- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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When Big Ten Conference commissioner Jim Delany said last week that the economy in the Midwest had forced the league to explore expansion, he spoke aloud what no one in the league has been in a hurry to say.
As important as football has been to the fabric of life in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, the sport is not immune to the economic pandemic that has stripped those states of so many well-paid, middle-class jobs over a generation. The term "Rust Belt," coined to describe once-bustling factories that have gone dormant, is some 25 years old. In that same period of time, the power in college football put down roots in the Sun Belt.
Big Ten coaches and players have defended their brand of football time and again from charges that the league is not athletic enough, that the Southeastern Conference or USC or Texas -- or all of the above -- has passed the league by.
That the Big Ten can flex its muscle as a business is a tribute to tradition, to Delany's acumen and to the 4.4 million living alumni from the league's 11 schools. However, if the loss of jobs and population have affected the conference at the business table, it's worth a fresh look to see the effects the economic downturn has had on the field.
Some effects lie in plain sight. The BCS champions of the past seven years -- Alabama, Florida, LSU, Florida, Texas, USC and LSU -- play on warm-weather campuses.
The best teams are found where the best players are raised. The 2010 ESPNU ranking of the top 150 high school players included 28 from Florida, 24 from Texas and 18 each from California and Georgia. Michigan had five, Pennsylvania four. Ohio, home of The Ohio State University and home of famed high schools such as Massillon and Moeller, had two.
Some years are better than others, yes. And the accuracy of recruiting rankings is always fodder for discussion. But you don't need a statistician to interpret the shift in the numbers. From 2007 to 2010, an entire four-year cycle of recruits, Pennsylvania had a total of 21 players ranked in the ESPNU 150. Ohio had 16 and Michigan 14.
Over that four-year period, those three states had fewer than Florida and Texas had this year alone.
"We feel there are always going to be some top-flight kids in the Midwest," ESPN director of football recruiting Tom Luginbill said, "but the depth of talent each year in each state in our opinion is not what it used to be and especially at the skill positions. The talent versus depth ratio is not as high as [in] other regions of the country."
The advantages of warm weather for developing football players have been well-documented. Weather allows them to compete and practice year-round. Some Sun Belt states allow spring practice. Others sanction summer instructional periods and offseason 7-on-7 competition.
But climate and compliant rules are not the only reasons for the power shift. The economic problems in the upper Midwest have begun to eat away at the foundation on which the region's high school football programs have been built. In western Pennsylvania, the home of great quarterbacks from Joe Namath to Joe Montana to Dan Marino, population is decreasing.
"In the old days, they used to talk about if you could get 11 players from Johnstown to Youngstown, you'd be in pretty good shape," said Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who has been recruiting western Pennsylvania for decades. "It's just not that way. In western Pa., you're not going to get the same amount of players that you used to."
In the past decade, the state of Michigan suffered a net reduction of 246,000 residents under the age of 18. From the 1980 census to 2008, the number of Ohio residents age 15-19 fell 19.7 percent, from 1,007,679 to 809,174.
The numbers indicate that the trend will continue. From 2000 to 2008, the number of Ohio children age 5-9 fell 10 percent, from 816,000 to 737,000.
"It's like the old Springsteen song: The jobs ain't coming back in my hometown," said Larry Kehres, athletic director and coach of Division III Mount Union College.
Last year, Kehres printed up cards that gave the bearer free admission to a Mount Union football game and handed them out to workers laid off at a local steel mill.
"As a 36-year employee at a private college, I guarantee you that private colleges are concerned about declining population," Kehres said. "It's going to drop another 12 percent in the next 10 years. That's alarming. We're looking at strategies to locate our [future] students. Anybody who says they're not concerned, they're not paying attention."
Kehres, who has won 10 NCAA Division III championships, is as nervous as a coach as he is as an administrator.
"Where I live, Alliance [High] was a big school, a Division I or almost a Division I," Kehres said. "Now it's Division III. That doesn't mean a drop in quality compared to other Division IIIs. But it's not a Division I team."
Fewer taxpayers means fewer schools. In Youngstown, the northern Ohio city that has given football the Stoops and Pelini families, the number of high schools has dwindled in recent years from six to two.
