Coaches have their say about the future of the CIAC playoffs

Howdy,

Today is the day the CIAC football committee meets to choose a format for YOUR 2014 playoffs.

LET'S REVIEW — the committee had to create a new format last month because of health concerns. The CIAC didn't want athletes playing multiple football games in a week.

Playoff teams were playing twice a week under the previous playoff system. Quarterfinals on a Tuesday. Semifinals on a Saturday.

Most teams play on Thanksgiving, so some were playing three games in 10 days.

The CIAC also didn't want to extend the football season any further due to weather concerns, and to prevent it from spilling into the winter season. Multi-sport athletes were already missing valuable practice time with their winter sport teams.

The football committee was forced to act fast. The constraints they were given would only allow for two rounds of playoffs to be held over two weeks. That meant that only four teams could qualify per division.

The committee didn't want to cut down on the number of playoff participants (32), so it opted to double the classes from four-to-eight divisions. The format is scheduled to be used for just next season.

The smart money is that the football committee will agree on eight enrollment-based divisions. It's the logical choice as school size has been the basis for setting up playoff classes for most CIAC team sports.

Going forward, the football committee is going to try to sell administrators and coaches on a new format that would start the playoffs before Thanksgiving.

Beginning the playoffs before Thanksgiving would allow for a quarterfinal round and guarantee that one-and-two loss teams wouldn't be left out of the playoffs.

It may not seem like a big deal to some that a 9-1 team could miss the playoffs, which frequently happened when the CIAC had just four teams qualify in six divisions.

It's a big deal to coaches, though. Football is the hardest CIAC-sanctioned sport to reach the playoffs. Most other sports only require a team win 40 percent of its games to make states.

Be honest with yourself — would you quietly accept not making the playoffs after you won 90 percent (9-1) of your games?

Please don't fool yourself into thinking that you wouldn't be ripped and or make a fuss.

One of two things would have to be done to shrink the number of classes down to four or six, and still allow for 32-or-more teams to qualify:

• Keep Thanksgiving Day games, but hold the playoffs around it (i.e. start the quarterfinals two weeks before the holiday and hold the final the week after).

• Eliminate Thanksgiving Day games.

Altering Thanksgiving Day games is an emotional issue for some. Over 60 percent of teams play on Thanksgiving. There are rivalries that are over 100 years old and part of the community fabric such as Ansonia vs. Naugatuck, Derby vs. Shelton, and Stonington vs. Westerly. It wouldn't seem like Thanksgiving without those games. Those games could continue if the playoffs started before the holiday, but some believe that would be awkward.

Tinkering with Thanksgiving wouldn't matter to the minority. The Conard-Hall rivalry has always been held the weekend before the holiday and is always well attended. Over 3,000 showed up this past November for the first Friday night game in series history.

Ledyard didn't play on Thanksgiving until 2000. The nation's oldest rivalry, New London-NFA, didn't play on the holiday until that season, either. NFA played St. Bernard on the holiday, and Fitch played New London.

Several coaches who aren't on the football committee were contacted for their opinions:

Tom Brockett, Ansonia. The Chargers have played 115 games against Naugatuck, the third-longest rivalry in the state. Brockett has been Ansonia's head coach for eight seasons and played at Lyman Hall.

"Thanksgiving can't go. It would be heartbreaking if it ever goes. I just think that Thanksgiving rivalries are so important to the state of Connecticut. It's something we have that other states don't have that are really, really special. It's a shame that teams don't get to play on Thanksgiving morning and don't get to experience that. The sun is out. The whole family is out. You're going later to eat with family. (Thanksgiving is) family and football.

"I don't know if the old system was that bad with six classes of four. …. I could live with six classes. I know it's not popular among coaches."

On playing states around Thanksgiving: "I think it takes away a little bit from Thanksgiving. I could live with it, but I don't think it's perfect"

Jemal Davis, Norwich Free Academy. Davis has been the Wildcats' coach for six years and led them to three playoff berths in the previous four seasons, including a 2012 Class LL final berth. He also played at NFA, which is one-half of the nation's oldest rivalry with New London. The teams have played 152 games since 1875.

"I think it's important to try to maintain the same number of teams (32). I thought the transition to eight teams (per class) was good in the sense that I can recall LL teams that were 9-1 who wouldn't get in."

Davis doesn't buy into the notion that starting the playoffs before Thanksgiving would be awkward, noting that FCIAC, NVL and SWC have held their conference finals a week before the holiday. League finals don't count towards CIAC playoff points.

"There's another example of you're playing an additional game and people haven't balked at how that affects the playoffs. It's all about creating a system where you're going to play the least amount of games (i.e. making sure teams don't have to play 14-or-15 games), and still have the most teams that you can possibly get in.

"I look at the New London game not as a Thanksgiving game. … We want to maintain that tradition, but we can play that game anytime. If it came to a situation where we can't play that game on Thanksgiving, well, just move the game and go from there. The Thanksgiving piece is really not that significant.

"I don't see (Thanksgiving) as being an obstacle, or it shouldn't be in terms of the playoffs. The most important thing is trying to get as many good teams in the playoffs as possible."

Tim King, Valley Regional/Old Lyme. King has been the Warriors' head coach for 16 years and led them to the playoffs three times in the last four seasons. He also played for St. Bernard's 1978 Class M championship team. VR/OL plays rival Haddam-Killingworth on Thanksgiving eve.

"I'd hate to see us get rid of 32 teams. How long did it take to get 32 teams in there? We have to think about what the whole system is about — it's about the kids.

