Yes, it’s complicated.
But from what I’m hearing from western Iowa head football coaches and activities directors, there are some rather clear opinions regarding the makeup of the current schedule.
On Wednesday, the Iowa High School Athletic Association’s Board of Control will vote on whether to cut its football regular season from nine games to eight.
In recent years, state quarterfinalists have played four games in 15 days. Many coaches have expressed concern about the dangers of putting their athletes’ bodies through that kind of rapid-fire competition, not to mention the strain involved in preparations for the next game and missed class time due to long weeknight trips.
The elimination of a ninth regular-season game likely would allow for a full week between each playoff round.
Last week, The World-Herald emailed the activities directors and football coaches in its western Iowa coverage area and asked them to answer four questions. Twenty-two football coaches and 10 ADs responded, certainly enough to extract some valuable information.
The first question simply asked if the respondents wished to remain anonymous.
Question No. 2: Do you support the proposal to limit the regular season to eight games in order to spread out the postseason schedule?
Coaches: No: 15 votes. Yes: 7. ADs: No: 10. Yes: 0. (Coaches who double as activities directors had their votes listed only in the coaches’ column.)
Question No. 3: Hypothetically, if given a choice to either reduce the regular season by one game or reduce the playoff qualifiers from 32 to 16, which would you choose?
Coaches: Reduce the qualifiers from 32 to 16: 13 votes. Reduce the regular season by one game: 3. ADs: Reduce the qualifiers from 32 to 16: 9. Reduce the regular season by one game: 0.
Question No. 4: If the regular season is reduced to eight games for playoff qualifiers, would you be in support of adding a ninth game for non-qualifiers?
Coaches: Yes: 13 votes. No: 5. ADs: Yes: 6. No. 2.
Remember, this was an unscientific survey, and that a few respondents didn’t answer every question. But here are two of the most important things I took:
First, it’s clear that coaches and ADs feel the athletes are being placed at great risk, playing so many games in such a small amount of time. I didn’t hear from anyone who thought the current playoff format should remain. It’s too bad that it’s taken this long for someone to finally act on the rumblings I’ve heard for years.
Second, a large number of respondents would prefer to see the season either start a week earlier or end a week later, rather than tweaking the number of regular-season games or playoff qualifiers.
In 2013, there were 28 games played in Week Zero, Aug. 23-24. Several suggested that the season be moved back so that all teams start in Week Zero. IHSAA officials have voiced concerns about starting practice so soon after state baseball, playing games before school is in session and the heat.
Another suggestion is to finish the championship games on Thanksgiving weekend, which also could allow a full week between playoff games. The IHSAA cited the potential conflict of Northern Iowa hosting an FCS playoff game that weekend, along with other holiday-weekend concerns.
Among others, Tri-Center coach John Tiarks likes the idea. He believes the attendance at the UNI-Dome that weekend would be excellent, allowing more families, teachers and coaches to travel to the games without having to take time off from work, as many are off on that Friday.
I know in past years, they’ve squeezed four games into the Dome in a day. They’ve also played two games before a Saturday night UNI game. I’m not sure if they could play four finals on the Friday after Thanksgiving and two earlier in the day on Saturday, leaving room for a potential Panther night game. It might be worth consideration.
A combined 25 of 32 respondents didn’t want to see the regular season shortened. If that were to occur, each school would see the loss of one home game every other year. Many coaches and ADs said their schools rely heavily on that revenue, and believe there are better solutions.
For instance, Harlan AD Mitch Osborn said his school would lose between $10,000 and $14,000 every other year with the loss of that game. It would be less at smaller schools, of course, but those schools also are strapped for cash and often without the resources to compensate for the lost income.
Frankly, I was surprised that so many coaches chose reducing the number of playoff qualifiers from 32 to 16 over losing a regular-season game. My belief has always been that the coaches would never vote to reduce the qualifiers back to 16, largely because it would decrease their own programs’ chances of reaching the playoffs. Based on the survey, I don’t believe I gave them enough credit.
To me, if the Board of Control does not approve the reduction of the regular season from nine to eight games, the Iowa Football Coaches Association should make an effort to seek its members’ opinion again. If the clear response is to reduce the qualifiers from 32 to 16, then that’s the easiest solution to the problem.
Now, back to reality. I don’t believe the IHSAA will go back to 16 qualifiers per class. The IHSAA collects the ticket revenue from the playoffs, and it seems farfetched to believe it will give that up. I’d love to be proven wrong, if the IFCA indeed expressed a desire to reduce the playoff field.
The last question of the survey asked about adding a ninth regular-season game for non-qualifiers, in the event that an eight-game regular season is established for qualifiers. Most said yes, but also had reservations. Some wondered whether the athletes would be motivated to play a ninth game or whether it was worth risking injury for a winter sport. Others said yes, every football Friday night is to be treasured, whether it has playoff implications or not.
Finally, my two cents. My first preference, in a perfect world, would be to reduce the qualifiers from 32 to 16 teams per class. Yes, an occasional 8-1 and some 7-2 teams would be left out. But at the expense of all the 2-7, 3-6 and 4-5 teams that get in, and all the first-round blowouts we endure, I still maintain it’s not nearly worth the tradeoff.
I understand the other viewpoint. Yes, a 4 seed has made the state final. Yes, Harlan made the state semifinals as a 3 seed in 2011. Yes, just about every team with two wins or more still has a shot with two weeks to go. Some think that’s great.
But a reduction in qualifiers adds more urgency to the regular season. It adds more prestige to being a playoff team. It’s a true sense of accomplishment. We don’t see enough of that anymore. And it often leads to a false set of expectations later in life.
If the qualifiers are not reduced, I would then support starting everyone in Week Zero. If 56 schools can play then, it’s not a stretch to force everyone to follow suit.
Journalistically, in terms of producing preseason sections, it would be a nightmare. But this is about the athletes. With the precautions now being taken to combat the August heat, I believe everyone could handle it.
If that doesn’t gain support, I would encourage looking at Thanksgiving weekend for the finals. If a compromise can be made with Northern Iowa, perhaps it’s something worth exploring.
Last on my list would be to eliminate a week of the regular season. If that were to occur, I’d endorse a ninth game for non-qualifiers, with the IHSAA in charge of handling the matchups. I still think the majority of kids would not want to lose a Friday night, regardless of their record.
In the mid-1980s for a time, the IHSAA did go to an eight-game regular season for playoff qualifiers. One respondent remembers adding a ninth game when his non-qualifying team was 4-4. It finished 5-4 and walked off feeling much better about itself.
There are countless viewpoints here. Wednesday’s vote will be interesting. Let’s hope that those making the decisions — tomorrow and beyond — always have the athletes’ best interests at heart.