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February 13, 1998
Contact: John Johnson or Mike Clifford

Guest Editorial: MHSAA Executive Director John E. "Jack" Roberts
On Football Playoff Expansion

Since the Michigan High School Athletic Association Football Playoffs began in 1975, the tournament has been expanded three times: From 16 to 32 teams after two years, from 32 to 64 teams after eight more years, from 64 to 128 teams after six more years. Again there is talk of expansion.

We began with four teams in each of four classes, one team per Region; and the Playoffs consisted of two games: Semifinals and Finals. Next came eight teams in each of four classes, two teams per Region, with a three-game Playoff series: Quarterfinals, Semifinals and Finals. Then came 16 teams in each of four classes, four teams per Region, with a Playoff series consisting of four games: Pre-Regionals, Regionals, Semifinals and Finals. Then came 16 teams in each of eight divisions, and the genius of that expansion was that it doubled the number of qualifiers without lengthening the Playoff series.

When this occurred in 1990, so many people were so much happier than before. And so many people were so much happier then than now. As we predicted then, expansion would not solve problems; expansion would double problems. Twice as many teams just miss qualifying; and teams that do qualify often have twice as far or more to travel for Playoff games.

So now, in addition to proposals for reclassifying the Playoffs so that there are an equal number of teams in each of 8 divisions, we're seeing proposals emerge or reemerge to expand the number of qualifiers overall.

Equalizing the number of teams in each of eight divisions is popular. At the MHSAA Update Meetings in October, the equal divisions concept was favored by 78 percent of 785 respondents. On a mail survey to schools sponsoring football, 72 percent of 420 respondents favored equal divisions.

Complicating what would appear then to be a no-brainer is what to do about Playoff points. For example, if we reclassify the Playoffs into eight equal divisions, what do we do with a small Class A school that is now in Division III? Do we assign it Class AA and A points (80), or Division III and IV points (64)? It makes a difference to that school, to its opponents, to its league, and to other schools trying to qualify for the Football Playoffs. And any change in points stresses again league and conference alignments.

In other words, eight equal divisions is not a no-brainer.

The ideas in current circulation for expanding the Football Playoffs are the same as or variations of proposals that have been received and rejected previously. They involve lengthening the four-game Playoff series to five or six weeks, and/or starting the regular season a week earlier, and/or utilizing the 9th week or 8th and 9th weeks of the regular season. Each of these ideas has been received before, and each of these ideas has been rejected before, either by the MHSAA Football Committee or Representative Council.

This is not to say the philosophies do not change or that frustrations do not grow and that for one reason or the other, old proposals can't be seen in new light. Like a millage that is defeated three times before passing, so may some of these proposals to extend the length of the season for Playoffs or invade the regular season for Playoffs, in either event, so more teams qualify, the assumption being that the more schools which qualify, the less strain on scheduling and leagues. That's unproven, but possible.

Some will argue that if we can't expand the Playoffs, at least abolish the Regional concept, in other words, qualifying the 16 teams in each class with the highest Playoff points, regardless of Region. There are a lot of reasons to reject proposals that would abolish the Regional concept.

First, some will claim that the system isn't fair without Regions -- or at least it's not any fairer without Regions than with them, for it would require schools which are isolated from schools of the same size or larger to travel much more to generate Playoff points. For example, Marquette might have to travel 800 miles round-trip almost every weekend to generate the same Playoff point potential as Mt. Clemens can generate within 80 miles round-trip.

Secondly, if we bracketed so that the team with the highest points played the 16th and No. 2 played No. 15, etc., without Regions, more teams would travel a lot farther than they do now for even Pre-Regional and Regional games.
And if we place the top 16 teams of each division into four Regions at the end of the season, there would be much more last-minute chaos and controversy over pairings, scouting, hosting, and neutral sites than there is now. It is far better to determine Regions in August than in November.

Some suggest a blend, in other words, for each class, take the top two teams from each Region and then the eight schools left out which have the highest Playoff points, regardless of their Region. But where do you put those eight teams? In what Regions? In what positions within those Regions?

Or, again, do you then discard the Regions and pair No. 1 vs. No. 16 and No. 2 vs. No. 15, etc., creating that chaos and controversy with scouting and hosting and pairing, and causing more teams to travel much farther for Pre-Regional and Regional games?

I usually find myself like a dog chasing its own tail, going round and round without result, except to conclude that the chase is futile and the format that we have is about as close to best as we can make it given the number of schools playing football (619), the unusual geography of our state, and our climate.

Ohio's format is pretty much like ours, but with six classes, qualifying 96 of 706 football schools; and there's a proposal pending to double Ohio's qualifiers. Indiana gets all of its 308 football schools into post-season play by utilizing the last two weeks of the regular season as Playoff games. Wisconsin got 196 of its 389 football schools into its 1997 Playoffs, but isn't sure the effort was worth it; and among the models that Wisconsin is looking at is Michigan.

The MHSAA Football Committee met in January and voted first and strongest that some sort of expansion occur.
Then the committee voted to recommend to the Representative Council a proposal that had been endorsed by the Board of Directors of the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association in January. That plan -- "Proposal 16" -- blends several controversial ideas: (1) reclassification into eight equal divisions; (2) one week earlier start to games; and (3) converting the ninth regular season game to the first round of a six-week Playoff series.

This quadrupling of Playoff qualifiers to 512 of 619 plus teams by means of a six-game Playoff series after an eight-game regular season, is considered too much by many observers, including veteran football coaches, members of the media, school administrators and MHSAA staff. Some who voted for the expansion to 512 teams, called "Proposal 16" because it qualifies 16 teams out of every Region, have indicated they would have supported a more modest plan for expansion had the Football Coaches Association been aware of such a plan at the time of its January convention and the Board of Directors' vote.

In fact, a more modest plan has been undergoing MHSAA staff discussion since early January. This would not require reclassification into eight equal divisions, nor would it require conversion of the ninth regular season game into the first round of the Playoffs. It would, however, require regular season games to start one week earlier, as is the case in Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Under this plan, following a nine-game season, 32 teams would qualify in Classes AA, A, BB, B, CC and C for a five-game Playoff series. Classes DD an D, which have about half as many schools as the other divisions, would continue to qualify 16 teams for the Playoffs, and they would have a week off before their Finals at the Silverdome on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Some folks believe no expansion of the Football Playoffs is best -- a tournament for the elite. Others favor a tournament that allows almost everybody in -- like MHSAA tournaments in other sports, fixing the Playoffs once and for all. Still others prefer the more gradual approach, like all previous expansion of the Football Playoffs.
Stay tuned, and stay involved. And remember, in the work of the MHSAA as in local school business, simple solutions rarely are.