First in a two-part series
When high school football kicks off in less than a month the new season will mark the golden anniversary of the hardware that signifies the gold standard every team in Tennessee pursues.
On the Friday of Labor Day weekend in 1969, just weeks after the moon landing and Woodstock, the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association implemented two football rules changes that would permanently alter the game. The first would allow teams the option of going for two points after a touchdown; the second, which would later open the door for many dramatic changes to come within the organization, was to implement a three-classification playoff system to determine unquestioned state champions in each class.
"It's almost unthinkable now that there was only one classification for all sports at one time," said former TSSAA executive director Ronnie Carter. "I was coaching junior high in 1969 and I remember the playoffs weren't thought of as a big deal when they were introduced. There was some confusion on what the playoffs were, and a lot of people still thought of the bowl games as the bigger deal.
"But once they realized the state was recognizing the winner of the playoffs as the champions, the best team in the state in their class, then it really took off."
As the TSSAA enters the 50th season since implementing a playoff system, 39 teams from the Chattanooga area have played in a total of 1,330 playoff games (compiling an overall postseason record of 642-688), including 50 state championship game appearances. Area teams have played for championships in all but two of the nine classifications (6A, Division II-A) and won a total of 20 titles in those five decades.
Area championship teams began with South Pittsburg winning the first one in 1969, bookended by Whitwell's monumental achievement last season.
"I really don't remember anything else that's brought everybody together and made the whole community feel proud the way our playoff run last year did," said Whitwell principal Teena Casseday, who's also a lifelong resident of the town and proudly displays last season's 1A championship trophy on a shelf in her office. "The whole school year ran smoother because morale was up around the hallways, and it even carried over academically.
"We had more people than ever wanting to be involved, donating to our Quarterback Club or just putting spirit signs up in their shops or their yards and filling the stands every Friday night. You saw it grow as the season went along. The pride ran through the school and the whole community because of the success those kids had. In the past it wasn't like it was in some of the other towns around us here, but the enthusiasm the team brought to our little town was something special."
In early 1960 the TSSAA's Board of Control was presented two proposals that would have changed drastically the look of the organization's most popular sport. The first was to classify football-playing schools by enrollment, and the second was to introduce a playoff system that would determine state champions. Both potential changes were voted down, but as the second half of the decade rolled around more coaches began to discuss the possibility of replacing the polls — voted on by a statewide panel of sports writers and officials as a means of electing a state champion — with a playoff system that would allow teams to settle things on the field.
Legendary Central coach E.B. "Red" Etter and school principal Hobart Millsaps, who was a member of the TSSAA Board of Control, were instrumental in gaining support for the playoffs, and in January of 1968 the board approved a request from the regional meeting in Knoxville that called for the appointment of a committee to study the feasibility of establishing a championship playoff.
"I was an assistant at Maryville High at the time, and I remember a lot of us really felt it was time for a playoff," said Benny Monroe, who would become the head coach at Cleveland and guide that program to consecutive state championships from 1993 to 1995. He coached Ooltewah to the semifinals in 2006 and 2008.
"Polls are an opinion," Monroe added. "When you're ranking somebody, that's just your opinion. Before the playoffs you'd get a bunch of sports writers and math nuts together and they would vote, and the smaller schools never got ranked very high.
"Having a playoff was a way to substantiate that you're the best on the field. If you play a tournament, you'll have a winner and it doesn't matter what people's opinions are. There was already a state tournament in basketball, so us coaches didn't see why the same thing couldn't work for football."
In the summer of 1968 — at the same meeting where officials decided to change the color of penalty flags from red to yellow — an overwhelming vote of 188-20 from the state's football coaches approved the proposed plan to divide into three classes by enrollment and also introduce a playoff format to settle state champions for each of those classes.
Schools with more than 1,000 students would be placed in Class AAA, those with 500-999 students would be grouped into AA and schools with fewer than 499 students would make up Class A.
Each class was divided into four geographical regions and regional champions were decided by a point system — 10 points for a win over an opponent from the same class, five points for a tie and four points for beating a team in a smaller classification. A tiebreaker was implemented if teams from the same region ended with the same point total, and another tiebreaker — an overtime — was structured for use in playoff games only.
In a 1969 article written to introduce the new playoff system, former (Nashville) Tennessean sports writer Bob Teitlebaum wrote that it would "sweep aside the old controversies created by polls and mathematical systems" to crown a true champion.