"I know the tradition with the Thanksgiving Day games is huge, especially for Stonington and Westerly. It's the oldest continuous rivalry out there. That's a huge tradition game, but there's got to be some way where you still play those games and go about keeping the 32 teams.

"Eight divisions, that's quite a few, but again, it goes back to keeping the number of teams (32) in there. … Going to only four in a division (and less than eight classes), it's going to be tough. There's going to be some teams in that system that are going to miss out."

On starting states before Thanksgiving: "The mentality of the kids, you're going from the playoffs to Thanksgiving. It's great, it's a big rivalry game, don't get me wrong, but it would almost be a bit of a letdown. Plus you play that game, then have the state championship game. Then what do you do? You play to win, obviously, but God forbid someone gets hurt."

Duane Maranda, New London. He just completed his second season as head coach and has held that position at Bacon Academy and with the St. Bernard/Norwich Tech co-op.

"I'd like to see it back down to six (classes). I think that's just perfect. … I don't think four is necessarily enough. I think six is good (with eight teams each). I'd like 48 teams getting in.

Are eight divisions too much?

"As a coach, you want to hang up a banner no matter what. Whether it says Class L-1 or Class L-2, a state championship is a state championship. I don't care what it is. Would I want to see (eight divisions) long term? No."

"I'd like to keep Thanksgiving because I have been involved with programs where you're not in the playoffs, and Thanksgiving becomes a huge, huge game. When I was at Bacon and fighting for every single win we could possibly get, a lot of times that RHAM game was our state championship game."

Maranda, like Davis, wouldn't object to New London-NFA being played earlier.

"Whether we played that game Week 1 or played it on Week 9, it would still be New London-NFA. It doesn't have to be played on Thanksgiving Day. Another issue for us is that the NFA game is a huge playoff point game for us. NFA is a LL school (which gives New London an extra 10 bonus points), and it wins a lot of games. If we kept playing them on Thanksgiving Day and the state playoffs started earlier, then we don't get those points. That could affect us. Maybe move that game to Week 9 or somewhere else."

Would it be difficult to play all of your starters on Thanksgiving if you had a state final to play the following week?

"We can go back in recent history and see a lot of teams that had already qualified for the playoffs before Thanksgiving and still played hard. … A few years ago, New London and NFA both qualified for the state playoffs before Thanksgiving. Both went out there with all their starters and played to win and played hard. If we went out and won a state championship, but lost to NFA, it would still be a bad thing."

Sean Marinan, Xavier. Marinan graduated from the school and just completed his 12th season as head coach. The Falcons didn't play on Thanksgiving when he was a player, and their recent Thanksgiving Day game with city rival Middletown was discontinued after the 2012 season.

"I think (Thanksgiving games) have to go. I really do. I understand the money aspect of it and all of that, but that (day is) the monkey wrench. That's why I suggest if you started the season earlier, make that game the one for the first week (Labor Day week), and maybe you get a payday out of it anyways. … You could build up to that. You can start the build-up to that end of July, especially in the local media, things like that."

"I'd like to still have the three rounds with eight teams getting in."

A.J. Massengale, Stonington. Massengale just completed his 10th season as head coach of the Bears. Stonington began playing Westerly in 1911 as part of the nation's longest continuous rivalry (154 games). Any changes to Thanksgiving could affect both the series as well as scheduling in two states.

"I would like to see them start the playoffs after Thanksgiving. … In Rhode Island, they start before Thanksgiving. I don't think that's a good way to go.

"I'm not against (a six division, four-team format). I know it's tough, and it'll cut back on how many teams get in, but it's supposed to be hard to get in. Not every team is going to get in. I like that 32 teams (qualify) as well. I think it gives a lot of team some flexibility. You lose a game, you're not out of it. … but I think the postseason should start when the regular season is over. I've always kind of looked at what they've done in Rhode Island and though I'm glad we don't do it that way, I don't know, I think there are more important things than changing the entire system just for a handful of teams that are in the playoffs every year."

Jeff Roy, Shelton. He's been the Gaels' head coach for 10 years and an assistant long before that. Roy is in a unique position as Shelton plays Derby on Thanksgiving in a 103-year-old series. At the same time, the Gaels play an always challenging Southern Connecticut Division I schedule and have missed the playoffs because they lost a game or two. Roy mentioned the 1999 season in which Shelton, quarterbacked by then-junior Dan Orlovsky, finished 9-1 and didn't make states.

"It's such a tough call. … I'd hate to see the Thanksgiving Day rivalry end because it's such a great tradition. Great traditions are hard to come by, and Shelton and Derby have played one another for over 100 years.

"On the other hand, we're in a really difficult situation for the state playoffs. … Shelton has missed out finishing 9-1 or 8-2, and when you play our schedule, go 9-1, it's a shame when you don't get in. It's a shame when we finish 8-2 and don't get in.

"We play Xavier, Hand, Fairfield Prep. Week-in and week-out, you get banged up. You lose a game, the season is over. It's a shame."

"I've seen a couple of different proposals. I saw one where you readjust the Thanksgiving Day rivalry and everyone plays that rivalry in Week 1. I'm just kind of absorbing that one. At least we still get to play the rivalry. It's not on Thanksgiving and you lose that tradition. That definitely has some merit and is something to look at. I also understand the other issue where you start the playoffs before Thanksgiving and then play your rivalry game, that puts teams in a tough situation. You're in the middle of a state championship run and playing a game that doesn't have any bearing on it. It's tough. I don't have the answer for you."

• • • •

The football committee meeting starts at 3 p.m. YOU are encouraged to check back with TheDay.com for news late this afternoon, or go on the Twitter and search for either @MetalNED or #cthsfb.

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