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August 15, 2008

King Football rules the South

NEW YORK -- The first college football game was played 139 years ago in New Jersey, between Rutgers and Princeton, and the sport was dominated by Northeastern schools such as Yale and Harvard in its infancy.

By the middle of the last century the South had risen in college football, and these days there's no question: If you want to win a national championship, it's best to play in places where sunscreen is more important than snow boots, and the grits are better than the bagels.

Why? Simple. Because that's where the best players are.

Since the Bowl Championship Series started crowning a national champion in 1998, Ohio State and Oklahoma are the only schools that play in cold weather to have won a championship. And it's important to point out that Oklahoma borders Texas, which has more high school football players than any other state.

"You could draw a horizontal line from Houston to Jacksonville and from Dallas to Atlanta, in between I-20 and I-10, and there would be as many football players in that area than any other area in the country," said Bobby Burton, the editor-in-chief of Rivals.com, who has covered recruiting for 15 years.

Part of this trend is about pure numbers. There are a lot of people living in the part of the country known as the Sun Belt, especially Florida with its population of a little more than 18 million. More people, more players.

But the numbers don't fully explain the imbalance.

The weather plays a big part, no brutal cold and snow to keep kids from getting outside and playing ball. When it comes time to pick a college, it's not easy to convince a teenager who's never owned a pair of gloves to sign up for three months of wearing long johns.

Also, the rules governing high school football in the South give players far more opportunities to hone their craft. For most top players in the South, football is a year-round sport.

Yet there's something deeper at work here, too.

"There's one simple answer," Burton said, "it's just a different social mentality (in the South)."

King football rules. It's an integral part of Southern culture -- and it's just not the same throughout much of the northern United States, especially the Northeast.

In the South, small towns pretty much shutdown on Friday nights when the high school kicks off as thousands pack their local stadiums.

Saturday morning it's time to pack up the car and head off to the college game, barbecue in tow. The kids who played the night before watch the teams they've been dreaming about becoming part of since they could tell the difference between a Vol and a Gator, an Aggie and a Longhorn.

Then on Sunday, they'll flip on the NFL games, often just to root on their local hometown heroes. Hattiesburg, Miss., has lots of Green Bay Packers fans -- many of whom just became New York Jets fans -- thanks to former Southern Miss quarterback Brett Favre.

"In most of the rest of the world, college football is a game and they love it. In the South, it's not a game, it's a way of life," said Tony Barnhart, longtime Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports writer and author of "Southern Fried Football."

"It's built into the DNA like no other place in the world."

Sure, there are places up North where the residents follow the same routine -- Massillon, Ohio, comes to mind. But longtime recruiting analyst Tom Lemming of the CBS College Sports Network has been to far more games in the Northeast and Midwest where "you're lucky to find 20 people in the stands."

The results of all that Southern football madness are easy to spot in the list of Rivals' top 100 prospects.

From the recruiting class of 2008, this season's incoming freshmen, 42 of Rivals' top 100 were from the 11 states below the Mason-Dixon line, starting with Virginia in the east and sweeping west to Arkansas. Another 15 were from Texas. California, the most populous state in the country, had 13.

The other 37 states produced 30.

New York state has more people than Florida, but the Sunshine State produces enough top-tier talent to be the backbone of three teams (Florida, Florida State and Miami) that have won a total of eight national titles since 1980, while still leaving plenty of players to bolster rosters all over the country.

On the other hand, not one of Rivals' top 100 in 2008 was from New York state. There was one on the 2007 list -- quarterback Mike Paulus from Syracuse, who went to North Carolina.

New York City is the biggest culprit. All those Big East and Big Ten teams are getting no help from the Big Apple.

"The biggest city in the country is not producing football players," Lemming said.

With its population headed toward 9 million, New York City has had one player break into the Rivals annual 100 since 2003 -- Maurice Evans, a defensive lineman from Queens who is now playing for Penn State.

"New York and Philadelphia, the two largest cities on the East Coast have been perennial basketball hotbeds," Burton said.

Football just isn't a priority in New York.

The city's Public School Athletic League, has 217 member schools. Only 49 play football, according to the organization. Most of the games are played on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. So much for Friday night lights.

The difference between the importance of football in the Deep South and the Northeast can be found in other places, too.

Massachusetts, a state of 6.4 million, had 325 high schools and 22,169 students playing football, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations' 2006-07 stats.

By comparison, Alabama, with a population of about 4.6 million, had 374 high schools playing football and 21,590 players, according to NFSHSA stats.

Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt and i coach Greg Schiano, who both worked at the University of Miami before becoming head coaches in their home states, said weather and repetition make for better-developed players coming from the South.

"The weather gives them a chance to be practicing, be involved with football pretty much year round," Wannstedt said. "I think that helps. You don't see the basketball, and some of those things, hockey, as prevalent down South as you do in the Northeast."

The mild climate also helps keep much of that Southern talent close to home.

South Florida linebacker Brouce Mompremier played high school ball in Miami. He wasn't on the Hurricanes' radar, but Kansas recruited him hard.

"How am I going to survive there? I've never seen snow. I've never experienced a cold, cold weather," he said. "It was like, 'Kansas, South Florida. Kansas, South Florida.' South Florida's up and coming. I was like, 'I'm staying here.' That was a no-brainer."

With schools such as South Florida, Central Florida, Florida Atlantic and Florida International in the Sunshine State and UAB and Troy in Alabama joining major college football, players such as Mompremier, who 15 years ago would've been forced to migrate North to find a scholarship, can remain parka-free and play big-time football.

"A lot of Florida guys don't want to go up North with all that cold weather," said Mompremier's teammate Ben Williams, a running back from Lake Wales, just outside of Lakeland in central Florida. "With all the schools being down here now, I think it does make it harder for those out of state schools to come down here and pull guys out."

Even more important than the weather, Schiano and Wannstedt said, is spring football practice, which is a given throughout the South and Texas and hardly exists in the North.

"You look at a high school kid in Florida, for instance, they get 20 spring practices," Schiano said. "That's 60 practices that a young man would have in his high school career that a young man up here doesn't have."

Add to that, Schiano said, the benefit of simply staying in football mode throughout the offseason.

"Knowing that that's going to happen (spring practice), what does that do to the guys getting ready for it in the spring opposed to getting ready for it only in August?" he said.

On top of all that, 7-on-7 summer football camps and tournaments -- featuring only skill position players and no pads or tackling -- have become all the rage throughout the Deep South and Texas. Burton said 7-on-7 is catching on in Pennsylvania, Ohio (the two most fertile northern states for top high school football players) and Illinois, but it doesn't exist in many northern states.

So, hosting a few 7-on-7 camps over the summer wouldn't hurt all those Big Ten and Big East schools up North.

Neither would opening a satellite campus on the shores of Lake Okeechobee.



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