Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Is the “U” through?

The University of Miami is struggling through its worst year since 1997 when they finished with a 5-6 record. Presently 5-5, with games remaining at Virginia and against Boston College, it is not inconceivable they miss bowl eligibility this year.

Since 1983, Miami has been one of the dominant programs in college football. Their only “blip” in dominance came in the mid 1990’s when the program was cited by the NCAA for violations, and scholarships were reduced. Suddenly, however, a program that won the national title in 2001, and played for it in 2002, has had two consecutive 9-3 seasons (2004-2005), and now this year is 5-5.

With no NCAA sanctions to blame, what changed?

Before you blame Larry Coker, or ACC competition (and I am not dismissing them), take a moment to contemplate when, and why, Miami, as well as Florida State and Florida, started achieving in the first place.

Prior to Miami’s 1983 national title, the “big three” of Florida teams had exactly zero national titles, or conference titles for that matter, to show for their entire history. From 1983 to 2001, Miami, FSU and Florida won 8 national titles, and countless conference titles.

Why the change? Population, that is why. Football has long been popular in the South, and Florida, in general. But until recently, not that many people lived in the state. In 1970, less than 7 million people, a large part of them retirees, lived in Florida. By 1980, the state of Florida had grown to 9.7 million citizens. Ten years later, in 1990, there were about 13 million Floridians. Currently, the number approaches 17 million.

The burgeoning population provided a fertile recruiting ground starting around 1980, with a large number of the talent coming from the south Florida area. Initially, virtually all of this talent went to the big three state schools. Talent equaled championships. Take a look at the current NFL and how many professional players come from the state of Florida, or how many recent greats, from Emmitt Smith to Michael Irvin, hailed from the state.

But ladies and gentlemen, the secret is out – and Florida has become the recruiting central of virtually all the nation’s college programs. At first, out of state programs struggled to break into the Florida talent pool. But not lately. As former assistant coaches of the big three have become head coaches, the state recruiting pool has been spread out across the nation, resulting in less talent available for UM, FSU and UF.

Consider the following examples –

North Carolina State’s head coach Chuck Amato was a former assistant at FSU. Amato has recruited heavily, and successfully, in Florida, and the current NC State roster has 31 players from Florida.

Rutgers’ head coach is the former UM defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, who has also recruited heavily in Florida. His 24 current players from the state, 7 of them starters, have helped contribute to Rutgers’ undefeated record.

When you look at the rosters of these teams, and many others, the only anaomly that stands out is the presence of players from Florida. NC State is virtually all players from North Carolina and Florida. The same holds for Rutgers with players from New Jersey and Florida. Many teams, in fact, are filled with local players, then a scattering of players from the Sunshine State.

The hiring of Butch Davis by North Carolina is an ominous sign, not only for Miami, but for the other Florida schools. Davis is a master recruiter, and you can guarantee that his first stop will be among his old contacts in south Florida. Currently, UNC has 6 players from Florida on its roster. Here’s betting that number will multiply by four over the next couple of seasons.

As other assistants and former head coaches branch out, the talent drain on Florida high school athletes will continue. Being a master recruiter of local talent, and targeted talent from around the nation, will become more important than ever for the state’s big three.

The days of taking Florida talent for granted are long gone. How the schools will adapt remains to be seen.

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