Written by Ralph Amsden Follow Ralph on Twiiter @ralphamsden
As Arizona readies to introduce an open-division playoff in high school football, I’m ready to scrap the entire system in favor of something that would provide far more excitement, revenue and competitive equity.
I’m talking about bowl games.
I applaud the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s effort to explore a playoff system that invites the best of the best to go head-to-head in the month of November, regardless of division. The honest truth of the matter is that we knew who the 4A, 5A and 6A champions were going to be before the 2018 season ever began. 2015 was the last time that Arizona seemed to be on the path to solving some of these competitive equity issues, when Phoenix Union was allowed to form its own division (and collectively went from 12 total wins in 2014 to 47 total wins), and Chandler Unified went without a representative in the 6A title for the first time since 2007.
Yet the system, one that had admitted imperfections, was abandoned in favor of returning to enrollment-based divisions, and Arizona descended back into its predictable pattern of the haves benching their entire first string six minutes into the second quarter of games in which they’d already built six-touchdown leads on the have-nots.
Now that the appetitie and intestinal fortitude has once again increased to the necessary level in which state’s athletic representatives see fit to take action, I’m making a last minute Hail Mary plea for radical change.
I believe that bowl games can help solve some of Arizona High School football’s most pervasive and nagging issues. Some of which include:
1) The vast majority of above average teams having zero chance to win a championship.
2) Embarrasingly low turnout for opening round and quarterfinal playoff games, because the elevated ticket prices and lopsided outcomes manage to punish both the strong by taxing success, and the not-as-strong by causing potential attendees to weight just how much money they’re willing to part with to witness an inevitable proverbial execution.
3) Players transferring in order to be part of championship teams.
4) Teams with winning records missing out on the postseason due to factors thay can’t control, and 3-4 win teams being rewarded with playoff blowouts because they’re lucky (or unlucky) enough to attend a school that benefits from strong opponents that they may not have even been competitive against.
5) The disconnectedness and neglect felt by many rural and reservation teams.
Over the last seven years, I’ve witnessed many of Arizona high school football’s elder ambassadors recoil against the byproducts of the brave, bold new world. A world that sees kids and their parents making decisions for the good of the individual rather than that of their team. A world that sees social media communities erase and replace the neighborhood communities that used to define which school’s name would be on the jersey they pulled over their pads.
It’s time for those that have the ablity to influence the policies and procedures of high school athletics to stop using their power to fight the tide, and start using the influence they have to ride a wave of change into a mutualy beneficial set of circumstances that align old school and new school values.
You don’t like that these kids come up in a world where everyone gets a trophy, but you also don’t like that the few trophies you do hand out might as well have a school’s names permanently engraved on them? The answer? More trophies, but ones that have been earned through a team’s success in a bowl matchup.
You don’t like that teams participate in postseason games in front of half-empty stands? Make the postseason game that they play in count for something.
You don’t like that seven-win teams like Tempe and La Joya, and six-win teams South Mountain and Arcadia sit at home while teams without winning records serve as little more than speed bumps for the state’s powerhouses? Bowl games are a great way to ensure that minimum standards are met for postseason play, and that student-athletes are rewarded for their efforts with one last chance to suit up.
You don’t like that the pressure to win a rigged game keeps forcing good men from the coaching ranks in hopes that a school will stumble upon a magic formula for winning if they take a ride on the offseason coaching carousel? Give the coaches more measurable achievements to celebrate. Give them the pride of qualifying for, coaching in, and potentially winning bowls.
You don’t like that schools outside of the Phoenix Metropolitan area say they feel neglected by the powers that be? Put them on a bowl game stage right here in the valley.
You don’t like that the premier young talent and their parents use the existing open enrollment laws to gravitate toward the teams they saw play for championships instead of playing for the schools nearest to them? Well, that’s probably never going to change, but at the very least, you can reward the kids who do enroll within their boundaries with an opportunity to have a meaningful postseason game in their high school career.
These are the changes I’m proposing, and they’re as simple as can be.
1) 11-game regular seasons for all Arizona high school football teams.
2) Bowl participants must have at least six wins, no major bowl violations, and must not have played each other in the regular season.
3) The bowls need to be played at neutral sites
4) You can slot the bowls like college football does, one region’s winner against another, but I say it’s best to ignore the divisions when making the bowl matchups. Go by an overall state ranking formula, and allow the school’s AD’s the ability to approve the AIA’s proposed matchups. The school gets one veto, and if they veto a second time, they don’t play in a bowl.
5) There’s no reason the games have to be on a Friday. Spread them out, so that the casual fans can attend as many as they’d like.
6) If you really want an open-division playoff, or even multiple open division playoffs divided amongst the smaller and larger schools, you can still have them. Make an open-division playoff appearance contingent on a bowl win, and take the top 4-8 teams that qualify to play it out for a state championship.
Maybe this proposal sounds radical, but to me, nothing is as radical as upholding the status quo while the same well-known issues corrode and corrupt a student athletic experience that deserves to be free from the ever-present groaning and gnashing of teeth about what could and should be.
Bowl games work in college football. They make every game count, and every season a unique challenge. They appeal to our desire to celebrate new and distinct triumphs. They generate excitement, revenue, and memories that last a lifetime.
To paraphrase John Lennon: What I am saying, is give bowls a chance.