Varsity Xtra: Where has all the talent gone?

Once a huge talent source, Western Pennsylvania's output slows



Not unlike the industrial assembly lines that helped build it, the Pittsburgh area has also produced football players.

Entrenched in the area's hills were generations of athletes who contributed significantly to the game's history and made their accomplishments synonymous with their hometown.

It's a point of civic pride, a reminder that even though industry has flocked elsewhere and the population has shrunk, many of the game's greats were born and raised here.

Varsity Xtra: Picking the WPIAL sleepers, champs

The PG's Mike White and Terry Shields look over the WPIAL high school football pairings and make predictions. (Video by Andrew Rush and Melissa Tkach; 10/29/2013)

But as the years have progressed and the sport has changed, is that still the case for an area the Associated Press once dubbed "the ladle of football?"

The answer is unclear and does not fit a narrow storyline.

Over the past 40 years, the number of Pittsburgh-bred football players drafted into the NFL has plummeted while the region has lagged behind numerous other cities in churning out top Division I-A prospects, trends reflective of wider social and demographic change.

Undoubtedly, talent is still here, but it comes with a familiar refrain -- it's just not the same.

"I think Western Pennsylvania is still recognized as a very good area of high school football and a good area for recruiters to come in," said former Steelers director of player operations Tom Donahoe. "It just doesn't produce the same kind of depth that it used to."

For all the anecdotal analysis thrown around on Friday nights, there are statistical shifts that support it.

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Recruiting hotbeds
 
Since 2006, Pittsburgh has produced 33 college football recruits in the Rivals.com annual Top 250. While that's the most in the region, it's five-times less than the recruits from Los Angeles. Here's a look at the hometowns of the Rivals Top 250 recruits from 2006-2014:

Los Angeles - 168

Dallas - 113

Miami - 105

Atlanta - 98

Houston - 68

Washington, DC - 57

Tampa - 56

New York - 46

Chicago - 41

Orlando - 34

Detroit, Pittsburgh  - 33

Phoenix - 31

Norfolk/Virginia Beach - 29

Bay Area - 28

San Diego, Jacksonville - 26

Birmingham, Cleveland  - 24

Charlotte, Mobile, Philadelphia  - 23

Memphis - 22

Cincinnati, Columbus  - 21

Dayton - 20

In the past 25 years, 59 players who graduated from WPIAL and City League high schools were drafted, a fairly impressive number, but one that is less than half the number of players drafted in the 25 years before that (134 from 1964-1988).

Where 76 WPIAL players were drafted in the 1960s and 45 were selected as recently as the 1980s, 26 were taken over the past decade, the most recent number in a downward drift.

The area that was the training ground for household names such as Montana, Unitas and Namath has not had a quarterback make an AP All-Pro team since Dan Marino in 1995.

While it's still an important area for major colleges to recruit players, Western Pennsylvania also remains a tier or two below several other major cities when it comes to manufacturing elite Division I-A prospects.

Since 2006, the year Rivals.com began ranked lists of high school players, the Pittsburgh region has had an average of 3.67 players per year among the website's top 250 players, tying it with Detroit for 11th among American cities. When counting five and four-star players, the WPIAL has produced an average of 4.78 per year, 13th among major cities, along with Cleveland.

This season, Gateway's Montae Nicholson is the lone WPIAL player ranked in the website's top 150 players and there is no local prospect listed among the top 100, the first time that has happened since the rankings began.

Granted, recruiting is cyclical and despite a lack of star power, more players are expected to sign Division I-A scholarships this year than last, a class which had top-150 players Robert Foster, Dorian Johnson and Tyler Boyd.

Still, depth and overall numbers are down.

"You're seeing the high-end guys, but you're not seeing as many four-stars as you used to and four-stars are guys who are projected to be potential All-Americans at the college level," said Mike Farrell, Rivals' national recruiting analyst. "The WPIAL has a tremendous reputation as a great football league, but I don't think it has the same reputation it had, say, 10 years ago when it comes to producing sure-fire Division I talent."

It's a numbers game

Though the numbers point to a downward trend, they don't exist in a vacuum. In part, they are a byproduct of larger social and historical factors well outside the control of the players and coaches who take the field.

Chief among those factors is a familiar topic in the Pittsburgh area -- population loss.

The city that was home to about 680,000 residents in 1950 had a population of 305,704 according to the 2010 census, a 55 percent decrease in 60 years. The metropolitan population increased in that time, however, from 2.21 million to 2.36 million, but it was a small jump relative to other large American cities.

As the city lost residents, others, mainly in the south and southwest, saw their populations swell. Not so coincidentally, places such as Dallas and Atlanta that regularly supply top college recruits and NFL draft picks were beneficiaries of a migration from the industrial East and Midwest to the so-called "Sun Belt."

In 1952, for example, eight players from the Pittsburgh area were drafted into the NFL while only one was from Miami, then a city with a metro population of 579,017. By 2012, as Miami's population climbed to 5.5 million, it had 16 players drafted, as opposed to two from Pittsburgh.

Simply put, as Pittsburgh has lost residents, it has lost football players and as other cities have grown, they have gained them.

"Whether it's electoral-college votes or jobs, there's been that shift," said Rob Ruck, a Pitt history professor and sports historian. "There are always going to be shifts and the shifts are going to follow population."

Aliquippa carries banner

If there is one person who has figured out how to beat a numbers game, it's Mike Zmijanac.

The Aliquippa coach presides over a powerhouse program, one that has won 12 WPIAL championships in the past 29 years while laying claim to first-round NFL draft picks such as Sean Gilbert, Ty Law, Darrelle Revis and Jonathan Baldwin.

Most impressively, all that success has taken place at a school that currently has about 130 male students and in a city that has shrunk from more than 26,000 residents in 1960 to 9,438 in 2010.

In some sense, Aliquippa is reflective of Pittsburgh.

Yes, not nearly as many top-level players come from the area as they did 30 to 40 years ago, but it still houses talent. Since 2000, 14 spots on AP all-pro teams have been taken up by former WPIAL players, an average of more than one per year. In 2010, Woodland Hills alone had six players on active NFL rosters, the most of any high school in the country.

Of the 10 cities that had more players per year than Pittsburgh in the top 250 of the Rivals rankings, only Orlando has a smaller metro population.

The quantity of players is gone, but the quality, for the most part, is still there.

"The great players are just as good as the great players always were," Zmijanac said. "There's just not as many of them."

Ruck noted that, when looking at per-capita numbers, many parts of Pittsburgh have become what he calls "microcultures of sporting excellence," areas that produce a disproportionate number of players in a particular sport.

"We prioritize football," he said. "I think the region is doing really well considering all the hits they're taking."

In the view of Donahoe, a high school coach for 16 years at now-defunct Mon Valley Catholic and later Seton-LaSalle, the numbers are simply no longer there. Football rosters nationwide have dwindled and locally, the talent pool has shrunk along with the population.

But for all the city has lost, it still holds on to a passion for a sport that has been so long tied to its identity, even if it's not what it once was.

"High school football matters in Western Pennsylvania," Donahoe said. "I don't think that's ever going to change."


Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com. Twitter: @CraigMeyerPG.

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