Zac Jackson levels the OHSAA playing field

‘Round these parts, high school sports are more than a big deal. They’re a part of the culture, a topic of front-porch discussion and, football especially, is the subject of year-round anticipation and analysis.

And they bring out strong feelings. So I figured I’d share some of my own.

In the news last week was the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s competitive balance proposal, an idea to reclassify schools by division for state tournament competition based on a three-tiered system of factors. The proposal would have ultimately reclassified tournament divisions based on a school’s drawing boundaries, including open-enrollment policies for public schools; a rolling four-year tradition of success at the state level in a given sport; and a socioeconomic factor based on the number of free lunches provided. Currently, enrollment is the sole factor in determining a school’s division.

The proposal failed in a vote of more than 600 school districts, and the prevailing opinion was that the biggest problem was the “tradition” clause – which would have essentially punished programs, especially in the lower divisions, for being consistently good. The OHSAA still hopes to pass the proposal, possibly after some tweaking, and is also preparing for a petition that will again bring to vote a proposal that would separate publics and privates altogether. That vote will ultimately fail – again – but the issue won’t disappear.

Following are a number of ideas and issues, either my own or those of a handful of coaches or administrators I spoke with last week (from both public and private schools), for not just addressing the competitive balance problem but some other issues as well. Not all of them are “fixes” – the OHSAA has a pretty good thing going – and some are simply issues that need to be addressed while others are ideas to tweak, improve and ultimately create more interest and better opportunities for Ohio’s student athletes.

I never claim to have all the answers, just most of them. And here’s what I think…

**The competitive balance proposal was an acknowledgement that something is – and has been – wrong. Maybe it took a Div. VI state title football game being 77-6 to recognize that, but many of the playing fields are far from level. The OHSAA knows it’s never going to please everyone, but the two most glaring and recurring issues involve small public schools having to compete in lower divisions vs. parochial powerhouse programs and, in Div. I, the glaring disparity between enrollments of the biggest schools and smaller Div. I programs. Most folks would acknowledge that parochial schools have advantages over their public counterparts in many aspects but argue the impact and number of those advantages. I take a look at the small number of parochial schools but the high percentage of those schools that keep landing in the state tournaments, especially in the revenue sports of football and basketball, and I see that something needs to change.

**As for the coach who was still throwing the ball and trying to score in the second half of that 77-6 title game, well, there’s not a common clue clause in any competitive balance structure. But like my good buddy LeBron says, Karma is always watching.

**A multiplier makes sense, something that takes into account the wide range from which most parochials draw students and then later compete against public schools that draw kids from a much smaller area. A system in which the (desired) end result is private schools play up a division (or two) and public schools that receive a certain percentage of open enrollment students do, too, seems to fit. Raw enrollment figures could still be used as a starting point and the divisions could still be balanced.  Isn’t the goal to create not just fairness but competitiveness? The problem with the multiplier, according to OHSAA Commissioner Dan Ross, is that other states that have tried to institute it end up seeing it challenged in court. I’m neither a lawyer nor the commissioner, but I’d make that rule and let any school that had a problem with it know that it’s free to find another association.

**One proposal that might only work in football but could also work in at least a few other sports is the institution of a “super” division, taking the 32 (or 40, or 50, or 64) schools with the highest enrollment (as a starting point) into a division of their own. This is where a past success clause could come into play and probably be less controversial, and an open invitation could also be issued. If, say, Hilliard Davidson and/or Massillon want to play in the “super” division, let them. Ditto for Youngstown Mooney, Ursuline, Maple Heights, Steubenville or anyone else. Those are football ideas, but schools could enter on a sport-by-sport basis. The overall product would not be tarnished. The end result – and interest level – may even be better. A 16-team football playoff system in this division could start a week after the rest of the field begins its postseason, allowing for an optional bye week (like Texas uses in its football system) that would allow teams in that division to enter the postseason fresh and healthy.

**Would that idea water down the field? Slightly, but nothing is going to “tarnish” a state championship in the mind of any kid who earns the right to win one. And though that’s the ultimate goal of any competitor, it can’t be the only objective the OHSAA and school administrators have in mind when addressing these issues. What’s great about high school sports is still the quest to be a big fish in a small pond. No state tournament structure or policy that ultimately involves the best of the best would top what almost every kid who plays gets – the chance to be best on the block, best in the neighborhood, to win the rivalry game and chase the conference title. The goal still has to be for everybody to play and to savor every second and every memory, but for a more fair structure for the postseason and a chance to win a regional or a state title. I hear those of you who say “life isn’t fair” and that football, especially, is a game often won by the strongest and the fastest and the superior side should never have to apologize or let up. True. But anybody who watched our FOX Sports Ohio Thursday night game last year between Kirtland and Cuyahoga Heights knows that was about as good as it gets for small-town football; great players, great atmosphere, great effort. Kirtland won that game and ended up getting all the way to the regional finals in Div. V, the second-smallest division. And that Kirtland team, a really, really good small-school football team, got smashed, 48-0, by Youngstown Ursuline. Houston – er, Columbus – we have a problem.

**Before the e-mail darts get dipped in poison and start flying in my direction, hear me out: I know people at Ursuline, and I do not believe they’re doing anything wrong. They assembled a rare collection of talent, the coaching staff did an amazing job of getting everyone involved and letting its brightest star shine and no one involved should have to apologize for steamrolling a top-flight regular season schedule and then doing the same in the postseason. But here were the scores of Ursuline’s five playoff games last season: 55-22, 42-0, 48-0, 51-36, 51-21. Those are actual numbers. Without actual numbers but with the certainty of someone (me) who saw Ursuline play five times last season, Ursuline would have similarly steamrolled through the Div. IV playoffs and would have been a two-touchdown favorite in the Div. III title game. Last year, by the way, was Ursuline’s third straight Div. V state title. It’s time for a change.

