CIAC football committee has some tough choices to make
It's almost certain that next year's high school football season will have an all-new format.
No one can say with certainty what that change will be, including those tasked with making the decisions.
Players have been competing in too many games in too little time. State finalists have played four games in 16 days, a dangerous risk given recent discoveries in concussions and degenerative brain disease. The schedule needs to be pared down so that players get a week's rest.
Safety dictates playing three rounds of playoffs over three weeks instead of the current two-week schedule. New England weather doesn't lend itself to extending the season.
And then there's the issue of Thanksgiving games, which are sacrosanct in many parts of the state. The task of scheduling three weeks of playoffs without disrupting the holiday schedule has been difficult.
The CIAC football committee is looking to resolve the issue at next Wednesday's meeting, and everyone is being asked to bring proposals no matter how radical they may sound.
"There's a lot of data readily available on sports-related injuries and concussions that really call into question the safety of the kids," said Paul Hoey, the Associate Executive Director for CIAC. "I'm not leaning in any direction other than coming up with a plan that puts a week between games to make this work so that we're not putting kids at risk."
Ledyard coach Jim Buonocore, a committee member, said, "I don't think there is that perfect answer, honestly. I think there are going to have to be some concessions made. … There's going to have to be some change to the football schedule in the state of Connecticut as we know it."
The current four-division, eight-team playoff system features quarterfinal and semifinal rounds on the Tuesday and Saturday after Thanksgiving, respectively, with the finals on following Friday and Saturday. Some finalists played four games in 16 days last season.
Ansonia was one of five teams that played 15 games in 14 weeks in 2013 - 11 regular season games, a conference final sandwiched in the week before Thanksgiving, and three playoff games.
"It is way too much for a high school kid," Chargers coach Tom Brockett said. "We love football and we love to compete, but I think people have to start listening when coaches say it's too much for the kids. … in the NFL, you'd have a bye. Colleges have byes. Our kids don't get a chance to breathe like that."
Those who participate in winter sports are also starting late with little to no rest between seasons.
There are proposals to play the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds a week before Thanksgiving. It would be a tough sell in communities where Thanksgiving football is a tradition that shouldn't be compromised.
"No matter what we do, Thanksgiving will have to stay intact," Hoey said. "That game has to count towards the playoffs."
Hoey noted the uproar in Massachusetts when it began starting its playoffs before Thanksgiving.
"The opinion of ADs in Massachusetts is that the new playoff system has really decimated the whole Thanksgiving Day atmosphere up there," Hoey said.
Buonocore said he's not for or against starting the playoffs before Thanksgiving. He also doesn't believe starting them before Thanksgiving would dilute those games, noting that teams went all-out on Thanksgiving when only two teams qualified in each playoff divisions (1976-94).
"I was fortunate to play in three state championship games," Buonocore said. "We qualified every year before that Thanksgiving Day game. We knew we were playing for a state championship (the following week). We still showed up on Thanksgiving Day and played. … Thanksgiving Day games have been a big part of my life since I was born, believe me. I'm taking nothing away from it, but I'm looking at it from all angles."
Hoey would like the regular season capped at 10 games - the calendar allows for an 11-game season every few years. He and the coaches don't want to shrink the number of playoff participants, either.
Hoey discussed a format with eight four-team playoff divisions. The top eight teams in Class LL, L, M and S would be broken up into two divisions, and a semifinal and final round would be played over two weeks.
"This is all hypothetical at this point," Hoey said. "The committee will look at all options on the table."
New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli, the chairperson on the football committee, was asked about that format.
"Seeing as New Jersey has about 800 state champions, I don't think that would be such a bad thing," Marinelli said. "That sounds good to me."
Asked if eight state champions were too many for a small state, Marinelli said, "From whose view? Not from a kids viewpoint if he has a chance to win a state championship in his division."