Thanks to Coach Walter Shreffler, who retired after 23 yrs. as a H.S. FB Coach and 38 yrs. as a Track Coach, for this opinion piece on the recent OHSAA football playoffs. Shreffler for most of his coaching career was at Celina High School and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.

(1-3-22) A few years back the Ohio High School Athletic Association was confronted with a dilemma.  Someone took the time to analyze that 43% of selected team state titles were being won by non-public schools which made up only 17% of Ohio’s schools.  To head off a serious run at creating private school divisions the OHSAA created some formulaic gibberish that only they could understand and declared problem solved.  In the future, it was claimed, public schools would have a more even field to compete on. They called it “competitive balance”.  Not long after the OHSAA fixed another problem that they thought warranted intervention by instituting something called a “mercy rule” whereby once a second half score reached a 30-point separation the clock would run non-stop.

The doubling of the Ohio high school football tournament to 64 teams in each division calls into question the OHSAA’s sincerity on both issues.  Was “competitive balance” just a convenient tool to be used in putting down a rebellion?  Similarly, if an in-season “mercy rule” was necessary why didn’t the OHSAA think a mercy rule tsunami wouldn’t hit its new post season expansion plan?  The new Executive Director of the OHSAA claimed the high ground when he reasoned that the “post season tournament gives such a positive experience for our student-athletes…” that it was felt more should have the opportunity.  One is naive to think that was the motivating force behind tournament expansion.  In fact, exploring the issue closely one isn’t quite sure what he was referring too as a “positive experience.”

 It certainly couldn’t have been the travel time.  Perusing the expanded first-round schedule for only a few minutes one can readily find a hand full of schools that traveled some two hours to play. One was 2 hours and 40 minutes. A larger number were well over an hour to an hour and a half, and remember, many were dispirited programs beaten down by long losing campaigns riding school buses toward top seeded teams.  Perhaps the Executive Director was referring to the games themselves.  Let’s look at the Executive Director’s “positive experience” in action:

These statistics make it hard to justify the extra 224 games from a competitive viewpoint.  Harder still to claim a positive experience for many of the added participates.  But before moving on let’s look at the fate of the 32 first round “upsets”.  Only three won games in round two, but two of the three had the good fortune to play against other low 9 thru 16 seeds…… None survived round three.  

Undoubtedly the OHSAA sees what it wants to see in all this.  Any criticism would be met with silence or the failsafe claim that whatever decisions were made were in the best interest of the student-athletes. But their actions should not be accepted with a “no comment” or high-sounding words.  The OHSAA has become an organization that prioritizes revenue

Its hierarchy includes eleven board of directors and sixteen staff members. Six members of the staff were once known as commissioners and in the pre-covid days had salaries ranging from $103,000 to $148,000.  Heading the group is an executive director, pulling in over $200,000 yearly.  Most interesting is that the collective football credentials of all 27 are paper thin. [According to their resumes, only three mentioned they played in HS, five coached a short while with none being head coaches.] Yet this group oversees a sport that five years ago accounted for $4.8 million of the OHSAA’s $13.2 million total income, almost double that of the next sport, boys’ basketball.  With their lack of experience in the practicalities of football, did they reach out to the state coaches’ association for advice?  It seems unlikely.  Why listen to the one group that should know what’s best for their sport and athletes.

And veteran coaches know that their sport isn’t basketball.  There is no Hoosier ending David slaying Goliath on a football field.  When it comes to football, more isn’t better.  And from a practical viewpoint, what coach having a great season wants a meaningless game that increases chance for injury?  Or for that matter, what losing coach wants to extend their season long misery by being “mercy ruled?”

As their tournament guidance suggests, the OHSAA has little interest in understanding the sport outside of treating it as a revenue source.  One major problem is that football across the state isn’t a universal obsession.  The passion for the sport is far from uniform.  Yet the OHSAA compounds the problem by how it chooses the tournament teams.  [Once again, via a system that only they can understand] The OHSAA insists the one major criterion that determines placement in a division is school size with divisions being balanced out more-or-less equally.   Yet they use a numeric formula that encourages schools to play up in classification.  Not only does this earn more qualifying points, it also provides an added benefit of toughening up those quality teams who survive the challenge of playing bigger schools.

Let’s look at the 2021 tournament from the perspective of scheduling up in classification:

After analyzing the regular season schedules of the 12 state finalist in divisions 2 thru 7 one sees that at least 8 teams played more games up in classification then they did within the division they represented.

The practical results of this kind of scheduling are predictable. And, particularly in the early rounds of the tournament, it could be downright embarrassing to those who don’t practice it.  One example is the first round D2 game between Massillon Washington and Columbus Independence.  It arguably was the most non-competitive contest of the opening round.  Final score 76-22.  Their schedules were:

                    Massillon Washington [8-2]    vs.  Columbus Independence [5-5]                                       

                    D1 schools- 7                                 D1 schools- 1      D3 schools- 3     D6 Schools- 1

                   D2 schools- 3                                 D2 schools- 4      D4 schools – 1                                                                                                     

One would think those responsible for a tournament would notice something wrong with its structure when a school doesn’t need to compete against other teams in their division to qualify.  Shouldn’t a school’s schedule have a bearing on its division? More specially, shouldn’t a school be encouraged to play games in its designated division and not the reverse?  In the example above, if Massillon sees itself as a D1 school why isn’t it assigned to the D1 tournament? This issue matter when it comes to football, its physical nature, and the large number of athletes it requires to be successful.  Not all schools have or want a football culture. Yet the OHSAA appears oblivious to the part they play in all this.

Of course, one could question the entire tournament structure.  The latest retooling of the playoffs has Ohio divided into seven divisions with D2 thru D7 ranging from 104 to 112 schools in each, with D1 being the outlier at 71.  But to achieve that numerical balance of schools the OHSAA had to play with the male student numbers of each school.  Thus, D1 has a student range of 700.  From there the gap narrows, D2 range is 225, D3 is 105, D4 is 62, D5 is 45, D6 is 40 and D7 is 90.  Shouldn’t it be more about equalizing student ratios rather than balancing out the number of schools in each division? 

If the OHSAA needs revenue.  Why not more divisions?  Michigan has 8 divisions for its 516 11-man football schools, plus two more for its 8-man programs.  Ohio has 709 11-man football schools.  Ohio could go to a 10 division tournament an still have more teams in a division than the Wolverine state.  An added bonus would be the tournament could be reduced back to the old 4 game format. 

Inviting 112 schools into a tournament that have a greater chance of being embarrassed than surviving seems counterproductive financially and dare one say, competitively cruel.  It is clear. Expanding the playoffs, from a competitive standpoint, was a disastrous overreach.  There are not enough good teams to carry a 6-game playoff in the present 7 division setup.  Even clearer. The direction the OHSAA has taken benefits only themselves.                                                               

For this monstrosity of “competitive imbalance” the OHSAA stole what was left of the kids August summer.  And on the backend of the season, continues to sacrifice the winter sports schedules of schools making a deep run.  One would think those earning a living off high school athletes would hesitate to make decisions that even hint at using a specific sport for ulterior motives. Yet the OHSAA has opened itself to this charge.  Remember, this is an organization that claims to care about student-athletes.  They mandate CPR updates for coaches as well as other seminars related to the well being of the athlete. They demand certification of coaches as being in the best interest of the players.  Their mercy rule supposedly speaks to their concern for the emotional well being and self-image of the athlete.  They talk the talk while having others walk the walk.  Why doesn’t the OHSAA’s actions match its own rhetoric?