But the new system was not without its flaws and in the first year of the format, Brainerd was left out of the playoffs despite finishing the regular season 10-0 and outscoring opponents 216-38 (including five shutouts and not allowing more than 12 points in any game). But under the points system, Brainerd earned just four points each for beating Hixson and Soddy-Daisy — both of which were in a smaller classification — and Franklin County got in ahead of Potter's talented team.
East Tennessee teams swept the three championships the first year: Morristown East in AAA, Loudon in AA and South Pittsburg in A. South Pittsburg snapped the 22-game win streak of Tennessee Prep School to finish as the only unbeaten, untied team in any class in the state that year.
Since that time, South Pittsburg is the only program in Tennessee — regardless of class — that has played for a championship in every decade of the playoff format. The Pirates own more state titles (5) and more championship game appearances (11) than any other Chattanooga-area program, and their 78 playoff wins are 17 more than the next closest area team.
"The thing I'm most proud of is our long-term consistency," said Pirates coach Vic Grider, whose late father, Don, guided the program to the inaugural 1969 title and three runner-up finishes. With a combined 399 career victories, the Griders are the winningest father/son coaching tandem in state history. "There are teams who can put together one really good year every few decades, but to maintain the level of success and the standard of excellence we have for so long, especially at such a small school, is something really special."
Two years after football introduced its classification system, basketball would be the next sport to do so, and soon after every other sport began to divide into separate classifications based on enrollment figures.
Since that first year, when 12 teams made the playoffs, the football brackets have expanded six times — most notably in 1997 when the TSSAA separated private schools that give financial aid into a separate division. That profound change, which came to be known as Division II, was voted in just four months after private schools won three of the five state football championships — all by double figures.
Classifications have grown from three to nine, and last year 229 football teams earned playoff berths — 67% of the state's member schools — including 49 with losing records, 10 with two or fewer wins and even one winless team.
The points system was scrapped in 1972 in favor of advancing only the district champion to the playoffs but even then numerous eight- and nine-win teams were left out of the postseason. Included among those tough-luck omissions was the 1982 City High team that outscored opponents 320-45 — allowing more than seven points just once, in a 35-14 season-opening win over Brainerd. However, a 7-6 district loss to McCallie sent the Blue Tornado into the playoffs and ended the Dynamos' season at 9-1. City High (which was later renamed Phoenix III) never again came close to qualifying for the postseason.
Similarly, from 1969 to 1985, Red Bank missed the playoffs eight times when it won eight or more games.
"It was more exciting back when only one team from each district made the playoffs," said Bill Price, who quarterbacked Red Bank to the 1978 Class AAA championship game. "Every week of the regular season was sort of like a playoff because you knew if you lost just one district game you probably weren't going to make it."
Price later became a coach and developed a reputation as a program builder. He took a Soddy-Daisy program that hadn't had a winning season in 12 years to its first-ever playoff appearance in 1994 and also guided Signal Mountain to the 2010 Class 2A championship — in only the second year of the program's existence — before retiring with 172 career wins.
"I've seen what a winning football program can do for a school and a whole community," Price added. "Everywhere I've been, once you start winning big and going to the playoffs, the stands are packed and it just creates so much excitement. I can't think of anything else that brings that kind of feeling to a community."
Playoff success can mean more than just community pride, however. For Boyd Buchanan, a winning football program quickly translated into a noticeable uptick in enrollment, financial contributions and even the expansion of academic buildings on campus.
In the program's first 19 seasons the Buccaneers had more winless finishes (3) than winning records (2). But in 1996, one year after he was hired to become the school's president, Robert Akins also took over as head football coach and immediately turned the program around. The Bucs won their first 11 games, advancing to the second round of the 1A playoffs, and the impact on the school as a whole was felt just as quickly.
"The excitement generated by those kids and that first playoff run really set us on a path to grow the school," said Akins, who is now Ringgold's head coach and athletic director. "People came out of the woodwork wanting to donate to the school or transfer their kids there, because a lot of folks wanted to be a part of that success. It helped with fundraising and all aspects that extended past football.
"The student population really took off. We probably had a steady gain of 50-60 kids each year for several years after that and were able to build new facilities and new buildings for the school. All of that was a byproduct of the exposure brought on by the success we were having in football."
Since that breakthrough season, Boyd Buchanan has had 10 seasons with at least 10 wins, winning a championship in 2003 and finishing runner-up three times. During that same time frame the school's enrollment grew from fewer than 600 students — in grades K-12 — to nearly double that total currently.
