Seated behind his desk at TSSAA headquarters in Hermitage earlier this week, Bernard Childress was candid with his feelings about the relationship between the state's high school sports governing body he oversees and its 330-plus member schools.
Now in his fourth year as the executive director, Childress began his career in education as a high school teacher and basketball coach at Columbia Central, followed by eight years as an administrator, including four as principal before coming to work for the TSSAA in 1995. Throughout those years until now, Childress has earned a reputation as someone who tries to serve the best interest of student-athletes, even when that means upsetting the status quo or the adults setting the rules.
His corner office is encased by four glass walls, which not only makes for a scenic, panoramic view but also is an accurate metaphor for the transparency with which he operates his daily job.
For months Childress and his staff put together notes and reasons why the board of control, which sets the rules for state prep athletics, should punt the current six-classification football playoff system and return to the five-class format that had been used for 16 years without much complaint.
Childress made that recommendation in July, just before the board voted, despite knowing that one fewer playoff classification would mean more than $100,000 less revenue for the TSSAA.
"I know our organization gets accused of doing things strictly for the money, but that has never been a deciding factor for me," Childress said. "Whatever the issue is, I always believe it's never a tough call to do the right thing. And the right thing, in my opinion, was to go back to the simpler, old way of settling the playoffs."
When Tennessee switched to the six-class playoff system four years ago, it was with the belief that the confusing way of deciding who qualifies for the playoffs would become easier to understand with time, and that it would cut down on travel for schools. But the only certainty has been the annual embarrassing mistakes when the brackets are released, and because the number of wins is a huge factor in qualifying for the playoffs, teams have shown a willingness to travel farther, even out of state, to play weaker opponents in hopes of claiming easy nondistrict victories.
Further proof that the less-travel argument doesn't hold up is evidenced by first-round games such as Silverdale Baptist having to make a 440-mile round trip to Hampton tonight. Add to that blunders like posting a bracket with Cleveland in the 5A playoffs for nine hours before realizing a mistake in the overall record of a team from North Carolina meant the Blue Raiders were actually out, and how to explain wy Walker Valley somehow made it instead of Cleveland despite the Blue Raiders winning by 28 in their head-to-head meeting, having the same overall record and finishing ahead of the Mustangs in their district standings.
Add to that the indisputable fact that this state doesn't have enough teams to support eight classes of state championships (41 teams made the playoffs despite having either 5-5 or losing records). Class 1A and 2A can't even fill out 32-team brackets, meaning 16 teams in those classes get first-round byes; even then, under the current format, small schools are not rewarded for playing tougher nondistrict schedules.
This playoff system was patterned after the "Z-plan" used by Virginia, but that state scrapped the idea after just one year, leaving Tennessee as the only state in the country with such a complicated fomat for setting its playoffs.
Simply put, the fact that coaches, fans and media are discussing the process of selecting playoff teams rather than the games themselves is a clear example of how flawed the system is.
So on Monday, at the regional administrative meeting at Hardin Valley High School, the future landscape of the TSSAA could see a change as Childress likely will begin addressing the issues that are causing distrust between coaches of the member schools and the TSSAA. First Childress wants to make public the proposed new district alignments before the board officially votes later this month, giving coaches a chance to see where they might be placed.
There also is one vacancy on the board to be filled after the retirement of West Tennessee representative Fred Kessler, and other current board members are up for re-election. Knowing that Kessler was one of the five who voted in favor of keeping the current system, Childress likely will ask the new board members to discuss the possibility of voting on the classification issue again, despite having just done so less than four months ago.
"I still believe it's the right thing to do, and from what I've heard the majority of coaches in the state, especially in the Chattanooga area, want to look at it again," said Childress, who added that the TSSAA staff could have the new five-class region system in place within two or three weeks if it's voted in.
"There's no rule that says we can't rescind the previous vote and vote again. The only thing stopping it is the pride of any board members who think they would look foolish by having to vote again. But I'm more concerned with making sure we get this right before we go any further into a four-year plan."