December 7, 2011

More obstacles than state associations to title game

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If every great journey begins with a first step the path to a high school football national championship game may be an adventure that has officially begun.

As reported by Jason Frakes of the Louisville Courier-Journal, Louisville (Ky.) Trinity and Ramsey (N.J.) Don Bosco had their attempt to create a national high school football game squashed by their state associations recently.

The game - which would have featured the top two teams in the RivalsHigh 100 and nearly every high school ranking - was blocked for a number of reasons, the biggest being rules that prevent teams from playing games after the season.

Whether such a game could ever be established is a tough call.

Such a matchup is wanted, would have no difficulty finding a TV partner and would seem to be the next logical step for a sport that has seen an explosion of national out-of-state games in the past decade. But bringing the game to fruition would require a lot more than just state associations changing their bylaws.

After talking to high school and state officials, bowl representatives and three game organizers (all of which would jump quickly for the chance to run such a game), RivalsHigh has identified a number of obstacles blocking a National Championship Game for high school football.

Getting permission to play the game
It's the first stumbling block. High school associations do not allow schools to go past their scheduled seasons for a number of reasons - the biggest is that they would cut into the winter sports season and they don't want sports to be never-ending. Some schools already need to play 16 games to win a state title; adding another would make it the longest football season at any level.

Possible solution: Billy Fleming of Gridiron Productions said you could use the same method basketball and baseball teams do in the summer, having the athletes participate as renamed AAU teams while using a big-pocket sponsor to pick up the costs. Steve Timko, the executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, says not so fast. "We would have a problem with that," he said. "Unless our membership voted to change the bylaws, teams cannot play out of season until after the final NJSIAA sanctioned event [in the spring]." And if an outside entity picked up all the costs for new uniforms and travel, the basic amateur status of the athletes could be in question.

Picking a site and a date
A home game for one team or a neutral site? A high school stadium or a college or pro venue? A predetermined location or one selection only after the teams were selected? There are no easy answers. Pro and college sites can be cost prohibitive and require too much advance notice. A larger high school site (one holding roughly 15,000) would provide better atmosphere. Of course, high school stadiums often have no trained support staff. And if you pick a neutral site, could you find one that would draw fans for out-of-area teams? As for a date, with so many state finals going until mid-December or later, the game would have to be played after Christmas, not before.

Possible solution: Piggyback onto a mid-level college bowl game, perhaps playing the night before. A bowl organization already is adept at handling logistics of a big event and there would be football-crazed fans in the area on game night. The addition of a high school title game could add excitement to the venue. One game that may make sense is the Armed Forces Bowl, played in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, where there is a passion for the game, at a stadium that holds just over 30,000. "Every year there seems to be talk of a national game, this year more than ever," Armed Forces Bowl executive director Brant Ringler said. "We haven't prepared a formal presentation but that's something we would be interested in hearing more about."

Picking the teams to play
OK, so this year appears to be easy with Trinity and Bosco in the top spots of just about every ranking and they both finished their seasons last weekend. But what about No. 3 Dallas (Texas) Skyline and No. 6 Miramar (Fla.) High? Both still have two games remaining in two of the top football states. The top teams usually won't be clear until the third weekend of December. And even after the games are played, you may have a BCS-type mess. RivalsHigh analyst Dallas Jackson, who evaluates and selects the RivalsHigh 100, said last season would have been difficult. It looked like Batesville (Miss.) South Panola and Euless (Texas) Trinity. But when Trinity lost its state final, the door was open - for either Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas or Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward. Which school would get the nod? And who would decide?

Possible solution: Sorry, there isn't one here. In fact, it may become a bigger issue in high school than college, which at least has power conferences. Picking the best two high school teams will never be a no-brainer. "With the exception of our poll, last year, literally every poll had Euless Trinity from Texas at the top spot all season when we had South Panola," Jackson said. "When the Trojans lost, it sent a lot of polls to a scramble and St. Thomas Aquinas, De La Salle and Lakewood St. Edward all got votes from others. Picking which one would take on South Panola would have been a nightmare."

What about kids committed to other events/sports?
Who wouldn't be happy with a National Championship Game for high school football, a festive event providing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for two schools and their players, most of which will not advance past the high school level? What about the organizers of all-star games that are played during the holiday season? Invites are accepted months in advance. Organizers might not be happy if they have to find last-minute replacements. And then there are the winter sports coaches at the respective schools. It's hard to build chemistry in basketball if key players don't arrive until January.

Possible solution: Again, a tough one. national analyst Mike Farrell feels schools will hear about it from all-star games if they pull their players at the last minute. "They might think about whether they should invite kids from that school again," he said. Don Bosco, for instance, has four players headed to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio. Brian Hercules, who left his job as a school athletic director to found Hercules Sports Management, understands the impact in the school athletic department. "Coaches understand they might get the football players (for their winter sports) 2-3 weeks late. Now you're talking about 6-8 weeks. That could disrupt the entire season. Trust me, there will be some pushback."

Is this in the best interest of the players?
Again, who would be against one more game - especially if it determined a national champion? But what if it's one more game to add to the 16-game season some state champs already play? And what if it means three weeks more practice added on to a season that started in August - but really began with spring practice and summer weight training? How much is too much, especially for kids who are better in other sports? Should a wrestler hurt his chance at a state title or a basketball player cost himself a chance for a scholarship for one more game? Hercules said he favors multi-sport athletes. He understands it's just two schools in discussion, but it will have a great impact on the student-athletes at those schools. And if you lose the game, was it worth it?

Possible solution: There's not a good one here. Players are not allowed to play two sports at the same time. And leaving football early likely wouldn't go over well with teammates - not to mention supporters. That's a tough decision for a high school kid to make. "It wouldn't be a hard thing if you are a football star to pass up wrestling or basketball," Jackson said. "But if you are the fourth receiver and the star point guard or if you are a reserve center but an all-state wrestler it would be a tough call to miss the sport you are better at."

It all seems so easy. Two great teams. One more game. One high school national champion. The reality is that it is anything but easy with logistical issues far beyond bylaws of state associations.

Two seasons ago, ESPN started the ESPN Rise National High School Invitational, an eight-team basketball event that is supposed to determine a national champion. The event has proven to be little more than just another tournament.

Only one state (Florida) has given its schools permission to enter the event, leaving it filled with top-flight independent schools.

A national tournament for basketball, with fewer players and smaller site needs and prep time, should be easy to organize. The inability of the Rise tourney to catch on as a legitimate end-of-the year event illustrates just how tough a football title game would be to arrange.

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