Cash, not competition, drives football playoffs

The state football championships are coming up this weekend, 16 weeks after the first game was played.

Basketball and wrestling coaches everywhere will tell you that’s two or three weeks too many.

It hasn’t always been that way – in fact, the PIAA has only sponsored a championship tournament in football since 1988. Back then, the regular season was 11 weeks long instead of the current 10 – nine in some districts and classes – and the tournament bracket had three games.

It was expanded to include quarterfinals in 1994. The regular season was cut along the way, and eventually the state bracket grew into the four-week behemoth we have today. Along with two weeks of district play, the playoffs add up to 60 percent of the length of the regular season.

Ridiculous? Without a doubt. But don’t expect it to change – the districts and the PIAA want the revenue associated with playoff football, and would probably run the season from July to January if they could get away with it (while other fall sports were trimmed to 18 competitions, although there’s something to be said for that as well. Perhaps that should apply in all seasons).

Add to that the fact that everyone wants “their” football team to have a playoff game – deserved or otherwise – and you can see why proposals to return to the days of a limited football postseason have failed. In fact, the best proposal the PIAA entertained was to drop the season by one week – and some wanted to see six classifications instead of the current four before agreeing to that.

The sad thing is, pretty much anyone with any solid knowledge of football could have told you which football teams were likely to be playing Friday and Saturday – and which are likely to win. Our friend and former Lewistown girls basketball coach Kevin Kodish would be quick to point out that six of the eight still alive are parochial schools, hardly a surprise.

Here in District 6, the first week of the postseason saw 19 of the 46 football teams in the district still playing – along with four teams from outside the district combined into the D6 tournament. I think only the NBA and NHL come close to matching that percentage of playoff teams.

But the playoffs are designed not to give those teams a chance to win, they tend to focus on the larger districts. The WPIAL (District 7) has won 33 of the 75 football crowns awarded since ’88, three times as many as the next most successful district. In some classifications, the champions from Districts 1, 3 and 7 are guaranteed a semifinal berth, rather than having to play other districts down the line, like in every other sport.

It’s enough to say, “Why bother?” when it comes to a tournament at all. The answer, of course, is about two and a half by six inches, and green.

But at what cost? Winter sports are approaching the end of the first full week of play, and that’s after a longer preseason than most sports get due to Thanksgiving. Smaller schools will suffer as their wrestlers and basketball players stay longer in the football season. Bigger schools, too – ask Mifflin County’s winter coaches.

Bob “Gump” May, a friend who spent most of his career coaching football in the Mid-Penn Conference, told me recently he thinks it’s way too much. Gump, who coached Lewistown graduate Chris Tressler at Bloomsburg University and was on the opposite sideline when Mifflin County played Central Dauphin East this year, thinks eight is enough.

But as long as it’s all about two M’s – me and money – that’s not likely to happen.

Jeff Fishbein is sports editor of The Sentinel. Contact him at