- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
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Following the 2009 season, Charlie Strong took over a Louisville program that hadn't had a winning season in three years.
Flash forward to this season when the Cardinals went 11-2 and won just their second BCS bowl in school history by beating Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It's a pretty remarkable turnaround, and it started when Strong made the decision to start stocking his roster with players from Florida.
"I felt like once I cleaned up Kentucky, I had to get into Florida," Strong said. "You have to have the players from Florida. If you don't have enough players from within your state, you have to go somewhere else. In that state, there's enough players that you can get football players."
There were 19 players from Florida on Louisville's 2009 roster. The 2012 Cardinals had 34 from the state, including 15 on the two-deep depth chart.
Strong isn't alone. Coaches from across the nation come to Florida to get players. An ESPN.com examination of the rosters of the top 20 teams in the 2010 final Associated Press poll revealed that those teams had 147 players from Florida. That was fourth behind Texas (478), California (200) and Alabama (152). It should be noted that Florida and Miami, which draw the majority of their players from the state, were not among the top 20 teams. Florida State was 17th.
The Tulsa World examined the roster of every FBS school in the country in 2009 and found that Florida produced the third-most recruits. Texas and California were first and second, respectively.
There are 559 high schools playing football in the state, which means there are more than enough players for the state's seven FBS schools as well as out-of-state schools. And there are not just skill-position players, either.
"The nice thing about Florida is they've got a little bit of everything there," said Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, who had eight players from Florida among his 19-member signing class in 2012. "You're not limited by position. Whether it's quarterbacks, skill kids, front guys, you've got a little bit of everything there."
Several college coaches said players from Florida are no more versatile or athletic than players from other states. What they did say, however, is that players from Florida -- as well as those from other Southern or warm-weather states -- are generally a little more advanced than players from the upper Midwest or the Northeast because they have the benefit of spring practice. That doesn't mean they're more ready to contribute early than a player from, say, Nebraska, just that the extra practice time can make a difference.
That helps when you're scouting a player, Southern Miss coach Todd Monken said.
"I always say this even to our current players: The reason our guys are really good at video games is because they play it all the time," Monken said. "If you just show up and play 'Modern Warfare' you get killed. I think you only get good at what you spend time at.
"Whatever you do more of you're going to get better at."
It's not just spring practice that makes a difference, UF coach Will Muschamp said. It's being able to be outside all year. Whether they're tossing a football around, playing basketball, or running track, the physical activity helps the players develop.
"That's a total difference," Muschamp said. "The kids are outside 12 months of the year. That's as much [of a difference] as anything. They have those opportunities to go play."
As for getting those kids, Strong and Grobe have a different plan than Monken. Strong and Grobe have more contacts in the state than Monken and therefore have better relationships. Strong developed his throughout his four different tenures at Florida, including being the defensive coordinator from 2003 to '09.
"You've got to have some contacts. You've got to know somebody," Strong said. "The only reason why you go to Florida is you have a contact. Somebody's got to know somebody.
"We know with the relationships we've built we know what we're getting as far as character, total player, work ethic. We know exactly what we're getting."
It took Grobe awhile to develop his contacts in the state, but he now has four assistant coaches assigned to Florida and estimated that the school spends about half its recruiting budget in the state.
"I do think when you have as many kids as we have from the state of Florida, what happens is we get a really close relationship with the high school coaches," said Grobe, who has been recruiting Florida since he became Wake Forest's head coach in 2001 and had 31 players from the state on his 2012 roster. "That's where we really rely on doing our research. That's where we get the best recommendations, from high school coaches that we've developed a relationship with. So many times we'll walk into a high school and a coach will say to us, 'Coach, this is your kind of kid.'
"There's a little trust that goes both ways."
Monken has a different approach. He's a first-time head coach and never recruited Florida much in his stops at Notre Dame, Louisiana Tech, LSU and Oklahoma State. He's concentrating on recruiting Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, but also is planning on expanding into the Florida Panhandle and possibly as far east as Jacksonville. He isn't planning on going deeper into the state because he wants to stay within roughly a five-hour radius of the campus in Hattiesburg, Miss.
"I always said when I took a job I wanted it to be one when you have a five-hour drive where you can get players," he said. "A young man's family wants to see him play.
"You can't get everywhere. You only have so many days out [on the road recruiting] and you can only build so many relationships and feel you can trust them and they can trust you and they'll send you players."
All of the coaches agree that once an out-of-state program gets established in Florida -- or any other state -- the players from the state become the program's best recruiters. If they are happy, they'll tell their friends, family and coaches back home and that gets back to other recruits. That's invaluable, especially if the program isn't within reasonable driving distance or is in a state with a different climate.
"If you bring kids into your program and they like the experience they're having, they're going to spread that to others," Monken said. "There's a comfort level kids [have with other kids from] where they're from and who they played against or idolized when they were younger.
"When it's close, those factors are going to be huge."