Wednesday, June 15, 2011

apropos of nothing: A post about high school football

Editor's Note: Sometimes I start thinking too much about a topic and I feel the need to get those thoughts out in print. You may recall that this happened recently in a post about Harry Potter. Apologies in advance.

Since we occasionally fuss on this blog about playoff representation, it seems like the perfect time for me to discuss the state of Alabama's high school playoff representation rules (my alternate personality: No it does not ... no one cares about this but you).

For most of my time as a high school football player, I complained endlessly about the level of unfairness in the state's playoff system.

Back then — yes, wayyy back in the late 1990s, when I had only the vaguest idea about "Lord of the Rings" and couldn't fathom the idea of a "blog" — the AHSAA had its schools divided into 6 classifications (obviously), and those classifications were divided into 3-team and 4-team "areas" — which, by the way, it still does for sports other than football. The difference: in other sports such as baseball and basketball, teams face their area opponents at least twice during the season (and then again in a postseason tournament, usually), creating a larger sample size.

The area system continually irked me and my head coach, Spence McCracken. By nature, it essentially required playoff participants to win one game, or two games, in a 10-game schedule. The microcosm of this: In 1996 and '97, we in Opelika sat home and watched the playoffs (with final records of 6-4 and 8-2, respectively) owing to area losses; meanwhile, Carver-Montgomery made the playoffs owing to one win over Selma. Selma!

So when the AHSAA announced it was creating a region system — that first went into effect in 2000, two years after my senior season (thanks for that, guys) — I heartily approved. Playoff representation is now much more equitable: Instead of only 1 or 2 games on the schedule mattering, truly mattering, the bulk of the schedule is region play. As a result (in theory, anyway) the best teams make the playoffs and the worst teams do not.

Still, 2 very large problems exist.
Problem No. 1: Travel. Here's the problem: Not every school in the state can play "local" region games. Opelika, for example, plays in a region with Enterprise, Dothan and Northview. That's at least one pretty long trip every year (usually two).
They're not the worst off, by any means. Last year the eventual 3A state champs from Leeds (near Birmingham) played region games at Walter Wellborn (Anniston) and at Beulah (near Opelika), and hosted Clay County (below Talladega), Central Coosa (below Sylacauga) and Handley (Randolph Co.). Match some of those teams up against one another, then say, "Y'all figure out the travel on your own" ... it can be pretty difficult logistically (not to mention financially, as the price of traveling, feeding and caring for 45-65 young athletes continues to climb).
Problem No. 2: It makes schedules, like, hard and stuff. A few years ago, Jeff Steers, then the B.B. Comer head coach (now I think he's an assistant at Sylacauaga) made the observation that region play has made life much more difficult for coaches.
"Region play is costing a lot of coaches their jobs," he said.
It's a fair observation. During Steers' two-year tenure at Comer, the Tigers — every team in Talladega County is the "Tigers" — won a grand total of 2 football games, both during his first year. This was for multiple reasons: a) They just weren't all that good; b) They were stuck in a region with a bunch of teams who were really good, and they had to bear the brunt of the beatings.
This is the unending difficulty of region scheduling: If your returning team looks lousy, you can't build your schedule around a bunch of other lousy teams. Auburn High used to be quite adept at this — my senior year, while were being tested vs. Vigor, Prattville and Robert E. Lee, AHS was running a gauntlet that included Lanett, B.T. Washington and Eufaula (note: in the interest of fairness, I should note they also played Vestavia, the eventual state champs, for good measure).
You get the idea, though. With more flexibility, a coach can schedule himself more "winnable" dates; this enables him to finish his season and say, "But we finished 7-3! That's progress!" even if his squad got housed in the games that truly counted.
(Of course, the lack of scheduling flexibility can also be a positive thing. In years past, teams like Hazlewood or Pike County wound up playing a bunch of much larger schools to fill out their schedules, and only because no one else outside their areas would dare schedule them. So maybe this is a bit of a wash.)

I'm not sure other states are doing this much better. The region I covered while working in Dublin, Ga., got a heaping helping of unfairness dumped on it by its state sanctioning body in 2004.
Here's what happened: The GHSA (in Georgia they do without the extra "A"), for reasons that were never fully explained — seriously, we asked like 80 different times — decided to align the region we were in with a whopping 14 teams, with the north end in Dodge County (near Macon) and the south end in Savannah. They did this, they said, for "geographic" reasons. Wait, it gets worse: Every region in the GHSA only got 4 playoff spots, regardless of how many teams comprised them. Wait, it gets worse than that: They didn't bother giving any instructions to the region members about how to choose its 4 playoff reps; the GHSA basically left it up to each region to figure it out.
The end result, after 2 days' worth of meetings that involved a great deal of tooth-gnashing and finger-pointing: The coaches divided the region in 2; teams played their 6 "sub-region" opponents plus a cross-over game vs. the opposing sub-region, plus 2 non-region dates. And they decided to leave Week 10 open for another cross-over, only this week would be reserved for each of the top-4 from each sub-region to play the top-4 from the other sub-region, for the right to make the state playoffs.
You read that right: Because of the GHSA's idiotic region alignment, every team in that region had to play an extra playoff game.
(Incidentally, Dublin High, one of our local squads, actually made it all the way to semi-final round that year. In other words, they won as many playoff games as it would've taken to win state.)

To be honest, I've no idea how other states handle their championships, and I'm sure each circumstance has its own special approach (Texas, for example, is like nothing else anywhere). But I'm open to suggestions.

(Oh, who are we kidding? Nobody's going to read this thing.)


Clay said...

The Region System in the GHSA hasn't gotten much better since 2004. Now, most of the regions are 8-10 teams, rather than 6-7 like they were back in the day. With the larger regions, teams are losing their schedule flexibility. Though you get a better idea from the regular season how playoff-worthy some schools are with super-regions, you've got to drive a longer distance and you don't get to schedule the games you want to play. Having moderately smaller regions helps eliminate a good many of those long drives you're talking about because a smaller region makes it easier to encompass schools within a closer proximity.

As for playoff representation, the GHSA system is really messed up, but nobody can come up with a better idea than the 4 teams per region rule we've got in place now. Hopefully, when the state moves to six classifications next year, they can figure something out that's fairer, equal and more consistent.

...And there are some folks (I might be the only one) that read blog posts about high school football. Playoff representation is something that needs to be complained about, especially in Georgia. So thanks for bringing it up.

Amanda said...

H.S football schedules are weird. In Huntsville, all five city teams play each other, due to proximity, tradition, and sharing stadium space. But if you win 'the city' you win nothing - not even a meaningless trophy - because the schools are in different regions or whatever, as well as different classifications. I think it was my freshman year that Grissom 'won the city' and didn't even make the playoffs due to region losses. But who cares about any h.s. football north of metro B'ham, right? Well, I guess you do have to admit maybe Russellville and Cullman have had good teams of late.