Are Northern football players slower than Southerners?

The stadium scene.
Jan. 9 2002 3:34 PM

Not So Fast

Southern football players can't run any faster than their Northern counterparts. So, why does the media keep telling us that they do?

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If you watched any 2-minute span of the Rose Bowl last week, you probably heard a TV commentator rhapsodizing about Miami's superior speed. "There's no question right now," declared color man Tim Brant, echoing his theme of the evening, "the difference in this ballgame is pure speed." Indeed, the sports media made this the lesson not only of the Rose Bowl but of the entire bowl season. The notion has been afoot for several years that college football teams from the North are usually too slow to compete with teams from the South—or, as ESPN commentator Lee Corso calls the region, "the speed states." This season, with Southern schools beating Northern opponents in several high-profile games—the SEC won all three matchups against the Big 10—the idea seems to have been vindicated.

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The operating theory here isn't the familiar idea that blacks run faster than whites—Northern teams have about the same racial composition as Southern teams—but that the South in general, and Florida in particular, is faster than the North. To those who don't follow college football, the idea that there is such a thing as "speed states" may sound nothing short of bizarre. I, for instance, hail from a "slow" Northern state, yet I've spent plenty of time in Florida, and in my time there I failed to detect any pattern of pedestrians striding past me on the sidewalk or whizzing by as I jog along the beach. There's no historical record of Confederate troops using superior speed to outflank their plodding Union foes during the Civil War. College football fans, though, take it as an article of faith. Often the argument takes on quasi-genetic undertones. "Northern kids, by and large, can't run with kids from Florida," writes Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon.

Like many myths, this one contains a bit of truth. Southern teams play outside their region only during two parts of the year: in September non-conference games, and in the bowls. Since the former take place when it's warm everywhere, and the latter almost always take place in a warm-weather climate, that means Southern college football teams, unlike their NFL counterparts, never play in cold weather. As a result, many of them play a more wide-open, pass-oriented style than Northern teams, which need players and systems that can succeed in the snow as well as in the sun. So, while the Southern style of football certainly looks faster, that doesn't mean that the players actually run faster. After all, the few Northern teams that run wide-open spread offenses—such as Purdue and Northwestern—look fast, too.

Southern teams and their fans have perpetuated the myth by making a fetish of their recruits' dazzling 40-yard dash times—which have become as much a part of the culture of hard-core college football fans as batting averages are to baseball fans. But the 40-yard dash times reported by players and coaches, alas, are notoriously unreliable, since both have an incentive to exaggerate. The only objective measure available for college athletes is the electronic timing performed by pro scouts at the NFL Draft Combine. Casey Calder, an Internet college football analyst, compared the times of skill position players from Northern schools versus those who played in the South. He found that wide receivers from Northern schools actually outran their Southern counterparts: The Northerners, on average, ran the 40 in 4.502 seconds, while the Southerners ran it in 4.548. Southern and Northern cornerbacks finished in a virtual dead heat, 4.535 to 4.555, respectively.

Or consider high-school 100-meter dash times. I looked at the 10 fastest times posted by high-school runners over the last two years in two states, Michigan and Florida. The Florida average was slightly faster, 10.77 seconds versus 10.78. But the two fastest Michigan runners, Kelly Baraka and Charles Rogers, outpaced anybody from Florida. Both, by the way, play Big 10 football.

How, then, does the speed canard survive? Consider the ways the mythology is formed. In last week's Rose Bowl, for instance, Miami dominated Nebraska in several facets of the game. The massive Hurricane offensive line gave quarterback Ken Dorsey plenty of time to hit his receivers; Nebraska defenders missed several tackles; the Cornhuskers lost a couple of fumbles; and Miami's defensive line kept Nebraska from running up the middle, forcing Nebraska to rely almost exclusively on its quarterback Eric Crouch. None of these things have much to do with foot speed—on the contrary, Miami's proficient pass protection and run-stuffing indicate that the Hurricanes shoved the Huskers around. If you had reversed the jerseys, the story of the game would have been that Nebraska's massive offensive and defensive lines outmuscled Miami. Yet the media decided that Huskers lost because they couldn't keep up.

Part of the irony here is that, beginning in 1992, Nebraska made a concerted effort to recruit faster players, many of them from the state of Florida. Fans and reporters breathlessly reported the 40-yard dash times of the Nebraska defense, and when Nebraska rolled off convincing bowl victories over Miami, Florida, and Tennessee, held up the program as an example of how a Northern team learned to emulate the Southern style. In other words, if a Southern team beats Nebraska, it's because Nebraska couldn't match its Southern speed. If Nebraska beats a Florida team, it's because it imitated the Southern methodology. Either way, the Southern-speed view of college football is vindicated.

And like all irrational prejudices, the speed myth simply ignores contrary data. This year, Tennessee passed for nearly 400 yards in the Citrus Bowl against Michigan, dominating the Wolverine defensive backs. "Speed was the difference at the Citrus Bowl when Tennessee ran circles around Michigan," wrote one columnist, summarizing the conventional wisdom. But two years ago, when Michigan did the same thing to Alabama in the Orange Bowl, no broader conclusions were reached.

The speed myth also survives because its proponents use slippery definitions. This year, Maryland had an overachieving team that suffered a blowout Orange Bowl loss to far more talented Florida. The Post's Wilbon wrote that the game "illuminated the primary difference between Maryland, which essentially is a northern program, and any good program from the south: speed." Wait a second. Maryland lies south of the Mason-Dixon line. How is it a Northern team while, say, Tennessee is a Southern team? Simple. Because Maryland isn't fast. Of course, if Maryland starts recruiting more talented players, it will start winning bowl games. Eventually it may beat a high-profile team from the Midwest. If that happens, I can already tell you what the sportswriters and announcers will conclude: Maryland won due to its Southern speed advantage.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at the New Republic and author of The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics.