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Suncoast lags behind in top football talent

Age of bay area residents and tradition are two theories.

By KEITH NIEBUHR

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 3, 2000


Hillsborough High offensive lineman Shannon Snell was a consensus top 100 national recruit last year. In 1998, Jesuit quarterback Gary Godsey was a prep All-American; as was Armwood's Mike Pearson in 1997.

Producing quality football players has not been a problem for the Tampa Bay area.

Quantity is a different story.

The Times divided Florida into six regions and, looking at a one-year snapshot, found the bay area produced proportionately fewer Division I-A players last season than all but one region.

Despite having nearly 16 percent of Florida's population, the five-county Suncoast (Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas) had less than 12 percent of its Division I-A recruits based on those who committed on signing day.

Areas such as south Florida and the Panhandle, however, produced more than their share of recruits. South Florida, the most populated of the six regions with 31 percent of the state's population, still produced proportionately more players (35 percent). At the other extreme is the more lightly populated Panhandle, which generated nearly 14 percent of the recruits from only 8 percent of the population.

In sheer numbers of course, more people means more Division I-A players. South Florida produced far and away the most recruits last year with 79.

But sheer population numbers don't explain why certain areas are loaded some years while others seem sparse of big-time players.

For example, the Tampa Bay area has nearly twice the population of the Panhandle yet produced five fewer Division I-A recruits last year.

There are many theories as to why the bay area lagged behind.

One is the age of its residents.

"Here, we've got a lot of retirees in the population," said ex-Crystal River coach Earl Bramlett, who also coached at Georgia Tech and Virginia Military Institute.

Citrus County, where 33 percent of the population is 65 or older, and Hernando County (32 percent) produced no Division I-A recruits last year. Pasco County (32 percent) produced two.

Of the Tampa Bay area's 26 Division I-A recruits, 24 came from Hillsborough and Pinellas, bigger counties where the percentage of 65-and-older population is less than on the North Suncoast.

That's not to say areas with large elderly populations can't produce quality football players in bunches.

South Florida also has a large elderly population but still produced a higher percentage of players than would be expected. It also had three of the top four counties in sheer numbers of recruits, with Broward topping the list at 31.

Southwest Florida, the region with the lowest output of Division I-A players last year, has a large elderly percentage and a small population. It had 12 players sign with Division I-A programs, or one for every 121,532 residents, the state's worst ratio.

Next to last is the Tampa Bay area, with one recruit for every 92,087 residents.

The Panhandle, on the other hand, produced a Division I-A recruit for every 39,205 residents, the best among all regions.

"The Panhandle has produced some excellent numbers, but I don't know that it's produced the quality top-notch prospect recently, with the exception of Tallahassee," said Tom Culpepper, who owns a scouting service and is a recruiting analyst for Rivals, a recruiting network found mostly on the Internet. "That area hasn't produced a great player in the last five years."

Tradition might be another factor in an area's production.

"In some counties, like Suwannee County, the population has been there for years and years," Bramlett said. "The kids' dads and sometimes granddads played. At some schools, it's a tradition thing. Tradition has a great deal to do with it."

Programs with strong traditions are easy to pinpoint. The success of those teams, however, is not easy to explain.

In areas such as the sparsely populated western corner of Palm Beach County, Union County and Suwannee County, big numbers have come from small communities without great explanation.

"Some areas are stronger than others, but I don't know what you attribute that to," Bramlett said. "Sometimes, you get a rare group of kids that come through. You may not see that again for another 20 years."

Glades Central, located in the tiny Palm Beach County town of Belle Glade (population 16,937), had two players sign with Florida in February (one later enrolled at Miami) and has six former players on NFL rosters. By comparison, the five-county Tampa Bay area (2,394,280) has 13.

"If you want to go on what area is the best per capita, it's probably Glades Central, Clewiston and Pahokee," Sunshine Network analyst Sean Alveshire said. "Think about how many kids from down there are playing college ball. It's ridiculous. Genetics play a big part in it, I think. If you have athletic genes, your kids probably will. For whatever reason, in that area, they've had a lot of Division I players."

Union County (population 12,720) has a quarterback starting at Alabama, two players at Florida and one at Florida State. Suwannee County (32,972) produced several Division I athletes in the late 1980s, had one major recruit last year and has three players on this season's team who have given oral commitments to major-college programs.

"Those types of schools are known for football," Jefferson coach Mike Simmonds said. "And coaching plays a big part in it, too."

Florida State defensive line coach Jim Gladden makes the point that numbers don't tell the whole story. If you're a recruiter, there are possibilities everywhere.

"South Florida kids have good speed, and they're tough kids," Gladden said. "In Central Florida, like Polk County, they have a good tradition and football history, and those kids are hungry. In the rural areas of north Florida, the kids have a strong, tough work ethic. You're going to find players in every area. There's not an area in the state that's void of players.

"Each area has its own assets."

Despite relatively low numbers last year, the Tampa Bay area does have one thing in its favor.

"You can count on the fact that there's usually going to be a great player every year in the Tampa area," Culpepper said. "I think it's a pretty good area. They play a very good brand of football. If I'm a guy that's got to recruit that area, I know I can count on there being at least one impact player every year and I've got a reason to go there."

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