It’s Time for Pennsylvania to Go to Six Classifications
Written by: Phil Myers on Thursday, January 1st, 2015
The topic on whether the PIAA should elect to go to 6 (or even just 5) classes for football has been debated for years. After reading the “Proposed Changes to the PIAA Football Playoff Format” report and doing some research, it is apparent the time has come to move forward and make the change. This article will present arguments for the change to 6 classes and refute the basic arguments against. It will briefly detail what should go hand in hand with the move to 6 classifications, and that is reducing the number of weeks in the season to 15, with the possibility of beginning a week early. And it will present an innovative idea which another state has implemented that eventually levels the playing field. I sat down with the District 9 football chairman and secretary/treasurer, Bob Tonkin, who is the architect behind the 6 class proposal. He patiently answered all questions thrown at him and it was obvious he had put a lot of thought into this plus had done a monumental amount of research. Implementing the change will take a year for the PIAA to iron out the exact details, so 2016 would be the first year for 6 classes. This also coincides with the start of the next two year cycle.
But we get ahead of ourselves. First of all, let’s compare PA to other states in the number of teams, the number of classifications, and the ratios of classes to total number of teams. Pennsylvania is fifth in the number of schools with football at 581 behind California, Michigan, Ohio, and Texas. Currently the Keystone State is second only to California in the ratio of classes to total number of teams at 1 to 145. Besides California and Pennsylvania, only New York, Ohio, and Texas have ratios of 1 to 100 or more. If PA went to 6 classes our ratio would fall to 1 to 97 which would still rank as the fifth largest ratio in the country. Yet we are one of only 16 states with 4 classes or less, joining the likes of Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Rhode Island, and the Dakotas to name a few. In fact, of those other 15 states in addition to PA with 4 or less classes, only three have more than 100 teams. And none has more than 187 teams! It also should be noted that only six other states even have five classes, meaning 30 out of 50 have at least six classes! We’ll take a moment here to refute one of the arguments against class expansion. We have heard people say, ” You may as well give everyone a trophy.” or “Six classes will cheapen the championships.” Raising the number of state champions by two, from 4 to 6, out of 581 teams is hardly giving everyone a trophy or cheapening anything. In reality, the percentage of increase is insignificant. Given the size of Pennsylvania, it is obvious that we are far behind the rest of the country and we have some catching up to do.
Another reason to go to 6 classes is that there will be less of a discrepancy in enrollment and, to a degree, the number of participating athletes per classification. I’ll use DuBois as an example. For years DuBois people have complained that they had to go up against Altoona, St. College, or Erie McDowell in the playoffs. (Altoona is now in the WPIAL) Those three schools rank in the top 30 of the largest schools in PA.
I know there are other factors besides depth, but the larger school argument will become a moot point. Also, from a fans point of view, I’ve looked at where the lines would probably be drawn and I’m telling you there are going to be far more intriguing match ups with six classes than there were with four. People are still going to say, “How do you compete with the Archbishop Woods, the Clairtons, the South Fayettes, and back in the day, the So. Columbias and the Berwicks?” This might be the time to interject the rule that the state of Indiana has implemented, and that is the two-year tournament success factor. The gist of this rule is that if a team, in a two year period, receives enough points because they had success, then for the next two year cycle they move up to the next enrollment class. I will use Indianapolis Cathedral as an example. They won the 4A Championship four years in a row and had to move up to 5A. They won the 5A Title the past two years and next year they move up to 6A. And they are relishing the chance to prove themselves once again! After moving up, if you only have some success or do not succeed, you will remain at that level or fall back to where you were in the prior two year period depending on the points you earned in those two years. Wouldn’t it be grand to see Archbishop Wood and St. Joes Prep someday in the semis or finals? How about South Fayette and Central Valley or back in the day, Berwick and CBW or Southern Columbia and Aliquippa?
Pennsylvania is still a ‘hotbed’ for high school football. We rank in the top ten as far as the number of recruits for college. This was verified when I met one of Pitt’s ex-ADs at a Slippery Rock high school game a couple of years ago, who had done a study. But he also said the Keystone State has fallen down the list of states for recruiting. Part of that reason is exposure. Going to six classes will help give more kids that exposure. Sure we have all that modern technology, youtube, recruiting services, etc., but there is nothing like actually seeing the kid live on the big stage! That probably explains why for example, Lou Holtz came to see Ron Powlus all those years ago or more recently when Urban Meyer came to see Noah Spence. (Although that did not pan out in the long run, Urban must have liked what he saw.)
