Wednesday, July 29, 2009

WIAA Concocts Bad Idea

Bad ideas happen.

Our lovely world is full of them.

Astro-turf. "The Bachelor". Governor Sarah Palin.

You can now add the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association's new "Football District Proposal" to the list.

You can classify this one as a well-meaning thought, but an attempt to fix something that isn't really broken.

In Wisconsin, high school football playoffs are not automatic for every team. Schools must qualify by having a record of .500 or better in conference play. Instead of going through with the idea of having everyone qualify for the playoffs (any fan of Minnesota high school football that is tired of seeing 58-0 running-time blowouts in the first round of section playoffs would understand why this is being avoided in Wisconsin), a plan to divide the seven-division state further into districts was hatched.

The basics:

* The 64 largest schools would be played in Division 1, then those schools would be divided geographically into eight districts.

* Teams would start the regular season with a non-district game against an opponent of their choosing, followed by seven games against other teams in their district.

* For teams finishing in the top four in their district, Week 9 would become a playoff week (Level 1). Two districts would be paired together, with the first-place team in one district meeting the fourth-place team in the other, and so on.

* For teams finishing in the bottom four in their district, Week 9 would become a final regular-season game, scheduled after Week 8 by the WIAA and pairing each team against a non-qualifier from a neighboring district, based mostly on geography.

* The earlier start of first-round playoff games would change two scheduling quirks: a) Teams would no longer play Week 9 games on Wednesdays and Thursdays; b) The traditional Tuesday round of Level 1 play would be eliminated.

* Each playoff-qualifying team would play one fewer game overall, due to the shift of Level 1 playoff games to Week 9. Non-qualifiers would still play nine games.

The WIAA website outlines the positives of such a plan.

• Schools would be in districts based on enrollment.

• Groupings would be developed using criteria similar to that applied to other sports.

• Week one games can be used to schedule traditional or historical games.

• Schools will only be required to find one non-district game, which is the common week one.

• All games during the season would be played on Friday or Saturday with some exceptions when travel may be a consideration.

• Schools would have nine games with seven district games and a week nine game guaranteed.

• Competition levels in week nine games would be comparable and competitive.

• Coaches would know ahead of time who their playoff opponents might be.

• Travel costs can be reduced by scheduling non-varsity games within a region and having eight district games.

I'm all for finding ways to reduce travel costs. Everyone is facing that reality in today's world, especially school systems.

However, eliminating chances for kids to compete at a high level and test themselves is not the way around this.

Not only does this district proposal do away with the traditional conferences that dot the state, but it also encourages programs to be lazy and not push themselves. I know it's just high school athletics, but Wisconsin football didn't gain national legitimacy by housing a bunch of lazy programs.

Are there teams that "play down" to a league with a ton of lower-division teams? Sure. No denying that. There are also numerous teams (hi, Rice Lake!) that "play up" to a league with higher-division teams. In Rice Lake's case, they're generally competitive in the Big Rivers, which is a great thing for them.

I'm a huge fan of conferences, and I'm a huge fan of mixing things up for section playoffs. One of the rules of WIAA playoff bracketing (as it stands now, that is) prohibits conference foes from meeting in the first round.

If the WIAA wants to help teams fill scheduling holes, they should do a better job of encouraging teams to play a full nine-game schedule, and to work with in-state schools to fill scheduling holes. Kids who sign up to play and put in the time in a football program deserve the most that can be offered. If the best a program can offer is that they'll play the full nine games every season, then so be it. But they should at least do that.

I don't like potentially taking away traditional conference (and non-conference) rivalries. I don't like making teams choose which non-district opponent they're going to keep.

It's simply not a necessary move, and I hope the WIAA votes this down.

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