Hargis: Tennessee's football title games deserve a home worthy of their significance

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Finley Stadium is central to the bid to bring the TSSAA BlueCross Bowl to Chattanooga after more than a decade in Cookeville at Tennessee Tech's Tucker Stadium.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Finley Stadium is central to the bid to bring the TSSAA BlueCross Bowl to Chattanooga after more than a decade in Cookeville at Tennessee Tech's Tucker Stadium.

If ever the TSSAA wanted to prove its decision making prioritizes the benefit of the state's student-athletes, now's the chance.

When the high school sports governing body's Board of Control meets next month to listen to and vote on proposals from Chattanooga and Cookeville to decide which city should host Tennessee's prep football championship games the next two seasons, there is only one choice that puts the teams - players, coaches and fans alike - first, and that is to award Chattanooga the right to host.

Before laying out the reasoning, first let me clarify that this isn't an "us versus them" view from someone who's merely interested in bringing the BlueCross Bowl to our town. Nor is it a shot at the hundreds of volunteers who work the state title games or any of the fine folks who call Cookeville home.

It is, however, calling out the fact that Tennessee Tech's 55-year old Tucker Stadium has never been a suitable site, and it's an argument I began making more than a decade ago, right after Cookeville's first year as host. Back then my contention was that Middle Tennessee State University should have maintained hosting rights because its facilities were much better, plus Murfreesboro offers more hotels and restaurants and is simply easier to travel to.

When the TSSAA moved the title games from Murfreesboro to Cookeville, it was based solely on the assurance of more guaranteed money. That was also the first time in the association's history that it downgraded in facilities for championship events.

But Murfreesboro has not submitted a bid in recent years and isn't expected to again this time. Neither is Clarksville, Knoxville, Nashville or anywhere else, which means the decision will come down to the Scenic City and Cookeville.

Provided Chattanooga's financial offer is anywhere in the same zip code as Cookeville's - as it's expected to be - the next step in choosing should be the facilities used by the teams competing in the nine games. That's where, in Biblical terms, there is a great gulf fixed - a gap so wide that it should overcome Cookeville's only known advantage, being located more centrally in our 560-mile elongated state.

The rest of the TSSAA state title events are held at pristine venues, sites worthy of giving the student-athletes the extraordinary experience that should come with reaching the pinnacle of high school sports. However, football - which brings in more money to the association than all other sports combined and with its playoffs generate nearly triple the amount produced by the boys' basketball state tournament, the closest event in terms of revenue - has been relegated to a decayed facility.

Tucker Stadium was built in 1966 - the same year the first episode of "Star Trek" aired, Pampers introduced disposable diapers and Lyndon B. Johnson was this nation's president. Players and coaches have long complained about the cramped, outdated locker rooms and the worn condition of the field's artificial turf.

Fans and school boosters have griped about the conditions of the restrooms and concessions area and because the press box is too small to even accommodate the number of media who cover the event, much less offer suites for those willing to pay to watch the games from the comfort of indoors.

During the Friday session of last year's BlueCross Bowl, a day with steady rain, the leaks were so bad that the restrooms and concessions area that sit underneath the concrete bleachers were covered with nearly a half-inch of standing water.

Five years ago, Tennessee Tech announced plans to renovate its stadium because severe leaks had damaged the football offices. Those upgrades still have not been made, so the facility continues to deteriorate.

One coach, who has worked in other states before returning to Hamilton County and attended multiple days of the event with his staff, said the differences between Tennessee's title games and those in Alabama and Georgia - where the finals have been played in Southeastern Conference and NFL stadiums - are glaring.

"First, I've never had to use an umbrella just to go to the bathroom like we did this past year," said the coach, who asked for anonymity. "The kids in our state deserve so much better than to have to play the biggest game of their lives in a stadium that's in such horrible conditions. It's embarrassing really.

"I went in the locker room before one game to wish a friend luck, and when I looked around, I realized that we've played at five or six high schools whose locker rooms were better than those."

All of those problems immediately disappear if Chattanooga's Finley Stadium - which has hosted numerous Football Championship Subdivision title games as well as professional soccer championship events - becomes the new site.

Once both cities make their pitch, it falls on the shoulders of the TSSAA Board of Control's 12 members to put the well-being of the student-athletes and schools they represent at the top of their list of concerns when casting their vote. If that happens, the BlueCross Bowl will finally have a home worthy of hosting the state's biggest prep event.

photo Times Free Press sports editor Stephen Hargis

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

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