The rain that began falling on Dudley Field in the early December afternoon had turned to a mixture of sleet and snow as the final seconds ticked off the clock. This was the tangible end of the Class 5A state championship game and the 1995 Tennessee high school football season.
It also was the beginning of the end of unified high school sports membership in the state.
Despite an enrollment that would have allowed Brentwood Academy to compete in 2A, its coaches chose to play up three classifications to face the state's largest schools. The Eagles still dominated their way to an undefeated season, outscoring 15 opponents by an average of more than 30 points, including a double-digit win to dethrone the previous season's champion, perennial power Riverdale from Murfreesboro.
BA's win was the third title for private schools in the five classes that season, each by double figures. As Ronnie Carter, the executive director of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association at the time, buttoned his coat and waited for an elevator to take him from the press box to the field to award the trophies, a voice yelled to him from the Riverdale coaches box: "Private schools are 3-0!"
Carter shook his head and said, "I knew that was coming."
Just four months after the end of the '95 football season, the TSSAA's Legislative Council, which is responsible for statewide rules changes, voted in favor of creating a separate league for schools that give financial aid to athletes. One year after the vote, the new rule was implemented.
It has been 15 years since the landmark decision to create Division II for financial-aid schools went into effect.
"I didn't think at the time it would ever actually come about," Carter, the TSSAA executive director from 1986 until retiring in 2009, recently recalled. "And I still wish, deep down, it was back to where everybody played everybody else. It's amazing to me to think that high school kids now don't even realize there was a time when public schools played in the same division with private schools."
ROOTS IN RECRUITING
Accusations, distrust and envy had been building between the TSSAA's public and private schools for more than two decades. Now everyone involved in Tennessee high school sports was pushed to choose a side in the "us against them" debate.
Succeeding in sports requires talented athletes, and public high schools contended the better middle school athletes from their zones were being recruited away by the wealthier private schools with more resources.
Riverdale principal Hulon Watson, who had a background coaching football at Hargrave Military Academy, began researching the differences between public and private schools in Tennessee and learned that 65 percent of students attending private schools participated in athletics, compared to 32 percent of public-school students. He also noted that while private schools made up only 15 percent of the TSSAA membership, they were winning 55 percent of the championships in the 13 state-sanctioned sports.
"The only way I could explain it was that if you can recruit, you can have better control of winning state championships," Watson said recently. "It was in golf, tennis, wrestling, girls' softball and on down the list. They were dominating everything. But football was the one that got everybody's attention because that's the sport most everybody watches closely."
By the fall of 1995, private schools had won 17 consecutive boys' tennis state championships, 11 straight in boys' golf and nine wrestling titles in 12 years. The McCallie wrestling team won four successive titles from 1990 to '93, but in 1994, after a list of violations, became the only program in state history to receive the "death penalty."
Blue Tornado wrestlers were not allowed to compete or even practice for one year.
But neither the private schools monopolizing the so-called minor sports nor McCallie's much publicized punishment following its wrestling success stirred enough dissent for change to occur.
During administrative discussions in the spring of 1996 over whether to create the separate league for private schools, former Maplewood principal Dr. James Armstrong spoke just minutes before the vote.
"We should add another word to our bylaws -- winning -- because that's what this all boils down to. And really, it's just all about winning in football," said Armstrong, who had coached football and basketball at Nashville's Pearl High and later would be a member of the TSSAA Board of Control.
As was the case with the TSSAA's original rule to separate schools by enrollment, creating a classification system in 1969, football was at the heart of the decision that changed the landscape of prep sports in the state. It took one weekend, a two-day span of private-school football domination, for the public schools -- which make up 85 percent of the TSSAA membership -- to make sure change came swiftly.
Tennessee became the first state to divide all postseason tournaments along the lines of public schools and private schools. And not all private schools were separated. Most, in fact, chose not to give financial aid to athletes so they could continue playing in Division I with the public schools.
Forgoing financial aid did not stop the public schools' complaints. Since the initial public-private split, the TSSAA has added a "multiplier" for the private schools remaining in Division I. Their enrollments are multiplied for classification purposes by 1.8, the highest such rate in the nation, which typically moves them up one and sometimes two classes.
Only the seven largest private schools in the state originally chose to continue giving financial aid and compete in D-II, but 23 other schools since have joined them, enough that there now are two classifications for small and large schools within the private school group.
The TSSAA also has expanded to six Division l classifications in football, meaning three more sets of playoffs than existed before the split -- and substantially more teams able to contend for state championships.
"It was all about winning," Carter said. "It will always be about winning. Every rule change, whether it's public-private or any other, it's all about winning championships. It's all about gold-ball trophies."
Leveling the field
While some bitterness and even jealousy remain, the creation of D-II did quell much of the arguing between the two sides simply because the public schools no longer had to compete with the most prominent private institutions for championships. But there remains enough distrust that many public schools avoid scheduling regular-season games against D-II competition.
"The sadness is the loss of rivalries," said Baylor boys' basketball coach Austin Clark, who was the school's athletic director when the public-private split occurred. "Teams on both sides are having to travel one or two hours away to play games against competition well outside our area, rather than playing each other. This generation of kids don't get to be a part of those local rivalries, and that's such a big part of the experience of high school athletics."
The council, which is made up of nine public-school principals, voted to create D-II in March 1996, but that decision was disallowed because it violated the TSSAA's constitution since the issue was not listed on the agenda. So one month later, at a special called meeting at Nashville's Overton High, with very little discussion beforehand, the council voted in the public-private split by a 6-1 count, with two abstentions.
Rather than a complete split, however, the council gave the stipulation that the new league would be for those schools that opted to continue giving financial aid to student-athletes. At that time there was a quota limiting the number of athletes who could be given financial aid by private schools. As an olive branch to the private schools, the council voted also to eliminate that quota.
Former East Ridge and Ooltewah principal Ed Foster, who had been a council member for less than a year when the vote was taken, was instrumental in getting the motion passed and in suggesting the quota rule be lifted from the private schools.
"Ronnie Carter was adamant against us voting for the change," Foster said. "You don't normally go against the executive director, but there was so much bad blood, controversy and anger between the two sides, something had to be done. The member schools were splitting the TSSAA from within, so we decided we had to make a change so that public schools no longer had to compete for championships against private schools."
Foster, who had coached boys' basketball for 12 years, as well as football and golf before moving into administration, understood the origins of the public school coaches' frustration.
"It was years of seeing kids come through the middle school halls and then going on scholarship to a private school," Foster said. "The private schools were coming in and picking us clean of our best athletes.
"I listened to my constituents and took the bull by the horns and did what needed to be done. I hate I had to be a part of offending many friends on the private school side, but I'm proud of being a part of leveling the field."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...