**A puzzling aspect of the competitive balance proposal was the free lunch aspect, a nod to the disadvantages that schools in urban areas are facing in these times. “I’m not sure what free lunch has to do with the regional basketball tournament” is something I heard more than once last week, but here’s my best guess: With so many schools struggling in many aspects, the sports-rich are getting richer. And that’s not just a public-parochial thing, because the best athletes in Akron end up at Buchtel, the best basketball players in Columbus flock to Northland and Cleveland Glenville’s Ohio State pipeline is matched only by the pipeline that brings Glenville’s football team between 5-20 transfers in any given year. Barring a total revamp of the system, that’s not going to change. And I would never begrudge anyone for chasing a better opportunity, but shouldn’t those schools be playing in their own super division? It’s no secret that the state of things in Youngstown City Schools has helped Ursuline’s program(s), ditto St. Edward with the state of things in Cleveland and several of the parochials in Cincinnati. It wasn’t that long ago that a public school in Cincinnati was playing with guys who weren’t even from Ohio – and two of those guys are currently playing in the NBA. But when they played in the OHSAA, they played in Div. III.

**Here’s a fix: Enforce the rules. Be serious about them. St. Edward in Lakewood got caught red-handed breaking the recruiting rules while pursuing middle schoolers in two nearby suburbs last year. The punishment? A $250 fine and a letter of reprimand. Boy, did somebody learn a lesson there. The OHSAA is reportedly bringing heavier penalties to Harvest Prep near Columbus for what seems to be a series of pretty blatant rules violations. Recruiting is hard to prove, but it’s going on. In lots of places. And the OHSAA needs to be serious about stopping it, or at least slowing it down.  If the OHSAA can really say with a straight face that it’s fine with Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary basketball coach Dru Joyce running the King James AAU program and still heading a program with as much current name recognition as any high school program in the country, it should also say it needs to institute a multiplier and/or a super division soon. Like, immediately. Sure, success breeds success. But telling X number of community teams each year that they have no chance to win their sectional/district because St. V-M has a good AAU  team entered doesn’t breed anything but ill feelings.

**Push the baseball and softball seasons back a week. Only a small number of schools would actually play into the second weekend of June, and the weather just might decent for the last three weeks of the season. For the first time in a while we had two straight days of sun late last week – and yet many softball and baseball seasons are already done. Seems like a waste, no?

**Huntington Park, by the way, is a great place for baseball. Ditto Firestone Stadium for softball. Kudos, OHSAA. But moving the state football games to Columbus for two years is going to be a temporary disaster (about 3,000 will show up to watch Ursuline in a 100,000 seat stadium) and they’ll soon be back where they belong, in Canton and Massillon. And will someone please, please agree with me that Canton Fieldhouse is one of the best places to watch basketball ANYWHERE but Canton Civic Center is one of the worst?

**If you want to use Ohio Stadium, use it for a semifinal doubleheader (Super Division!) on the day after Ohio State-Michigan in the years that game is played in Michigan. With the right teams and the right weather, it could be half full and a great atmosphere.

**Add two games to the regular-season basketball schedule, bringing the max to 22. That would allow teams to play in more exposure events and would also encourage teams to seek out games against better competition, both in-state and out. We have great players and great programs in Ohio and we should be showcasing them at every opportunity. Teams should never be punished for seeking the best competition and the biggest games. Again, I have no problem with St. Vincent-St. Mary playing in Wheeling and Chicago and Columbus and Dayton and playing other national programs. That’s good for Akron (and Ohio) basketball. St. V-M having the best player from Coventry, Springfield and the like – and then beating those schools 98-38 in the sectionals – is not good for anybody.

**This fix is an easy – and necessary – one. In basketball, the Central and Southwest regions use a “superdistrict” concept, meaning all the teams in the region are placed and seeded into X number of districts, allowing the best teams to pick their lines on the bracket and avoid playing the other “best” teams until as late as possible in the tournament, the regional level (Sweet 16) in many cases. In the Northeast region, teams are assigned a district (usually 11-14 teams) and stuck with it. That’s not only causing a lot of good teams to get eliminated early, but it’s tipping the bracket. Imagine the NCAA deciding in December that the Cleveland regional of the NCAA Tournament would have Ohio State, Pitt, Xavier, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Butler but the, say, San Jose region would be seeded using the normal process, allowing Arizona to play Northern Arizona and Kentucky to play Princeton. Is that even close to fair in a tournament where everyone is trying to get to the Final Four? No. So some of this “competitive balance” stuff can be solved rather easily.

**The OHSAA wants to avoid a public/private split at all costs. The move to a split system was defeated in referendum votes in 1978 (84 percent to 16 percent) and 1993 (67 to 33), and folks on both sides don’t think bringing it back would work. Some say the private schools would simply leave the OHSAA; others say recruiting would get even worse. But the OHSAA has acknowledged that there’s a difference in the way the two groups do business and is now saying it’s trying to get things fixed, at least to some extent. It needs to be careful not to punish teams for past success but encourage the best programs to keep getting better and seek out the best competition. Maybe one of the above ideas could (or actually would) help. I hope it does. In the meantime, I’ll get ready for those emails…

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