The Great Debate on the Future of Thanksgiving High School Football
Whenever someone mentions Thanksgiving, usually right after one thinks of the food and family gatherings, the thing that is most synonymous with the holiday is football. I can remember growing up in my house and always waiting for those NFL games to begin in Detroit and Dallas-something my family and I continue to do to this day.
On a local sports level, though, the big present for the day is going to your local high school or alma mater's rivalry game for the final week of the regular season that comes with so many highlights which go even beyond the packed crowds, the homecoming reunions among former classmates, and the pre-game pep rallies.
"From a player's perspective, Thanksgiving football is like a whole other dimension with a playoff atmosphere," said former North Haven running back Ethan Suraci. "We always had a real lot of support from the North Haven fans, even when we played at Amity. That memory of playing on Thanksgiving became a part of my whole family."
Yet recently there has been a discussion on whether or not to change the Turkey Day contests following a 2013 high school football campaign that ran into mid-December thanks to early-season snow which postponed state finals, including one between Fairfield Prep and Southington that was pushed back five days to Dec. 19.
Up through this most recent completed season, the CIAC playoff format consisted of squads playing state quarterfinal games the Tuesday after Thanksgiving before turning around and then having semifinal round matchups later that week on Saturday, which resulted in certain schools playing three games in a time frame of 9 to 10 days when you factor in Thanksgiving.
To help keep the holiday slate of contests intact and players healthy by not playing as many games in a short span, the CIAC implemented a new playoff format for only the 2014 year in which 32 teams (eight from each state division) will still qualify for the postseason. However, there will only be two rounds and clubs will have nine days between Thanksgiving and the opening round and then another seven before the second and final round, leaving a grand total of eight state champions with two (a large and small title holder) from each of the state classes of LL, L, M, and S.
While this stop-gap solution was received with a lot of criticism for allowing too many state titles to be awarded, the CIAC Football Committee announced following its July 24 meeting that it will return to the previous structure of 32 postseason qualifiers, three rounds, and four state champions for 2015 and 2016. The playoff scheduling has been tinkered in this two-year test format, too. The quarterfinal games will still be played five days following Thanksgiving, but the change comes in with the semifinals being pushed back to that next Monday-giving teams six days off before they hit the field again-and then another five-day break prior to the finals that Saturday.
With all of this legislation and modification in place, does the holiday docket of games need to be altered to help postseason scheduling and not place too much strain on the players and coaches? Hand Head Coach Steve Filippone seems to think so.
"My No. 1 thought is that I think there will be a day without the Thanksgiving games because it could be the best thing for the playoff system," said Filippone. "To do away with Thanksgiving games is probably not feasible, but to make the games something different is a possibility."
One idea Filippone has is to start the postseason the week before and then have the Thanksgiving games determine the seeding for the semifinal round when the postseason resumes the following week to, as he said, "keep Thanksgiving games meaningful."
Old Saybrook/Westbrook Head Coach Pat Hanssen opposes that notion due to the fact that it leaves athletes open to getting hurt in a game that essentially becomes meaningless.
"I don't see that as a feasible option because how do you explain to a parent that their kid got hurt in a game that didn't really matter?" said Hanssen. "Someday down the line there will be a major change. There are certain areas of Connecticut where the games still carry a lot of meaning, but in some towns, it's just another game."
SCC Commissioner Al Carbone constructed his own solution by having Columbus Day weekend become the new slot for holiday rivalries, which can not only benefit players and fans, but also other fall sports happening at that time.
"Schools should play their rivals during Columbus Day Weekend in October," said Carbone. "Think about it: It's early in the season [no 0-9 versus 1-8 matchups], the weather is nicer, most kids from college are home that weekend, you can call it Homecoming, and the crowds are apt to be better. And if you want to generate excitement and attention for your community and athletic programs, you could play other sports [soccer, volleyball, field hockey, etc.] on the same day/weekend."
Guilford Head Coach Tom Unger added there already is a slight movement away from the tradition based on the timeslot when teams are now playing that 11th game of their regular season.
