The N.C. High School Athletic Association’s board of directors called an audible on football Thursday and caught area coaches off-guard with its new game plan.
The association reduced the maximum number of games teams can play from 11 to 10 and cut the number of state champions that will be crowned from eight to four, starting with the 2021-22 school year.
A number of items were on the board’s agenda for its annual winter meeting, including potentially changing the sports calendar for this school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the NCHSAA decided not to alter the schedule, which has volleyball and cross country competing now, swimming and diving starting Monday, basketball games beginning Jan. 4 and the start of football pushed back to February. Instead, it made significant and unexpected changes for football.
Grimsley’s Darryl Brown spoke for most football coaches in the Triad when he said, “Everything came out of left field.”
NCHSAA commissioner Que Tucker refuted that, saying, “This was not something we just threw out there and our football coaches were not aware. We have been discussing this with the football coaches for several years. Their leadership group was in our office before COVID-19 hit. We made some decisions at that time.”
But none of the coaches in the Triad who spoke Thursday were aware of those meetings or the possibilities of fewer regular-season games or fewer state champions.
“You’d think we would’ve heard somewhere before now that this was going to be discussed at their meetings and that they were looking for input at regional meetings and things of that nature,” Grimsley’s Brown said. “It never came about.”
Reducing the maximum number of games, including endowment contests, was "a health and safety move for our players,” said the president of the board, New Bern High School Principal Jerry Simmons. “It also brings us in line with most of the country.”
Neither Simmons nor Tucker, the NCHSAA’s commissioner, cited any specific studies or data that prompted the reduction in the number of games.
The association also stipulated that the first game cannot be played more than two days before the final Friday in August, which is at least a week later than the season has started in recent years. West Forsyth coach Adrian Snow noted that would allow teams to have a few more official practices after the traditional Aug. 1 start.
Tucker said that “how we will manage the 10 games, how many weeks and how that will be spread out has yet to be decided. That is part of our ‘calendaring’ that will come as we continue the realignment process” that will be completed in March.
Starting with the fall 2021 football season, instead of subdividing each of the NCHSAA's four classifications into A or AA for playoffs as the association has since 2002, there will be a single champion for each class. So 64 teams in each classification will play six rounds to determine a state champion.
“This is in response to a failed vote by our membership to modify our bylaws that would’ve permitted us to have more classifications,” said New Bern’s Simmons, referencing a vote to amend the NCHSAA’s bylaws in January.
Tucker said the move away from subdividing also was an attempt to put football “back on equal footing with all of our other sports, where we offer one state championship” per classification.
Most Triad high school football coaches didn’t see it that way.
“I’m very disappointed,” East Forsyth’s Todd Willert said, “that you get blindsided by this idea today of just dropping down to four classifications and the impact it has, not on just the high schools but on student-athletes and their families and the experiences (of potentially being in a state championship game) that they’re getting cheated out of.”
Willert’s Eagles have won the last two NCHSAA Class 4-A state championships.
One thing that will not change is that if schools want to play the maximum number of games, one of those games must be designated as an “endowment game.” The NCHSAA gets 25 percent of the gross gate receipts from an endowment game, and the teams split whatever is left of the remaining 75 percent after game expenses are deducted.
The finances of high football, especially amidst a coronavirus pandemic that likely will restrict attendance for a spring season in 2021, are a major concern for athletics directors. Reducing the number of games in the fall of 2021 and beyond will have an impact on every sport in a school’s athletics program.
“Any time you lose a home game you’re talking about multiple thousands of dollars, and that’s going to affect the bottom line,” said Grimsley’s Ethan Albright.
“It’s tough,” added Page AD Matt Harder. “The time to do it was now based on realignment and everybody renegotiating football contracts for the next four years. … But that’s one less home gate every other year that schools aren’t going to be able to get money from.”
The NCHSAA did address financial concerns by announcing that it will allocate $4 million in Board/Undesignated Funds from its endowment as a one-time subsidy for schools offering athletic programs during the 2020-2021 academic year. With a little more than 400 schools, that would average out to nearly $10,000 per school, or a little more than the typical gate receipts for a big home football game. The program will be called CAPS, for COVID-19 Athletic Program Subsidy, Simmons said.
“We are working on the criteria that will define what qualifying means,” he said. “We have established a committee that will work on that and do it in a timely fashion.”
Contact Joe Sirera at 336-373-7034 and follow @JoeSireraSports on Twitter.