Why doesn't Chicagoland produce more college football players?
That’s my kind of town right there.
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I’ve been a full-time remote worker for a few years now, so I could basically live anywhere in the US. We didn’t have to think very hard about where we wanted to set up shop…we picked Chicago.
Part of that is because of family. My wife grew up in Evanston, and her parents still live there, meaning I’m close to free babysitt—I mean, treasured family support. Part of that is because Big Ten HQ is just a few miles up the road, and I’m a day’s drive from dozens of D-1 institutions. Back when, you know, we were able to drive places.
But I’ve spent time all over the country, and Chicago is far and away my favorite city. We bought a house here, send our kids to public schools here, volunteer here, go to church here, and unless somebody absolutely blows us away with a dream job, we intend to stay here for a long time. We love the food, the art, the diversity, the relative affordability (compared to other media hub cities like D.C. and New York), the parks…it’s a great place to live.
But, like every city, it has significant challenges. You could learn a lot about those challenges from reading real estate listings, or business news, or (uh, less reliably) from your uncle’s Facebook feed. But there’s one unexpected way to better understand some of the structural challenges Chicagoland is facing.
Just take a look at the recruiting rankings. Chicago is the spiritual capital of the Midwest, and football remains a civic institution that’s nearly unrivaled in this part of the country. But despite being a massive city in a football-mad region, Chicagoland just doesn’t produce that many college football players, especially high level players.
That wasn’t always the case
As soon as college football grew beyond the prep school network surrounding the Ivy League, Chicago became an important recruiting ground. It was one of the first large cities to embrace high school football. Chicago’s Amos Alonzo Stagg essentially set up the first satellite camps, sponsoring huge track meets attracting athletes all over the region, and other Western Conference schools pitched legendary recruiting battles over the region’s athletes (Stagg practically kidnapped star quarterback recruit Walter Eckersall to keep him from getting on a train to visit Ann Arbor, for example).
Chicagoland remained important even as the sport matured. Here’s a map showing the hometowns of every player that cracked an NFL roster up until 1975. Cook County claimed 40 players, second most of any US county, only to L.A.
But by 2006, Chicago’s advantage fades, and metros all over the South have grown.
Recruiting has become much more precise since then, and the current numbers aren’t so great. According to 247Sports, the state of Illinois produced just six Blue-Chip (four or five star) football players in 2021. 2020 was even worse, with just five blue-chips statewide, and only three coming from the Chicago area. 2019 produced three statewide, with just two hailing from near the city.
So over a three year period, Chicago and the surrounding suburbs accounted for just 11 high-level recruits. That would be a bad year for Houston, a metro area with two and a half million fewer residents, or Atlanta, with three million fewer residents.
Plenty more Chicagoland athletes earned two or three star raings, or earned scholarship offers to FBS institutions. Over 50 Chicagoland area athletes earned FBS scholarships in 2021, for example, with the bulk of them signing with MAC or other mid-major programs. But even that, adjusted for population, is far below the production of smaller cities like Houston, Dallas or Atlanta. In terms of state-wide production, Illinois lags behind smaller states like Ohio and North Carolina.
Essentially, the biggest metro area in the Midwest, an important recruiting and development region for half the Big Ten and most of the MAC, generally produces as many elite football players as Cincinnati or Detroit, and produces total FBS football players like a Virginia.
I asked several journalists, coaches, administrators and long term observers of Chicagoland prep athletics. I let them speak on background, so they could be as candid as possible. Surprisingly, no matter who I spoke to, most of the same explanations kept popping up.
People and resources are in shorter supply
Running quality high school football programs takes people, and Chicago doesn’t have as many as it used to. No metro area lost more population than Chicago from 2017-2018, and in 2019, every single metro area in the state lost population.
Experts point to a variety of reasons. Many other midwestern metro areas are struggling with population losses as the decline of many large manufacturing centers, uneven economic recovery and lousy weather have pushed families out. Here in Illinois, looming state budget problems even before COVID-19 make tax increases likely. Multiple longtime observers of Illinois prep athletics told me they know many families, from the suburbs to the city, who are worried about having to leave to pursue better financial opportunities and lower cost of living.
If the region doesn’t have as many people, it becomes a lot harder to sustain as many quality high school football programs. From 2014-2019, Illinois saw a greater raw number decline in football participation than any other state outside of California, with particpation numbers dropping by over 80,000.
Multiple sources pointed to concern over concussions as a reason for declining statewide participation, which is likely a significant factor, but others pointed to the quality of the youth football experience declining simply due to resources.
Within the city of Chicago itself, quality equipment, facilities and trained staff can be a significant challenge. One administrator told me that full-time athletic directors essentially don’t exist at the building level for Chicago Public Schools, so existing coaches and teachers have to step into that role, making it harder for them to advocate for athletes. Assistant coaches are often volunteers. Scratching up enough money for all of the stuff quality football programs require is always a challenge.
And those challenges are perhaps even harder at the youth football level, where certain areas in the city simply may not have youth football opportunities nearby, or at least, affordable and quality ones. Building youth football access doesn’t just require money, but time and commitment from lots of adults.
The way those students are organized also makes football more difficult
Chicago has a lot of charter schools. In fact, roughly one out of every four students in Chicago attends a charter high school, according to INCS. Most of Chicago’s largest charter networks, like KIPP and Noble, typically don’t sponsor football teams.
Outside of charters, Chicago students have lots of other options too. There’s a large parochial school tradition in Chicago, a network of selective enrollment public schools, and the option for students to enroll in traditional public schools outside of their own neighborhood.
