Mark Story: Kentucky's high school football playoffs and the issues that plague them

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 8, 2012 

Pleasure Ridge Park Trinity 6A Football

Trinity players celebrated their 61-7 win over Pleasure Ridge Park in the Class 6A championship. In the last 12 years, Trinity has won 10 state championships. Another private Louisville school, St. Xavier, won it the other two years.

JOE IMEL — ASSOCIATED PRESS

In the two seasons (2005 and '06) before Kentucky went to six classes in high school football, private schools claimed six of the eight state championships awarded.

The resentments being created from that success generated much of the energy behind the divisive and ultimately unsuccessful drive to split Kentucky high school sports into separate private and public schools divisions.

Since the Kentucky High School Athletic Association went from four-class playoffs to six in 2007, public schools have claimed at least four state titles every year. That includes the just concluded season, in which public schools won the Class 1A (Mayfield), 3A (Central), 4A (Highlands) and 5A (Bowling Green) titles. Private schools took 2A (Newport Catholic) and 6A (Trinity).

Since the introduction of six-class football, public schools have won the 3A and 5A titles six times, the 1A and 4A titles five times and the 2A title three times.

"Whether that was the principal point (of moving to six classes) or a pleasant product of it, I'll let people debate," KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett said Friday.

Only in Class 6A, where Louisville parochial powers Trinity and, to a recent lesser extent, St. Xavier reign, have private schools dominated. The Big Two from The Ville have claimed all six state crowns, five by Trinity, since six-class football began.

Yet if the six-class playoff format has alleviated the perception of emerging private school dominance in all divisions but 6A, there remain other issues that plague how high school football state champions are determined in the commonwealth.

Let's examine three of them.

Item 1: Watered-down playoffs.

When Kentucky went to six classes, it kept the format of the top four teams in each district making the playoffs. This year, Tackett says there were 220 KHSAA member schools that fielded football teams. Of those, 191 made the playoffs (one team got a first-round bye).

Massive first-round mismatches resulted. In Class 1A, only one first-round game out of 16 qualified as competitive (a final margin of two touchdowns or less). The average margin of victory in 1A opening-round games was a staggering 44.3 points.

Class 4A openers were only slightly more competitive, with 16 games yielding only two "competitive" contests and an average margin of victory of 42.8.

The most competitive class was 5A, which had six "competitive" first-round games and an average winning margin of "only" 28.4.

Solutions: The obvious one would be to cut back to two teams per district making the playoffs. That would make for more competitive playoff games and also give more meaning to regular-season district contests.

Tackett said Friday he is not ready to endorse a blanket reduction in playoff teams across all six classes. The KHSAA commissioner said he is open, however, to unorthodox approaches, including the possibility of different playoff formats for different classes. "I'm not sure that all six classes have to look alike," Tackett said.

Item 2: Same teams winning titles every year.

In the six-class era, some schools can all but put the state championship game on their pre-season schedules. Highlands has won a state title (four in 5A, two in 4A) every season; Trinity has won 6A five times; Central has won 3A five times.

Solutions: One possible step would be to go back to four classes, compressing the competition and making it more difficult to reach the state finals.

The politics of that, though, seem impossible. Once you are giving six state championship trophies a year, how do you ever go back? Furthermore, you would be undoing a system that is producing a far higher percentage of public school state champs than the old four-class format was by the end.

In this case, the only viable "solution" may be for schools other than the traditional football state champions to get better.

Item 3: Trinity and St. X

A public school has not won a football state championship at Kentucky's highest level (be it 4A in the old format or 6A now) since Male in 2000. An "out-in-the-state" public school has not won in the top class since Nelson County in 1996.

In the last 12 years, Trinity has won 10 state titles, St. Xavier the other two.

There are public schools (ladies and gentlemen, Scott County) with huge "advantages" over their competitors, too. Still, it is increasingly difficult to justify asking out-in-the-state public schools to compete for the same football state championship as the two Louisville Catholic school titans.

Solutions: With their large, all-male student populations (St. Xavier 1,456 last school year; Trinity 1,381), no attendance boundaries and other athletic "advantages," Trinity and St. X are essentially in a league of their own.

So formalize that. Instead of a "split" that removes Trinity and St. X from KHSAA-sanctioned competition, how about a new class 7A, based solely on male enrollment, that would likely include only those two schools.

Next, the KHSAA could attempt to enter into some kind of regional pact with the high school sports sanctioning bodies from neighboring states such as Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee which would allow for a multi-state Class 7A playoff among schools of similar profile to Trinity and St X.

"Actually, it is something that has been talked about before," Tackett says of a multi-state playoff. "But there's a lot that would go into that, starting with what do those two schools (Trinity and St. Xavier) want.

"You'd also have to work through the National Federation (of State High School Associations), which has a ban on national championships. Then you'd have to get the other states on board. The (Kentucky) state legislature would likely be involved, there's just a lot that goes into something like this."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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