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Southern Football

2008 December 8
by Dennis Coates

I apologize for this posting – it is really a comment on the earlier post by Brian about the Wall Street Journal article explaining the rise to dominance of southern (read SEC) football. The comment was going to be truncated because it was too long, so I decided to make it a blog.

I think there is something to the argument made in the WSJ article, but the case is way overstated.

First, the focus in the article is on the success of the SEC over the last decade or so. Southern football extends outside the SEC and successful programs on the national stage, other than Alabama, also extend back in time. There is no doubt that Alabama is arguably the most prominent to have long sustained success. However, outside the SEC, Clemson was pretty good, both North and South Carolina (when it was in the ACC and after moving to the SEC) have had success, and Miami and Florida State have pretty rich traditions of success on the national stage. And, as commentators on the WSJ website note, Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma are traditionally considered southern schools and they also have traditions of success dating back decades. SMU also was quite a powerhouse until it got the death penalty for violating the cartel rules Brian mentioned in “Indiana through the looking glass”.

Toward the end, the article turns to the cultural significance of college football in the south. Not to put too fine a point on it, but until the late 1960s/ early 1970s, when the Saints, Falcons, and Dolphins came into existence, there were no professional football teams in the south outside of Texas. The St. Louis Cardinals were the most “southern” of the professional franchises. Consequently, football fans in the south became avid college fans even if they had never attended the schools. Combine that with the fact that most southern states had only one or two “big time” programs and it makes sense that fans would rally around the University of Alabama, or the University of Georgia, etc. as the focus of their football allegiance. That translates into an incredible degree of financial support from boosters so that official coach salaries are often relatively small portions of their compensation. Contrast that with the state I grew up in, New York. There were three professional football teams and, to my knowledge, only one division one university team, certainly only one of any note, Syracuse University, a private institution. (For the record, I grew up a fan of the Johnny Unitas-led Baltimore Colts despite living 50 miles from Buffalo.) I suspect the typical New Yorker had, and continues to have, far more interest in one of the state’s three pro football teams than in any collegiate team in the state. It is unlikely that any of New York state’s public universities has enough booster support to offer a coach a million dollars on top of his university salary. I don’t have the figures, but I am confident no college or university coach at a New York state college or university makes more than the governor. (Jim Boeheim, men’s basketball coach at Syracuse, is the one coach likely to be that well compensated.)

If the article is correct, the changes that have wrought the SEC dominance are the seeds of SEC decline. More population and greater wealth will foster the development of more schools with aspirations to be “big time”. As that happens, it will be more difficult for the schools to get the best recruits and they will no longer have overwhelming superiority in talent. Indeed, I have already heard discussions linking the decline of Miami and Florida State to the competition for recruits from two newly successful programs, at USF and UCF.

The bottom line to me is that the SEC is riding a wave of success fueled in some small part by the economic growth and demographic changes of the past few decades, but this likely will wane and in a few years we’ll be seeing articles titled “What Has Happened to SEC Football?”

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