Almost everybody told me that within the city, those options make planning for athletics much harder. If a student transfers to multiple schools over the course of their academic career, it makes it easier for them to run afoul of a bylaw and become ineligible, and harder for coaches to build and maintain cultures. Given football’s high resource requirements, both in equipment and students, it’s easier for some buildings to just focus on basketball or other sports.
Even in the suburbs, which may experience less transience, building and maintaining a unified football culture from middle school through high school is difficult. Not many suburbs around Chicago, for example, teach similar offensive or defensive philosophies through the entire youth system, and high school coaches aren’t always plugged in and invested in helping youth system success.
I grew up in football-mad Ohio, where it wouldn’t be uncommon for a 5th grader to start learning a system, or at least specific skills, that translated directly into what the local high school wanted to do. If the high school ran the Single Wing, by God you were going to learn how to block for the Single Wing way before you hit 9th grade. This isn’t the case for much of Chicagoland.
With public systems increasingly unable to provide a quality athletic experience, either due to costs, organization or both, private schools and systems have stepped in. For basketball, that might mean the AAU takes on a larger role. For swimming, private swim clubs or pools. Some of the best run prep programs around Chicagoland are private schools, and have managed to fill gaps in resources and structure. But those haven’t scaled. And that means plenty of potential athletes are left behind.
COVID could make this even worse
Most municipalities around Chicago are likely going to need to cut services, raise taxes, or both as they try to rebuild budgets shattered by COVID. Those cuts could certainly introduce more challenges in growing athletic participation, especially if schools face additional resource challenges.
But there may be other challenges. Illinois was one of the few states to not play high school football this season, and the fate of this basketball season, or any other high school sport season this academic year, remains unknown. While multiple sources told me they were aware of a few athletes deciding to skip into places like Iowa or Indiana to compete, they were more worried about what a year off from football might mean for participation generally.
One administrator described a hypothetical for me. Let’s say you’re a undersized tight end on an undermanned city league team. You already don't have the size, roster number or resources to really compete, and occasionally, you just get completely physically dominated. You just spent an entire year mostly removed from football, time you might now spend on other sports, or working, or Fortnite. Are you in a major hurry to come back to football, now that you’ve spent time away? Might it be easier to just not come back?
Multiple that decision by the dozens across the city, and you can see how that might impact a lot of programs. If your team suddenly loses 15% of their roster, maybe focusing on basketball becomes an easier decision.
So what can anybody do?
I asked every single person I spoke to what they would do if they were in charge. What concrete policy recommendations could improve football participation and athlete outcomes?
One common suggestion? Spring football. As roster numbers dwindle across the state, multiple sources told me that improving practice time and access isn’t just worth pursuing to improve competitive outcomes, but it may be needed for safety reasons. Extended time away could lead to declines in appropriate blocking and tackling technique. The more time football players spend together in instructional period, they argued, the better a chance at building a cohesive team culture, and the better chance athletes can limit their injury risks.
Pulling this off would be politically difficult. Virtually everybody I spoke to said they perceived the Illinois High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) was more sensitive to the interests of smaller schools. If your high school only has 150 boys, for example, you’d be less likely to support spring football, since you don’t want to risk losing participants for track or baseball.
There’s not an easy solution. Moving forward will require honest communication between statewide coaches and administrators that transcends provincial political beefs. Illinois…doesn’t have a great tradition of that sort of thing, but hope springs enternal.
Other sources suggested that the state loosen professional certification requirements for coaches and athletic directors, like other states have done with teachers, to allow more qualified adults to work around athletics. There are likely to be a lot of underemployed sports management majors, after all. Finding them work advocating for students could be a good solution.
I also have an idea. Let’s bring in the Big Ten and the Chicago Bears to do some building
Just a few blocks from my house, our local city park now sports handsome, refurbished soccer fields, thanks to the Chicago Fire. Their logos are everywhere.
During the summer, our neighborhood baseball diamond is constantly in use, well lit and (mostly) well maintained. Signs all over the park thank the Chicago White Sox for helping maintain the diamond. A few miles away sit other baseball fields that the Chicago Cubs have helped build.
Multiple sources I spoke to said the Chicago Bears have not been as involved in building a local football infrastructure in the city itself.
The Bears have plenty of money. So why not partner with Chicago’s Power Five Athletic Conference, the Big Ten, and use some of that money to build new youth athletic facilities?
If each Big Ten school committed just $500,000 annually from their next TV deal, a deal that is expected to return north of $60 million annually to each member institution, that alone would be more than enough to build multiple youth athletic facilities across the country. Perhaps not just football fields, but hockey rinks, swimming pools and lacrosse fields.
A Big Ten football and athletic complex near Humboldt or Garfield Park, completely decked out Big Ten banners and iconography, staffed by Chicago Parks Department personnel, and visited by Big Ten coaches during the summer to give youth camps, could be a major boost to neighborhood pride, youth participation and help member schools recruit prospective students out of Chicago.
Will that facility push immediately create more Big Ten caliber football players? Probably not. But could it help improve participation rates in the most important market in the Big Ten? Could it help schools like Maryland, Penn State and Rutgers be more visible in Chicago? Would it serve their local community? Yes. And that makes it worth doing.
This is a tough problem, a problem intertwined with plenty of other problems here in Chicago that have nothing to do with football. But it isn’t an insurmountable one.
Working to better empower and resource Chicagoland’s schools and make the area more affordable and accessible might make recruiting a little easier for a lot of schools.
But more importantly, it’d make this excellent city an even better place to live.
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