Episode 4: Here's where the good football players are from, and why

Talent is not distributed equally. How and why may surprise you.

Good morning! Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Clemson just picked up a good recruit.

Not just any recruit, mind you, but the top rated quarterback recruit in the 2020 class, DJ Uiagalelei. He joins Bryan Bresee, the nation’s top rated defensive tackle (and maybe top recruit, period), Demarkcus Bowman, the #2 rated running back in the country, RJ Mickens, the top ranked safety in the country, and a slew of other elite prospects. We’re a long way until the first National Signing Day, but Clemson is putting together one of the best recruiting classes, ever.

Like any true recruiting powerhouse, Clemson can go just about anywhere in the country and get kids (Uigalelei plays high school football in California, for example), but the bulk of this class is in the South. Which would make sense. After all, that’s where Clemson is. It’s about halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte.

And that is where most of the best players in the country are too

In my opinion, the biggest business story relating to college football right now is what’s going to happen to TV rights money? That question is going to inform how good your football team might be in ten years. The biggest story that impacts how good your team is right now, a story that touches a ton of other political, economic, even religious stories is… where are the good high school football players?

Elite prep football talent isn’t distributed uniformly across the country. There are certain areas that produce more FBS-level athletes than others. Casual fans can probably identify some of those states…Florida, California, Texas. But it isn’t just high population states. New York produced few great football players in 2019, while places like Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana produce quite a bit.

Recently, SB Nation’s Football Study Hall modeled this, tracking the top 400 recruits (every four- and five-star recruit, plus the top level three-stars that are getting lots of Power Conference attention) from 2006-2018, and looking at the geographic distribution. If you want to play with the data set, you can find it here.

The top ten looked something like this:

Adjusted for population size, the top ten looked like this:

Outside of D.C. and my home state of Ohio, that’s a whole lot of #South. And let’s be honest, one of the epicenters of prep talent in Ohio is Cincinnati, which is basically Kentucky. That’s the South. Don’t @ me.

Talent wasn’t always so concentrated in the South

We don’t have exact recruiting data from say, the mid 1960s. The Rivals era, what we might consider the modern era of recruiting analysis, only goes back over the last 20 years or so, and even mail order and newspaper recruiting services don’t go that far back.

But we can track the geographical base of where NFL players ended up, which is a loose approximation. Consider this map, for example, that shows the hometowns of anybody who had spent time on an NFL Roster in 1965. The darker the color, the more players from that county.

Sure, we see plenty of counties in the South that can claim a few players, but check out the deep red in places like Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, along with Los Angeles, even Massachusetts. There were more players from Cook County (home of Chicago) than the entire states of Georgia and Alabama in 1965. That’s part of the reason why programs like Miami, Florida State, and like, the entire ACC weren’t much to write home about in the mid-1960s.

Consider that same map in 2005:

Lots more darker colors in Dallas, Houston, South Florida, and all over the South. Much fewer in places like Western PA and Michigan.

In the heyday of the Big Ten, much of the Midwest was among the most fertile recruiting territory in the country. Now, those areas have declined, and new hotbeds have popped up all over the Deep South, but also in places like Utah, Washington D.C., Virginia and North Carolina.

If your favorite team is next door to prime recruiting territory, you’ve got a blueprint for success. If not, you need a plan to get out-of-state kids to your school, or you’re not going to win titles, no matter how creative your gameplan is (although you need great coaching as well, of course. Otherwise you’re USC or Tennessee).

Why did this change?

This is a complicated question, with many answers.

Part of this is because of shifting population trends. Thanks to the decline in manufacturing, a lot of US population, generally, shifted out of the Midwest and to places like the Sun Belt and South. Not only were they losing people, but that migration of capital hurt spending on things like local high schools. If you’re struggling to pass an operational levy, you’re less likely to afford a great salary for a head football coach, plus multiple assistants. That hurts development too.

Part of this is simply cultural. Not every place cares about football the same way, with the same degree of fervor and passion. I grew up in rural Ohio, and high school football was a powerful community institution, and kids growing up wanted to be a part of it. That social pressure is even stronger in a place like Baton Rouge, and less strong in oh, Sacramento, or Queens. If local culture values something, they’re likely to spend money to support it. Southern states spend more money on prep coaches than many northern ones do, for example. Ohio doesn’t have spring football, like many northern states. Most southern ones do. That means more instructional time, more developmental time, and that leads to better prospects.

It’s also about local political decisions. Football is expensive. It takes a lot of physical real estate, expensive equipment, expensive training, institutional stability, and an interested population. If you don’t have the space or the training, or you have a population that isn’t as familiar with football, like many of the schools here where I live in Chicago (a metro area that doesn’t produce many great recruits, even compared to other midwestern cities), it’d make sense to shift that institutional focus to basketball, baseball or soccer.

Talent will probably be concentrated in the South for a while, but it’s not always quite that simple

Talent isn’t always universally distributed within a state or region either. Sometimes, a specific city will have overwhelmingly superior coaches, and outproduce the rest of the state. Maybe economic or cultural changes transform certain cities to make it more, or less, likely to produce great football players. Things change.

For example, I grew up near Columbus. That’s technically the biggest city in the state, but Cincinnati and Cleveland typically had better high school football teams and often produced more FBS players. As Columbus continues to grow, and other cities (like Youngstown) decline, that may change.

Texas may be a football obsessive state, but you’re more likely to find an FBS kid in Houston or Dallas than in El Paso. SoCal more than NorCal. New Jersey instead of New York. The list goes on.

Those changes may be for reasons that have little to do with football. But they’ll go a long way towards informing who is going to be good at football.

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And of course, if you have questions, comments, requests, etc, feel free to holler at me. I’m at @MattSBN and Matt dot Brown @ SBNation.com. Just don’t holler at me about Cincinnati being in the South.