TSSAA board given options to consider for start of high school football season

Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Meigs County's defense stops Peabody's Walter Dickson during the TSSAA Class AA football championship game on Dec. 7, 2019, at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville.

There is not yet a plan in place, but there are now options for how a high school football season could be played in Tennessee this fall.

The TSSAA Board of Control held a virtual meeting Wednesday to discuss how fall sports should proceed amid health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic. Monday's announcement by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to extend the state of emergency orders through Aug. 29 had left football teams statewide not knowing how to proceed once the two-week dead period ends on July 6, or when the season could begin.

TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress began the meeting by informing member schools that football teams will be allowed to continue weightlifting and conditioning as they had prior to the dead period. However no contact drills will be permitted, including 7-on-7 competition.

The prohibition on contact also extend to basketball, soccer and wrestling teams statewide during the governor's order. For cross country, golf and volleyball - sports also played during the fall semester - there are no restrictions and teams can continue following the TSSAA calendar for what's allowed at practice. Those sports will also begin their seasons as scheduled because they are not considered high risk for contact between athletes.

Childress laid out four options for board members to consider. They were instructed to take the four proposals to the schools in their area to determine which is preferred and meet again on July 8 to vote on what will be implemented.

"We didn't feel like the board had to make a final decision today," Childress said. "Football coaches have been saying 'Just give us the opportunity to play, and we'll do whatever is necessary to make sure the kids are as safe as we can.' The focus for us has been on the game. These student-athletes deserve the right to compete, and we'll do everything within our power to make it so they have a season.

"Now it will be up to the coaches to let their board representative know which option they prefer and we'll move forward with putting a plan together for the season."

All four options were for the football season to be played this fall, with variables being the number of games played in the regular season and the number of teams qualifying for the playoffs.

Under option one, full-contact practice could begin Aug. 30 and the season would kick off on Sept. 18 with a seven-game regular season and maintaining five rounds of playoffs.

Under option two, full-contact practice would also begin Aug. 30 and the season would start Sept. 18 with an eight-game regular season, but only the top two teams from each region would qualify for the playoffs. That would cut the number of teams advancing in half compared to what it has been since 1992.

Also under options one and two, teams that do not qualify for the playoffs have the option of adding as many as two regular-season games in order to play a more complete schedule, and the TSSAA would set all teams' region schedules, with coaches then left to fill their nonregion dates.

Childress said the TSSAA could have region schedules finished within a day if one of those options is chosen.

Option three would allow full-contact practice and the season to kick off on the same dates as the first two options. but teams would be allowed a nine-game regular season and only the region champions would qualify for the playoffs. That would be similar to the playoff brackets that were used from 1977 to 1985. Also under option three, teams not qualifying for the playoffs could pick up one extra regular-season game to fill out their schedules.

The fourth option, which Childress admitted had very little support prior to the meeting, would have teams playing five league games then picking up five more against opponents of their choosing to finish out their season but not have a championship playoff tournament.

"I'll poll our area coaches to see which one they want to go with and vote the way the majority of them want," said Soddy-Daisy principal Steve Henry, who represents the Chattanooga area on the board. "There has been a lot of people freaking out and worrying about fall athletics. This should at least let everyone know that we're going to do everything we can to make sure there's a season."

Assistant director Mark Reeves said the organization had also asked the governor's office if the TSSAA could be put in the same category with in-state college and professional teams, which are exempt from the executive order. That would allow prep football teams as well as girls' soccer teams to begin full-contact practices on the original July 27 date and the season to kick off Aug. 21.

Reeves said the TSSAA hopes to have an answer back from the governor's office soon. So long as TSSAA teams are under the governor's executive order, there will not be any preseason scrimmages or jamborees played statewide.

Early in the meeting Childress explained why the organization was against flipping the fall sports schedule with spring sports, a move some others states have considered. That would have meant baseball, softball, tennis and track and field could have had their seasons moved up to the fall, with football moving to the spring. Childress said the TSSAA would do whatever it could to protect the spring sports seasons, which were canceled in April due to the coronavirus.

"God forbid we have to shut down a season as we had to last school year, then you're looking at telling spring sports kids who just lost their season that they could lose two years in a row," Childress said.

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.