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Debate Over Split HS Football Playoffs Rages

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As a hall of fame head coach who helped build one of Pennsylvania's premier high school football programs, Mike Williams' words carry much weight.

So when the former Baron boss and current assistant coach expresses his frustration with the PIAA's playoff system, well, it's like the old E.F. Hutton commercial - people listen.

Question is, do they hear?

Many do, and they share his concerns.

"I've talked with a lot of people over the last few years and there's a lot of anger and hostility," Williams said. "We as coaches understand what private schools can do and what public schools can do."

What private schools, including parochial and charter schools, can do is operate without borders, taking in students from multiple school districts. Public schools have district boundaries to adhere to.

The result, many public coaches believe, is an uneven playing field that has resulted in private schools dominating Pennsylvania's football playoffs.

"Private schools have the advantage of recruiting students from all over, and they have to recruit," Williams said, noting the necessity of attracting students to a non-public school. "Public schools have boundaries and can't recruit."

The PIAA has been so divided on the issue it has struggled to even define public and private schools, referring to them as "boundary" and "non-boundary," respectively, before doing away with those definitions.

As the PIAA moved to adopt those terms, the General Assembly intervened. It introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate an amendment stating the PIAA would be required not to discriminate against any student enrolled at a private school. The amendment was made to prevent the PIAA from separating public and private schools, which had been the case from 1943 until 1974 with the existence of the Pennsylvania Catholic Interscholastic Athletic Association (PCIAA).

Looking to other states

In wanting to return to separate playoffs, Williams emphasized he has nothing against private schools.

"They're great schools," he said, "very necessary for our society. And it's not that they're doing anything wrong. They're doing what is within their legal boundaries."

What Williams would like to see is Pennsylvania follow the lead of other states and have separate tournaments for private and public schools. They could continue to play one another during the regular season, he stated, but should go their separate ways once seasons hang in the balance in the postseason.

"Private schools would have their tournament and public schools would have their tournament," he said. "It's a win-win for everyone."

Separate tournaments, he said, would eliminate situations like this season, when L-L Section One and District Three champion Wilson found itself confronting WPIAL king Pittsburgh Central Catholic in the Class 6A semifinals. The Vikings boasted no less than nine Division I players.

"When you get a high school team with (nine) Division I players, that's just not typical for public schools," Williams said. "Wilson was playing against a stacked deck (in a 63-21 defeat) and the next week Pittsburgh Central Catholic was playing against an even more stacked deck (in St. Joseph's Prep, which mercy-ruled PCC, 42-7)."

The state title was St. Joe's third in four years and one of four championships claimed by private schools in the new six-classifications field.

Longstanding issue

Private schools winning state championships are nothing new; they've been doing it since PIAA football playoffs were instituted in 1988. But the preponderance of private school championships has been increasing and many public schools find themselves having to be content with section titles and no real hope of district or state championships.

From 1989 to 2009, Manheim Central was a powerhouse program that won a record 16 district titles, earned a state championship and played for two more.

But, Williams noted, those Baron teams didn't have to deal with private school powers like Bishop McDevitt and Archbishop Wood. Their lone parochial school adversary was Allentown Central Catholic, with ACC winning two of their three meetings from 1996-98.

Williams didn't consider the playing field at that time to be uneven, mainly because private schools weren't dominating to the point they are now, and Philadelphia private school giants like Archbishop Wood and St. Joe's had yet to join the PIAA playoffs, which they did in 2008.

Williams says that while most public schools only field particularly high-caliber teams every few years, private schools reload yearly.

"We had one of the greatest classes we've had in years," Williams said of this year's 11-2 Baron squad, "and we didn't get past the second round of states."

Central lost in the district final to another public school, Harrisburg, which reached the state final before being manhandled by Archbishop Wood.

Williams said he feels for public school programs because in most cases they can only go so far and thus will never experience the magic of winning a state title as Central did in 2003.

"You can have a great team and have almost no chance to win a state title," he said. "And there's nothing like a state championship in any sport to bring a community together."

Sheer dominance

Since 2013 private schools have won 13 of 18 state football titles. You have to go back to 2008 to find the last time public schools held sway in the finals.

The trend is not lost on Pennsylvania's coaches. When traditional power Berwick was beaten 42-14 by Archbishop Wood in the 2013 3A semis, legendary Bulldog boss George Curry declared his team public school state champions since they were the last non-private school still standing.

Williams and some of his fellow coaches wonder where is the outrage from those in power who could make a difference?

"Who's fighting for the Cocalicos, the Wilsons, the West Alleghenys?" he asked. "Where are the state legislators to be advocates for us?"

Bumpy road to change

Williams said he did speak with one legislator but the gist of the conversation was that public and private school playoffs were not something the state legislature wants to deal with.

There's a belief within the PIAA that, should it attempt to separate private and public schools, it's likely to face a legal challenge from the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

"If there is a legal issue let us know," Williams said of the PIAA. "Let the public know."

In the meantime, what does the football future hold for public schools?

"It's a bleak outlook," Williams said. "The past few years have proven pretty futile."

PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi has dismissed the public-private debate as "sour grapes" and noted that private schools account for just 23 percent of PIAA membership.

"People can say it's sour grapes," Williams said, "but a school like McDevitt can get an exceptional class every year and we can only get an exceptional class every few years. Having players come up through the system is vastly different than getting athletes from different areas.

"A lot of public school coaches feel like cannon fodder for private schools. I'm not saying anything bad about private schools. This is about giving public schools a chance at something wonderful - a state championship."

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Pennlive.Com Via Ap St. Joseph's Prep Celebrates Saturday, Dec. 10, After Defeating Central Catholic In The Piaa Class 6A State Championship Game In Hershey.
 
December 20, 2016
 
 
 

 

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