"I can see it happening [no Thanksgiving games] because we already moved our annual game with Hand back to Wednesday night so you've already taken it away from that traditional Thursday morning slot; other schools have moved their Thanksgiving game to that [usual] bye week before," said Unger, whose Indians started playing under the lights with Hand on Thanksgiving Eve back in 2006. "I like the fact that they still want to have 32 playoff teams, but the way it is now, that's a lot of football in a tight frame."
If you take away the matchups, then you lose the big turnouts at the ticket gate. Valley Regional/Old Lyme Head Coach Tim King stated that when you look at it from a basic numbers perspective, Thanksgiving football isn't going anywhere.
"I don't think we will see the end of them because too many games are played that week, plus the scheduling with so many games only affects 32 playoff-bound teams," said King. "Plus, it's such a big gate [turnout]. Even for us on Wednesday night [versus Haddam-Killingworth], it's still the biggest game of our year."
King's former quarterback Phil Cohen said he loved battling HK for ownership of the Principals' Cup and he added that to curb the player safety concerns, teams can take their pedal off the gas in practice once you hit a certain juncture of the campaign.
"The games are very important to teams. When we played HK, you threw the records out the window and put everything on the line to hold onto the Principals' Cup for a whole year," said Cohen, who graduated Old Lyme this past spring and led the Warriors to the postseason last fall. "Last year, in getting ready for the playoffs, we tried to go a little lighter in practice at the end of the year because we kind of had things together by then. Playing in the Pequot Conference, we saw a lot of different offenses so we knew how to defend them for the playoffs. We didn't need to go through the full grind in practices so it was more about film and mental preparation. I enjoyed the 11-game regular season because it was more football to share with my teammates."
North Haven alum Suraci explained that the practice grind he and the Indians went through during the dog days of summer in late August set the table for the early December gauntlet.
"All of the preparation for the playoffs came in the preseason with doing 6 a.m. workouts daily," said Suraci, whose Indians reached the state semifinals in 2013. "It was great preparation for the postseason for us and a joint effort on the parts of the coaching staff and players."
Staying on the safety route, the CIAC will also require the following starting in the 2015 season as part of this two-campaign trial run: limiting the regular season to 10 games (including any conference championship games) and a mandatory bye week for all schools during which zero live contact is permitted.
Furthermore, in terms of person-to-person contact minutes during practice per week starting a year from now, the CIAC mandates that only 120 minutes be allowed during the two- to three-week preseason stretch with the opening week calling for only conditioning drills, then 90 minutes of person-to-person contact allowed during the first nine games and, finally, after the ninth contest, 45 minutes per week and no contact allowed before game No. 10 if No. 9 is played the week before Thanksgiving, along with no contact once the postseason begins.
"It's a tough situation, but the [CIAC Football] committee is doing a great job with what is set for 2015," said King. "It's tough, though, because people don't want to lose Thanksgiving."
While these regulations may limit injuries that occur in the heat of a live game, squads that go on a deep playoff push toward a title will still have to play potentially four times in just over two weeks if they are state finalists.
Carbone concluded that however you slice it in this complicated matter, football is a force in Connecticut and the parties involved have to come together and form a unilateral agreement going forward to keep fans coming back and communities glued to the gridiron.
"High school football gets the most media attention and it gets the most attention in terms of attendance, budgeting, and participation. Since football is the most popular sport for the aforementioned reasons, there needs to be consensus on the direction of the sport," said Carbone. "Now that safety and the medical reasoning has taken precedence, we need all of the voices to come together and decide where the sport needs to go and grow for the best interest of all. I know that sounds easy, yet it isn't because there are the haves [winning programs] and the have nots [those that aren't], which curtails the discussion. That being said, all of the different leagues in the state, along with these voices, need to work together [whether it's creative and fair scheduling, etc.] to keep the interest high in the sport and keep it fair and reasonable so everyone has a fighting chance."
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