When the playoffs began 50 years ago, the total attendance for the three classifications' six games was 23,147 and the revenue generated was $26,432.10. The TSSAA's portion of that was $8,723.57, with the remaining $17,708.53 evenly split among the 12 participating schools.
Those figures had tripled by 1972, when the number of teams that qualified in each class doubled from four to eight, and continued to see steady growth for the first 24 years of the playoffs. In 1993, the first year after the state expanded the brackets from three classifications to five, attendance soared to 201,109, bringing in $469,407.75 in revenue.
Now, much the way football has helped finance school growth, the revenue made from the sport's playoff system helps the TSSAA meet its annual budget of around $3.6 million. The TSSAA takes 50% of all playoff revenue from ticket sales — with the teams splitting the other 50%. But while that may seem like a skewed percentage for the state's governing body, 25% of what the TSSAA takes in is used to pay for catastrophic insurance and game officials.
Catastrophic insurance costs are nearly one-third of the TSSAA's entire annual budget.
According to TSSAA figures, attendance for the first four rounds of last year's playoffs was brought in $1,382,426. After paying for officials ($172,581.50) and insurance ($345,606.50), the 229 participating teams split $691,213 ($3,018.40 per school) and the TSSAA cleared $173,025.
Those figures do not include the championship games, but the TSSAA receives $253,000 from the Cookeville-Putnam County Chamber of Commerce each year for the right to host the nine finals.
Attendance for last year's playoffs was down by 29,914, which meant $233,312 less in ticket receipts — down by nearly 27% from the previous year and the lowest figures since 2008, when the state had two fewer title games.
Although football's overall financial numbers are down, the money brought in is still nearly three times more than boys' basketball, which is the closest revenue-generating state tournament. The sagging playoff attendance is, however, a concern for TSSAA officials.
"It's no secret that you could combine the postseason for every other sport and it wouldn't add up to what football brings in for the whole state," said TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress. "There are several other sports where we actually lose money, even during postseason tournaments. We've got to do something because in order to even make our budget, the state has to depend on the revenue from football.
"We have looked into the reasons for the declining attendance, and I believe the biggest issue is that we simply have too many classifications. Too many teams are making the playoffs, which leads to some bad first-round matchups. We understand that people only have so much in their budget for entertainment, and it seems like a lot of folks are choosing to do something else instead of coming to first- and second-round games that they believe will be blowouts.
"I know a lot of people believe that the TSSAA wants to have more classifications in order to make more money, but I can tell you that, as a staff, we have discussed how much better it would be to downsize from six to five classes in the public school division. We made it just fine for 15 years having five classes. We had great matchups and attendance was strong. It's not up to me, but in my opinion going back to five classes would actually help attendance."
The number of classes is decided every four years by the TSSAA's nine-member Board of Control, with two years remaining on the current classification cycle.
Last season, 39 of the 94 first-round games in the six public school classifications were decided by the state's 35-point mercy rule. That includes 10 of the 15 games in 1A, with defending state champion Greenback earning a bye because Unaka opted not to play a game its coaches felt could not be won.
Childress added that, in his opinion, the board should leave three classes in Division II for safety reasons, since so many small-school players have to go both ways — in both divisions.
"Beyond that you look at how much better off we would be by reducing the number of classes," Childress said. "It really is the biggest reason for the slump in attendance. Bad weather isn't really the issue, because we've seen shrinking attendance even in good weather the past couple of years. And ticket prices aren't a big issue because we haven't raised those prices in more than 10 years. It's all about bad matchups, and that comes from having too many teams in the playoffs.
"We want people in the stands to support those student-athletes. If we can do that by reducing the number of classes, which would make for better early-round matchups, that's what we need to do."
According to one former Board of Control member, the biggest concern with downsizing would be that it would prevent dozens of schools from experiencing the excitement of making the playoffs. It would also keep those programs from collecting a portion of the playoff revenue.
"Back when we first started having a playoff system, no one could comprehend more than four teams making it," said Benny Monroe. "That's staggering when you think about the amount of teams that make the playoffs now and the number of champions we have each year.
"You can talk about too many teams or too many classifications, but the other thing is, when more schools get to experience it, watch what happens to communities when they start winning and are in the playoffs. The impact it has on those little towns, it's magic when they're in the playoffs."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis