeyes wide receiver Parris Campbell said. "He takes a team under suspensions and violations and they have an undefeated season. It was game-changing, not only for Ohio State University but for this entire league."
Two years later, Meyer coached Ohio State to a national title, completing an unforgettable run against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon behind untested quarterback Cardale Jones, who took over for the injured J.T. Barrett. Michigan State also finished in the top five that season. In 2015, three Big Ten teams -- Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa -- finished in the final top 10.
Penn State and Wisconsin both joined Ohio State with top-10 finishes in both 2016 and 2017.
"The conference and the schools have done a really good job of going out and recruiting and attracting some really strong coaches with some great résumés," Franklin said. "It's no different than anything else, no different than on my staff or my team in recruiting, it's a game of people. When you have head coaches who have been head coaches in other leagues, there's value in that."
It's now up to those coaches to maintain the value without Meyer.
"He's a tremendous coach, and he's impacted it, but Paul Brown coached at Ohio State, too," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "There's been a tradition of really good coaches there."
Ryan Day hopes to be the next Buckeye coach to bully the Big Ten. Thanks to his predecessor, it will be a much tougher task.