STOVALL: A growing Big 10 pipeline runs through Southern Crescent football

Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s when I started becoming a bonafied college football fan, growing up in Nebraska Cornhusker land, I remember when I started wondering about why teams from the plains states seemed to be the powerhouses of the sport.

Back then, although Nebraska didn’t get on its national championship clip until the ’90s, it, along with schools like Oklahoma, Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame, was always in the hunt.

Even schools like Iowa, back in the Hayden Fry coaching days, were consistently considered as legit. To be sure, the south had its share of dominance, especially in the state of Florida. But California schools and Texas — as in the Longhorns — also ruled the day.

I could understand why schools in California, Texas and Florida were always good. The blue chip talent was right in their back yards. College recruiters in those states didn’t have to rack up a whole bunch of frequent flier mileage on their recruiting tours.

Same could be said about schools like Alabama. Though slight in population in comparison to the aforementioned three states, the talent there has always been plenteous. And being next to perennial talent hotbeds like Florida and Georgia didn’t hurt either.

I even understood why Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State were always on top. They had the tradition, sure. But back in those days, the effects of the Rust Belt Exodus of the 1980s hadn’t started to kick in yet, and the area was still rife with gifted athletes.

Now, no offense to where I was reared. But when I would look at the players who dotted those rosters at Nebreaska and Iowa — many of them hailing from Florida, Texas, California, New Jersey and the like — the same one-word question kept popping up.


Why would you leave the confines of the warm sunny south or the beaches of California to come to cold, flat, sparsely populated Lincoln, Neb., or Iowa City, Iowa —places that looked like suburbs with no metropolis?

Or even Minnesota?

From the interviews I remember hearing on TV and reading in the newspaper, these players were willing to forsake their climate comfort zones because, in their eyes, there was something special about playing in places where you were the only show in town.

Well, things have definitely changed. Ask most football athletes now, and they’ll say there’s something special about getting to the NFL and the fat contract as soon as possible. That’s why more players are staying closer to their southern and western homes.

But lately Minnesota — and others, no doubt — has been doing its part to help bring back the ’80s.

It’s last two recruiting classes have a southern flavor — more specifically, a Southern Crescent flavor. Of course there was Dutchtown’s Donovahn Jones who spurned new SEC member Missouri to head up north. But this year, the Gophers stuck their recruiting ladle back into the Henry/Clayton County soup bowl and pulled out a pair of Mundy’s Mill stars in tailback Rodney Smith and linebacker Jonathan Celestin.

Apparently the two are impressive enough that, while Minnesota receivers coach Brian Anderson was speaking highly of Jones’ progress at wide receiver, he was also able to say a few nice things about the school’s latest Southern Crescent coup.

“Special,” Anderson said of Smith and Celestin matter of factly. “They can be special. And the thing about it is, they weren’t necessarily highly recruited kids, but they fit what we wanted. We don’t care about what other folks are doing in recruiting. We go out and get what is right for us.”

Jones said he talks with the Mundy’s Mill pair pretty much on a daily basis. He’s also seen enough in the freshmen to believe they’ll continue to represent our area well.

“Right now Rodney just needs to learn our offense and Jonathan the defense, but when they get their opportunity to prove what they can do, they’re going to be real, real nice,” Jones said.

Anderson said it bodes well for Minnesota when athletes that come up north from fertile southern recruiting grounds like Georgia do well. He said it causes future recruits from this area, who perhaps would have otherwise looked the other way, to pay closer attention to the northernmost state (aside from Alaska) in the country.

It also gives me more opportunities to root for teams like Minnesota who get their hands on the players we take pride in covering here.

Even when they’re beating my Huskers.

Gabriel Stovall covers sports for the Henry Daily Herald and Clayton News Daily newspapers. He can be reached at gstovall@henryherald.com. On Twitter? Follow him @GabrielStovall1.