(Above: Scenes from the regular-season-ending extravaganza that is Thanksgiving football in Connecticut would have to disappear if we want real state playoff reform.)
It’s been a few days since we reported on the CIAC’s desire to make major changes to the way Connecticut High School football conducts its state playoffs.
Now, a few more outlets have chimed in with different takes and comments from across the state, including Associate Executive Director Paul Hoey, who we didn’t get a chance to speak to on Monday.
The best of the bunch came from ‘Polecat’ Ned Griffen of The Day of New London, who quoted Hoey saying that Thanksgiving will not be touched in any new playoff format.
“No matter what we do, Thanksgiving will have to stay intact,” Hoey told The Day. “That game has to count towards the playoffs.”
This seems to be a walk-back of the CIAC’s most radical proposal in emails and discussions with coaches and athletic directors earlier this month.
The original idea was to decrease the regular season to nine games, start the state playoffs in mid-November and then possibly take a break to allow Thanksgiving Day games to be played before resuming the state playoffs the week after.
That’s what Massachusetts did when it realigned its state playoffs a few years ago. It’s what New Jersey does. But Hoey reports that Massachusetts sees the enterprise as a disaster.
“The opinion of ADs in Massachusetts is that the new playoff system has really decimated the whole Thanksgiving Day atmosphere up there,” Hoey told The Day.
So diluting Thanksgiving into some kind of playoff intermission seems to be off the table as far as CIAC is concerned.
If Thanksgiving won’t be touched, and the CIAC wants to end the season sooner and also eliminate the Tuesday-Saturday gauntlet — which, admittedly, is a lot to ask of high school football teams — then the only other option is to shrink the playoff rounds to fit around the holiday.
Hoey suggested keeping the same amount of playoff teams, but dividing the four classes in two then playing semifinal and championship rounds.
So that would mean we have 4 classes — LL, L, M and S — but each class would crown two champions.
So they’d be champions, but technically co-champions?
Does that even make any sense?
If that was our format, you’d have fans and coaches screaming about getting the two ‘champs’ together and we’d be back where we started. Players, coaches and fans ultimately want to determine who’s the best on the field. That’s what a ‘state champion’ is supposed to mean.
This takes us even further from that goal.
And what, exactly, would eight state champions mean?
There are 148 high school football teams in Connecticut. Divided by eight, that’s approximately one state champion per 18 teams.
One per 18.
Think about that. Most of the state’s leagues are bigger than 18 teams — The CCC (32), FCIAC (19), SCC (19), Pequot (21).
So if they really want to go to eight teams, why not just have the leagues crown champions and be done with it? It’s basically the same thing as crowning eight state champs.
There’s got to be another way.
The more champions we add, more we lose the meaning of the phrase ‘State Champion.’
The only way the state could realistically leave Thanksgiving untouched while playing less games is by going back to six classes with four teams each. Then you would play the semifinals nine days later and the finals the week after that.
Then again, that doesn’t solve the playoffs-must-end-earlier meme from CIAC, does it?
So, once again, Thanksgiving is the impassable boulder.
If we must end the season earlier and play less games in the name of ‘safety,’ but keep the amount of playoff teams as-is, the only legitimate solution is eliminating Thanksgiving and start the playoffs by mid-November.
But what about all the money schools make from their Thanksgiving Day gate? What about “The Greatest Day of the Connecticut Sports calendar?” What about a hundred years of tradition for some schools.
I love Thanksgiving football. It is the best sporting day in Connecticut. If it were up to me, it would remain the Connecticut regular-season finale.
But we can’t expect a good state playoff system that ends the season by the first week of December while eliminating the brutal Tuesday-Saturday quarter- and semifinal rounds.
It’s either a good playoff system that increases the time between games, or keep Thanksgiving.
We cannot have both or we’ll be playing until New Years Day.
So, as much as it pains me to say this (excruciatingly so), maybe the CIAC’s original idea was right: Eliminate Thanksgiving Day football as the end of the regular season.
If teams want to play rivals on Thanksgiving, they can. It just won’t pack the same pageantry and playoff intrigue ever again. They’d be glorified exhibitions and some of the thousands who typically show up might not bother.
Coaches can say all they want — and I’ve heard them say something to the effect of We’d still play hard even if Thankgiving didn’t mean as much, it’s still our rival — I sense we’d lose the beauty of Connecticut high school football if we do that. The interest would all but wane. I think many schools with strong Thanksgiving Day traditions — your Ansonia-Naugys, your Shelton-Derbys, your New London-NFAs, etc — would agree.
But we have to lose it. Otherwise, no playoff reform is possible and we’ll be back at the drawing board in three or four years, screaming for another solution.