The Tennessee Secondary School Athletics Association must be mightily impressed with the quality of the state's education system. Otherwise it would never have instituted a new football playoff format that only Einstein or Bill Gates could decipher.
Don't take my word for it, though. Judge for yourself by merely focusing on the new District 5-AAA, which will consist of Bradley Central, Cleveland, McMinn County, Ooltewah, Rhea County, Soddy-Daisy and Walker Valley.
Those seven schools make up our area's largest district in terms of enrollment. Once upon a time those good enough to reach the postseason from that district played the best teams from Chattanooga's old 6-AAA in the opening round of the playoffs.
It worked that way every year. District 6-AAA played District 5-AAA. Every year.
That was ancient history, of course. Before the state went from three classes to five in 1993. Before it blew apart completely four years later over the public/private school split.
But when a new reclassification was announced for the coming school year, one determined to re-establish far smaller geographical districts — no more Brainerd visiting Sparta in the regular season, for instance — there was also hope for a simpler playoff format.
Not now, however. Just consider the aforementioned District 5-AAA. Those schools aren’t even classified as Class AAA programs once the postseason begins. Bradley, McMinn, Ooltewah, Rhea County and Soddy-Daisy will attempt to earn playoff spots in Class 6A. Cleveland and Walker Valley will compete in the Class 5A playoffs.
That's right. Some District 5-AAA schools will become 6A programs at playoff time and others will compete at the 5A level.
Confused yet? We’re just beginning. The TSSAA had initially explained its playoff system by referring to playoff eligible schools as “automatic qualifiers.”
As of this week, new TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress is cautioning his staffers to change “automatic qualifiers” to “playoff eligible.”
“In Class A and Class AA we could easily have 30 eligible teams for 24 spots,” said Childress on Wednesday. “They can't all get in. It's like in college football when you're bowl eligible. That doesn't mean you'll go to a bowl. We're going to spend a lot of time over the next few weeks explaining this to administrators and coaches. We'll have a PowerPoint concerning the tiebreakers. We want to make sure most of the questions are answered before the 10th week (of the season).”
Of course, it's not like that many folks will have to worry about it. Making the playoffs has become almost as easy as finding a Walmart. Of the state's 334 member schools, 176 will participate in the postseason. Once there they'll have a shot at eight total state championships, including those won by the private schools in Division II.
That's up one from the seven state football crowns the TSSAA handed out in 2008. It's also way above the five total crowns that Georgia's 420 schools play for under the GHSA umbrella or the six titles that Kentucky's 279 schools fought to win last year.
“We've diluted the state championships,” said Ooltewah football coach Benny Monroe, who won three Class AAA titles at Cleveland before the public-private split. “I’m not a proponent of keeping public and private together at all. But if you got through it in the old days and won a state championship, you'd really done something.”
That doesn't mean Monroe doesn't see much good in the reclassification. Especially during the regular season.
“To take a school bus to William Blount (whom Ooltewah competed against last season in Region 2-5A) cost $1,100,” said Monroe. “That's a lot of money. Our fans were actually getting used to having Oak Ridge, Farragut and William Blount for rivals. But I think this will be more like what we had when I was at Cleveland and you played these schools every year and those early games set the tone for what kind of team you'd have.”
Like Monroe, South Pittsburg coach Vic Grider has had more than his share of good teams, winning three state titles with the Pirates.
Of the new format, which will place South Pitt in District 6-A with archrival Marion County, Whitwell, Lookout Valley, Signal Mountain, he says, “You can easily find some negatives.”
But also much like Monroe, he sees far more positives.
“I wasn't sold on it at first,” he said. “It's so confusing. The playoffs will be laid out completely different. Nothing is going to be set in stone. So many unknowns about this deal. But when it all shakes out, I think it will be the best thing that ever happened to us.”
So here we go, into the great unknown, waiting on a PowerPoint presentation to show us the way, as if the 21st century should be driven by anything less.
And yet for all that may seem wrong for the moment, Monroe powerfully pointed to one item that is unquestionably right.
“You shouldn't have to travel from one end of the state to another to play a (regular-season) high school football game,” he said. “That's not what sports is supposed to be about.”
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...