Last fall, I attended a high school football game in Mississippi. Batesville Panola vs. Olive Branch, two small schools. But the game attracted 15,000 people. Hundreds of them tail-gated as if it was a college game, like Ole Miss vs. LSU.
Those kind of mini-college games occur every Friday night in the fall throughout the South, further evidence that football is King below the Mason-Dixon Line. If you need to know why the SEC is the most successful and dominant conference in college football, why it ranks ahead of the Big Ten and Big 12 and Pac-10 and ACC, you only have to visit small towns in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana to get an education.
Football is big in the South because there isn't as much to do, not as many professional teams to draw fans away from the high school game. So high school football has a long-standing tradition in the South, ingrained in small towns for 80 years.
There is a close relationship between the towns and their football players. A basketball star or a baseball star doesn't attract as much attention in the South. I am always amazed when I travel through the South at the sight of pictures of local football players and teams posted at local restaurants. The kids are stars, high school athletes, not pros.
Belle Glade, Pahokee and Clewiston are located on the southern edge of Lake Okeechobee in Florida. Belle Glade and Pahokee, about 13 miles apart, have a long rivalry. Both schools have produced a lot of outstanding players. Belle Glade recently supplanted Thornton of Harvey, Ill., with the most players in the NFL.
There are other great rivalries in the South, including Valdosta and Lowndes in Georgia, Brentwood and John Curtis of River Ridge in Tennessee, Shreveport Evangel Christian and West Monroe in Louisiana, Batesville and South Panola in Mississippi and Hoover and Prichard Vigor in Alabama.
Valdosta has won more high school football games than any high school in the nation. Batesville had an 80-game winning streak.
While the Northeast and Midwest have more established programs, some dating back to the late 1800s, the South has surpassed them in terms of talent and enthusiasm in the last 20 years. Why? Let me count the ways.
The big reason is professional teams. Nearly every major urban area in the North has at least one pro team. Hence, there is more competition for fans in the North. In Chicago, for example, there are so many things to choose from. In the South, high school football still is king.
Spring football practice is a difference-maker, too. It helps to develop players and is a huge buildup for the fall. In the Midwest, spring practice is prohibited, primarily because it is argued that it would infringe on other spring sports. But it is an advantage to football players in the South, who are get scholarship offers in April and May when college coaches can observe them. Northern kids don't have that advantage. To them, offers come later or not at all. That's a big edge for the SEC.
If Northern or Midwestern high schools had spring football practice, more kids would get scholarship offers and the playing field with the SEC and other college conferences would be leveled. As it is, more parents in the North are forced to hire personal trainers to work with their sons to try to develop them faster so they can be competitive with southern kids.
It helps. But it doesn't make up for practice sessions, scrimmages, games and jamborees, all of which help to produce better athletes and more enthusiastic fans.