There are a couple more areas that support the idea of six classes. One is districts can crown more champs, if they are large enough. With 6 classes they can also expand their tournament using the tenth play date if they want. Also, there is the matter of finances. According to Mr.Tonkin this may be an area that needs to be addressed by the PIAA especially for districts and how the revenue is split between them and the PIAA as the playoffs progress. But, the simple fact is 6 classes will mean more playoff games and more money. If there are more games, attendance will increase. If the PIAA moves the season up a week and cuts it to 15 weeks for the 6 classes, I believe attendance will increase far more than the current 16 week season ending in mid December or later. What this means is that most of the season will be played when the weather is nice and it is only logical that better weather means bigger crowds. Plus you are not playing games close to the Christmas shopping season. No other northern state finishes as late as PA! In fact, only 8 other states in the whole country finish as late as us or later!
Let’s look at this through the players’ eyes. If you make it to the state title game, you will have played 16 straight weeks. No college or pro teams play 16 straight weeks without at least a bye. By ending a week or two early (and going to 6 classes allows this more than 4 classes) the kids can make a smoother transition into the winter sport they participate in. They will not miss as many practices or games/matches. Also, as noted above, poor weather is a factor. I’m sure every kid will tell you he would much rather practice for district title games and state playoffs when the weather is still decent. Who really wants to play games or practice in 20 degree windy weather and the field is frozen? Additionally, look at this through the eyes of the band members (and cheerleaders for that matter). They too are part of the high school football experience. I love to watch bands perform at half time and feel really bad when I see them trying to stay warm. It is not easy to be marching around playing an instrument when you are freezing.
An argument against moving the season up a week is the heat acclimation factor. “Too hot!”, I’ve heard some say. Anyone besides me notice that there are more and more 7 on 7 tournaments and linemen challenges throughout the summer. If I’m not mistaken, a few teams from Pennsylvania travel down south for those 7 on 7s. And we true high school football fans usually watch games on ESPN a week before PA begins which usually involve teams from the south or southwest. The point here is that the heat argument has no merit. The kids play 7 on 7 most of the summer and states a lot warmer than us begin at least a week before we do.
Before we address one additional argument against expansion to 6 classes, let’s look at some time lines and unofficial polls. There is an executive meeting of the coaches association later in January of 2015 where the 6 classifications and changing to 15 weeks will be discussed. From what I am hearing it appears the majority of coaches are in favor of change. Mr. Tonkin believes most ADs are on board also. That means if there are no surprises, the proposal will be approved by the coaches association. I’ve heard from a reliable source that most coaches from District 7 are in favor and that is huge as we will see later. Of course a lot can go on behind the scenes which may counter this initiative, but Pennsylvania, to reiterate an earlier point, is so far behind the rest of the country we need to do something. The new grass roots effort may be the thing that helps the proposal come to fruition. Secondly, is the Steering Committee which will be meeting in March and this once a year gathering will mainly focus on the 6 classifications.
Finally, if the proposal is approved by the Steering Committee, the PIAA Board must approve.
That is where there is the most resistance and it comes from just a few districts. There are 31 members and some are adamant about not changing. But if the district reps on the board would swallow some pride and listen to their constituents this thing just may pass. Some of those against are the D-7 people. Their issues vary from the ‘WPIAL being older than the PIAA and we’ll do what we want’ good old boy argument to wanting to keep their 16 team per class and having the finals at Heinz Field tradition. What ever happened to let’s do what is best for the state as a whole? Besides, with some ingenuity they could still have the playoffs at Heinz, it would just have to be over two days, say a Thursday and Friday. This is where the D-7 coaches and ADs come in. They could put pressure on their reps and even if they could get a couple to change their mind it may have a domino type of effect on the other districts who are dragging feet.
There is another district in the west who has a rep dead set against this progression into a new era. Mr. Tonkin has talked with the coaches from some of the schools who were in the playoffs and they are totally for the change. Hopefully, they can put some pressure on their rep to at least consider the idea. One other observation on this subject is, though I may be all wet, I think part of the problem with the districts against the proposal is that their leaders may be lazy and do not want to do the extra work that would be involved if PA goes to 6 classes.
Many things have been presented here and I know there are details that need ironed out, but Pennsylvania high school football is at a crossroads. We have to take a step forward into a new era. It is not fool proof, but I’m confident all issues can and will be worked out. The PIAA is made up of intelligent people with a mind for the kids first and hopefully they do the right thing. There are those that can be swayed to change and there are those who absolutely refuse to give in to change. Here’s hoping the former wins out, because if it does Pennsylvania wins too.
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