"This place," Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said, referring to the iconic program where he has coached since 2001, "will change less than other places." The Buckeyes will continue to sign the best players in a football-crazed state.
But, Bollman added, "Youngstown has two high schools now. Cleveland has fewer high schools. Akron has fewer high schools. Are there players? Yeah. Are there as many overall? I don't know how there can be."
Fewer taxpayers means fewer resources. John Magill is the chief strategic officer for the Ohio Department of Development. He is a demographer. He breaks down the population numbers for their meaning to the state.
"From what we've heard and seen," Magill said, "there are fewer teaching positions to [use to] get those good young coaches."
The way it has worked in Ohio for as long anyone can remember is that when a high school hired a new coach, he brought his own staff with him. Each assistant coach got a teaching job in the school. It doesn't work that way any longer. Sometimes, the jobs disappear because enrollment is down. Sometimes, the coaches decide to choose between the field and the classroom. The latter is more secure.
"They are not taking their retirement at 30 years because of health care costs they will face if they step down," Kehres said. "That creates fewer openings. They are not hiring nice, young teachers. They are adjusting stuff. They get retirements, and they don't have to hire anybody."
"You see guys coming into coaching," said Tim Rogers, longtime prep writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "They get a teaching position. They coach for three or four years and then they get out. But they don't give up the teaching job."
Thom McDaniels has coached high school football in Ohio for nearly four decades. He won the 1997 Division I state championship at Canton McKinley. He took McKinley to the 1985 final, then took Warren Harding to the 2002 final, as well.
McDaniels, 61, whose son Josh is the coach of the Denver Broncos, left head coaching after 2008 to care for his elderly parents. He is the quarterbacks coach at Solon High. He still hasn't sold his house in Warren.
"When I took the Warren Harding job in 2000," Thom McDaniels said, "they hired five guys for my staff, and they [each] got teaching positions. Just since then, it's changed significantly."
The unemployment rate in April in Trumbull County, of which Warren is the county seat, stood at 12.7 percent, two points higher than the state as a whole (10.7 percent) and well above the national average of 9.5 percent. And 12.7 is actually good news -- in March, before GM recalled workers to its Lordstown plant, the unemployment rate stood at 14.7 percent.
At some schools, assistant coaches become security guards or hallway monitors at the high school, which at least allows them to keep an eye on their players during the day. Kehres said one of his former players, whom he declined to name, is a coach at an Ohio high school where class ends at 2:30 p.m.
"But he has to start practice at 4:30 because the coaching staff are working men," Kehres said. "That would have been unheard of 20 years ago.
We all should be concerned that we could possibly be having high school athletes being coached less frequently by licensed teachers and coaches."
There is one piece of good news straining to be heard above the din of the bad. There might be fewer schools and fewer coaches. But participation in high school football in Ohio has increased by more than 30 percent in the course of a decade.
According to the Ohio High School Athletic Association, the number of schools sponsoring football in the past decade effectively stayed steady (720 in 2008-09, up from 708 in 1998-99) but the number of students playing football rose by 30 percent to more than 55,000. That pleases OHSAA executive director Dan Ross.
"Every youngster who participates is going to learn life lessons," Ross said. "They are going to enjoy, and they are going to learn what teamwork is and how life isn't always fair."
Ross, a longtime educator in the state, isn't sure why participation numbers are up as enrollment has fallen. He theorized that when schools had more students enrolled, it would have been more difficult to make the team, "Kids may have wanted to go out but knew they didn't have a chance to play," he said.
Fewer kids might mean greater opportunity, but it also means less talent. "Those kids may not be [as good as] the kids that you had to choose from before," Ross said.
And there's anecdotal evidence that the future isn't as bright. Chuck Kyle, the longtime coach at Cleveland St. Ignatius, said he is seeing the consolidation of local Catholic Youth Organization teams even as the high school numbers increase. Other coaches are seeing parents balk at so-called "pay to play" fees across the state. If the taxpayers can't afford it, the price of football has to be paid by someone.
"It will be interesting to see what happens 10 years from now," said Jason Hall, coach at storied Massillon Washington High. "If you can't afford for young kids to play, there will be an effect. I think you're always worried about it. You never know. We're trying hard to get kids out. If you have to choose between youth football and food on the table, you're going to take food."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.