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Do Obesity, Poverty, and Pride Really Make Southern Football Number 1?

Do Obesity, Poverty, and Pride Really Make Southern Football Number 1?

The South has superior football for three reasons–obesity, poverty, and pride–Colin Cowherd told his national ESPN Radio audience on Wednesday.

He referred to a piece this week in the Huffington Post, “How can two tiny states dominate in college football?,” noting that liberal outlets can print commentary like that while conservative ones cannot.

The often controversial Cowherd acknowledged that he and the media as a whole lean left of center, and protect their own, thus enabling Bill Maher to say things about Muslims that conservative commentators cannot get away with just as conservatives would have been attacked for the Huffington Post article. The first caller after Cowherd’s comments said that southern football talent often resulted because parents realized their children could not be rocket scientists and therefore chose this path. Cowherd told the caller that callers could say things like that but he could not–pointing to an apparent second double standard that he perceived.

OBESITY Cowherd referenced one scout who had told him that in the entire state of California there are only two elite lineman who weigh over 320 pounds, while in the much smaller state of Louisiana there are 17. Cowherd said the diets in the Deep South were different, and that as a result the talent pool elsewhere was smaller and–ironically–softer, stating that coaches have gone to USC and UCLA and commented that the teams were not as tough. According to the “State of Obesity” website, the state with two of the top three football teams in the country (Mississippi) ties with West Virginia as the most obese state, while the state that has won four of the last five national titles (Alabama) is one of six SEC states among the most obese (the ones outside the SEC are West Virginia and Oklahoma).

POVERTY Cowherd believes the Huffington Post is also correct in concluding that high poverty in the South makes success in football the only chance some have to improve economically. Former Super Bowl and college football champion Riki Ellison (USC and 49ers) once told me that he was one of the few middle-class players he knew who made it to the major college ranks. “The sport is so vicious that at some point if you have any other way to make it you quit football,” he told me, recalling instances of going back into a game one play after breaking fingers because he knew other players were there to take over his linebacking duties if he missed any time.

PRIDE Finally, Cowherd said that college football was simply a source of pride for Southerners, just like pro sports were in the Northeast and St. Louis baseball was in the Midwest. Cowherd believes Californians are simply focused on too many other things to make football a priority.

Based on my conversations with Riki Ellison, poverty surely seems to serve as a motivator. And certainly the pride in football plays as a big factor. We live in Auburn, and several years ago when my teenaged daughter visited Chicago she couldn’t believe that no one she had met grasped that Auburn reigned as the college football champion or that the school even fielded a football team–it was all Bears and Packers talk.

The obesity charge is tougher. The style of play is certainly a factor in shifts in sports. But when top football teams really did grind it out with sheer brute strength, the Big Ten often dominated. The more the rules have been changed to let receivers run down the field and linemen extend their arms to give the quarterback time to wait for the breaks, the faster players down South have been better and the West Coast athletes have given the Pac-12 plenty of good teams. People talk about SEC speed being better than Big Ten strength, and I have to think the muscular size of Nebraska and Wisconsin kids would trump the SEC if it truly were about size.

To quote my friend Meatloaf, two out of three ain’t bad.

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