When he coached at places like Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Cincinnati, Sam Pittman couldn't admit what, deep down in his heart, he knew.
He couldn't say the SEC was the best conference in the country when he was on the recruiting trail, so he changed the subject, dodged the questions and tried to convince players that regardless of how dominant the SEC has been in winning national championships and putting players into the NFL, that he could get them there.
“I knew I was wrong when I was recruiting,” Pittman, now the offensive line coach at Arkansas, said. “I thought we could get kids where they needed to go and I didn't say that we had a better league than the SEC, I just tried to avoid the situation.”
Now that Pittman can use the SEC advantages to his favor, though, he's taking it head-on.
The SEC's dominance — seven consecutive national titles and 63 first-round NFL Draft picks over that span — isn't solely due to recruiting. But that's where it all starts.
“Every year, the SEC is playing at a slanted table,” said Clay Travis, a Tennessee-based writer and radio host who has also written two books on SEC football. “It's almost like they're sitting at a dinner table and they put their arms on the table and it tilts in their direction.
“Everything is kind of moving in the SEC's direction.”
It's hard to argue that.
The SEC has won the last seven national championships and had 41 more players drafted in this year's NFL Draft than the Big 12.
And while recruiting rankings aren't scientific, those also point to a large inequality between the conferences.
In the final Rivals.com team recruiting rankings last season, seven SEC teams were ranked ahead of the top Big 12 team (Oklahoma at No. 16). Three more SEC teams made the top 25.
Over the past five seasons, the SEC has had 45 teams finish in the Top 25 on the site's team recruiting rankings while just 16 Big 12 teams have been that high. Twelve SEC teams were represented. The Big 12 had seven teams represented but two of those--Texas A&M and Missouri--are now in the SEC and another, Nebraska, is in the Big Ten.
“There is no league close to them in recruiting right now,” recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. “It's been that way over the past five years and I don't see that changing. I think the SEC will continue to dominate until the other conferences put together a gameplan where they're going to recruit nationally, aggressively and put as much effort toward it as the Southeastern Conference does.”
Oklahoma has expanded its recruiting footprint in recent years, going into California more aggressively and making regular forays into Ohio.
Oklahoma State has had some success in SEC territory this season, with two 2014 commits from Louisiana and one from South Carolina. Two of those three players have multiple offers from SEC schools.
Bob Stoops raised eyebrows this offseason when he said “propaganda that gets fed to you” fuels the perception of the SEC as the nation's dominant conference.
“They've had the best team in college football,” Stoops said then. “They haven't had the whole best conference.”
But it isn't just the Alabamas and the LSUs that are appealing to recruits.
“It's a big deal just to play in the conference,” Norman North quarterback and Alabama commit David Cornwell said. “When you're at a Vanderbilt or a lower-level school, they're still great and hold their own but you're going against those guys and if you pull out a win there (in places like Alabama), that's special. You're a legend at that school. You never get a break in the SEC.”
Lemming sees that play out when he talks to recruits around the country.
“You talk to prospects and they don't even have a preference to which SEC school they go to,” Lemming said. “If they have a chance to go play in the SEC, that's appealing. I'm not saying SEC schools are batting 1.000, but I do think now more than ever, that conference affiliation does matter. It's like a badge of honor.”
Arkansas wide receivers coach Michael Smith, who was at Kansas State until this year, has noticed the effect.
“It's helped,” Smith said of moving over to the SEC. “Kids want to play in the Southeastern Conference. In the states that I recruit, to go out there and have an SEC logo and a Razorback on my shirt, for whatever reason those eyes get a little bit wider.”
Even players who wound up in the Big 12 say the pull of the SEC is strong.
Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon had plenty of SEC offers, including from Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU. In the end he decided to play for his hometown school.
“That's all you hear about is the SEC schools coming out of high school, the SEC has this guy coming out in the first round, that guy coming out,” Dixon said. “It's really just the national exposure that you get when you're in the SEC that is the difference.”
So how does the Big 12 close the gap?
Dixon said they don't necessarily have to.
“It's just two different styles that will never get close,” he said. “We're speed and they're power, so it is what it is.”
For Smith, the answer is simple, yet difficult.
“Win some national championships I guess,” Smith said. “I think college football is good. I think college football's a great game. Those kids have tremendous opportunities to do some special things in their lives wherever they are. But what can those schools do to catch up? I guess win a championship.”