Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany stopped by a Gophers football game two years ago and held court with reporters in the TCF Bank Stadium press box.

Among topics discussed that day was the competitive imbalance between the East and West Divisions. Lumping together Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in the East tilted the league like an elephant opposite a squirrel on a seesaw.

Delany brushed aside any concern by saying success tends to be cyclical. The commissioner, however, fired a salvo to teams living in the shadow of the big boys.

“I think that there will be the need for the people in the West, and the people in the East, to recruit more nationally,” Delany said. “I think to be nationally competitive, you have to think about recruiting nationally as well as in your region.”

The arrival of Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh and now James Franklin put Big Ten brethren on notice. To avoid falling miles behind, you must be able to swim with the sharks in recruiting.

The Gophers hired a new coach who seems to embrace that challenge.

“Recruiting is everything in this program,” P.J. Fleck said.

Fleck unveiled his first recruiting class Wednesday with an elaborate production that resembled a grad party. His inaugural Gophers class featured 25 signees, an impressive haul since he had only three weeks to hire a coaching staff and salvage a class.

Fleck inherited a class from Tracy Claeys that was ranked last in the Big Ten and 72nd nationally by one prominent recruiting website. The class finished 15 spots higher on signing day.

This was only a soft launch. The true evaluation starts with next year’s class once Fleck has time to develop deeper relationships with recruits.

The Gophers won’t progress beyond a middling program by finishing at the bottom of the Big Ten in recruiting. Some coaches loathe recruiting as a necessary evil. Others, such as Fleck, attack it like a T-bone after a two-month diet.

“There’s going to be a lot of shock and surprise as we move forward,” he said.

The Big Ten’s hierarchy has upped the ante. Meyer, Harbaugh and Franklin rank among the most aggressive recruiters in college football. They’re competing for the best talent every year.

Ohio State and Michigan signed top-five classes. Penn State finished just outside the top 10. That will remain an annual occurrence as long as those coaches stick around.

The onus is on everyone else to raise their recruiting efforts to keep pace. Fleck’s gung-ho enthusiasm came pouring out on national signing day. The only thing missing from his staff’s meeting room was a smoke machine and disco ball.

A hockey goal lamp was attached to the ceiling and lit up whenever a recruit faxed in his signed letter of intent. They put a gong in the room that assistant coaches banged before placing a player’s name on a whiteboard with a magnet shaped like an oar.

Highlight videos played on a projector. Each recruit was given a specific song as a background track. The staff brought a piñata filled with candy and busted it in honor of Alabama safety Kendarian Handy-Holly, who Fleck refers to as “Candy Handy-Holly.”

Balloons dropped from the ceiling after the last fax arrived. Staff members then made a sparkling cider toast.

Were those theatrics necessary? Actually, yes. It showed Fleck understands recruiting is the lifeblood of a program and that a lackadaisical approach won’t cut it.

Recruiting requires energy and urgency. Many recruits love to have their egos stroked, or be sold on their value to a program. The best recruiters are relentless in their message.

The Gophers program has long prided itself on uncovering hidden gems and trying to coach them up to the Big Ten level. That approach certainly produces success stories, but nothing trumps talent.

Player development should always be a fundamental mission. But finding better talent as a starting point will be essential in Fleck’s quest to elevate his program.

“It’s going to take national recruits,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of players to break a trend and a cycle. A lot.”

Fleck’s first task after signing his first class was to call recruits in the next two classes. That’s how it should be. Recruiting never sleeps.

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com