In response to concerns about player safety and an unwieldy scheduling format that pushed last year’s high school football season deep in to December, Connecticut’s playoff system could be looking at another major overhaul.
The most radical proposal, multiple sources have confirmed, comes from CIAC associate executive director Paul Hoey. It involves eliminating spring practices, beginning the season a week earlier, shortening the regular-season schedule to as few as nine games and eliminating Thanksgiving Day as the official end of the regular season.
While the CIAC says no proposal is official, “The hope is to make some adjustments for 2014,” said Joel Cookson, the organization’s director of media and sports information.
“I think there’s just concerns in a lot of different areas,” he said. “When we’re finishing two weeks after the rest of the New England states, it suggests that we’re not being super efficient with our schedule and that it’s too late to be playing football in New England.”
At the heart of the issue, Cookson said, is the season’s length and possible safety issues that might arise.
Because the FCIAC, SWC and NVL held league championship games, five of the eight finalists wound up playing an unprecedented 15 games. In response, the NVL has already eliminated its conference championship game.
“You look at all the legitimate concerns about player safety and the way we play three playoff games in a week and a half after Thanksgiving, there’s a sense that it’s not great for everybody involved, for students, for the schools and for us,” Cookson said.
Sources say the CIAC would like to end its football season by the first week of December or earlier, meaning a three-game playoff schedule has to start before Thanksgiving.
The CIAC football committee is scheduled to meet at 3 p.m. on Jan. 22 to discuss how to respond.
“Our meeting is on January 22 and I’m sure we’ll have a lengthy discussion,” said Bunnell Athletic Director Dave Johnson, who is the Connecticut Association of Athletic Directors representative on the CIAC football committee. “What we’ll discuss, I don’t know. I really haven’t seen any proposals. But in my humble opinion, I like the current system we have. It maintains the integrity of the regular season and carries on the tradition of Thanksgiving football. I think it’s as good as we’re going to get.
“When we agreed on this system five years ago, we said we’d take a look at it and see if we needed any tweaks or improvements, but I think it’s just fine.”
CIAC executive director Paul Hoey was not available for comment Monday.
“Until we meet next Wednesday, it’s hard to figure out what they’re really trying to say or do,” said Lou Marinelli, New Canaan’s football coach and a football committee member. “I hope, I pray, they don’t try to force anything down our throat and I hope it’s not a bunch of non-football people making decisions for football without us being consulted. I think Connecticut football is pretty progressive and I think we have done a tremendous job coaching football and have our kids’ best interests in mind.”
Cookson said the CIAC would not comment on any specific ideas for change since they are not official.
“What Paul (Hoey) wanted to do is to lay out possibilities,” Cookson said. “We don’t have our minds made up. There might be ideas we haven’t even thought of yet. We feel like we need an open-minded approach on what’s the best solution.”
The rumored proposal, according to sources, is similar to one recently installed in Massachusetts and another proposed by football committee member and Hand coach Steve Filippone in 2008.
That proposal failed when the state’s superintendents refused to de-emphasize Thanksgiving Day football for the sake of expanding the playoffs.
The CIAC football committee responded with the current format which was to reduce six state playoff classes to four and expand to a quarterfinal round, ending the season a week later.
“I like things just the way they are,” said Staples coach Marce Petroccio, a football committee member. “I think because of the late date of the Prep-Southington game, the knee-jerk reaction is to shorten the season. I don’t know if that’s the way to go. And are people are ready to give up Thanksgiving football? I don’t know about that.”
Other than a snowstorm that postponed some quarterfinal games in 2012, the first three years of the new system were completed on schedule. The latest finals were played on Dec. 11 in 2010.
The 2013 season, however, saw a perfect storm of problems arise.
The late start to Thanksgiving, traditionally the end of the regular season in Connecticut, gave the state an extra week and an 11-game schedule. The state playoffs started a week later than normal.
Ultimately, the Class M and Class L finals were played in a snowstorm on Dec. 14. More snow and freezing conditions forced the CIAC to postpone the Class LL final between Southington and Fairfield Prep twice to Dec. 19, the latest a football season has ever ended in Connecticut. The CIAC made an exception to its bylaws to allow the game to be played.
“Yeah, it was a snowstorm, but guess what? That’s New England,” Johnson said. “You have to deal with it.”
Fifteen games in high school football are not rare. Including Connecticut, 18 states saw teams play 15-or-more games in 2013: Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, California, North Carolina, Ohio, Alabama, Nevada, Georgia, Louisiana, Indiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Virginia, Tennessee and Mississippi.
Many other states played as many as 14. Most of those states, however, are in warmer climates.
Several schools in California, Pennsylvania and North Carolina played 16 games.
“We played 15 games last year, I thought it was great,” Marinelli said. “Besides, how many teams really got to play 15 games? You have to be really good to get there. I don’t know if the FCIAC is ready to give up its championship game. And the Thanksgiving has just gotten bigger and bigger.”