Coaches adjust to 16-team playoff reality
SALEM — The Ohio High School Football Coaches Association recently filed an appeal with the Ohio High School Athletic Association requesting to hold off on the plan to expand the football tournament to 16 teams per region starting this fall.
OHSAA dismissed the appeal and will go ahead with the plan to radically alter the playoffs.
The coaches association said 343 coaches of 491 surveyed wanted to stick with the original plan of expanding the playoffs to 12 teams per region — with a bye week included for the top four seeds in each region.
In Region 8 of the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association which includes Columbiana and Mahoning counties, 24 of 26 head coaches surveyed voted in favor of the 12-team plan.
Leetonia coach Paul Hulea was one of the two votes in favor of the 16-team expansion.
He’s been there before.
“In 1999 which was the year we won the state championship when I was at Poland that was the first year they went to eight (teams per region),” Hulea said. “They were saying the same thing about blowouts between the No. 1 and No. 8 teams back then. And we don’t talk about that now. With 16 we’ll just have to wait and see how it washes out.”
Hulea’s Poland team was the first in Ohio history to play 15 straight weeks on a way to a state title. He admits it was not an easy task since there were no breaks in a tough schedule which extended from August until December.
“It’s a war of attrition,” Hulea said. “It’s hard on the kids. It’s hard on the coaches and it’s hard on the families.”
Hulea pointed to a story of having the 1999 team’s last practice at Stambaugh Stadium to illustrate the point. He said typically the team ended the last practice of the week with a two-minute drill which involved setting up for a game-winning field goal. He said he was standing at the 50 in the middle of the field and heard a giant roar go up behind him when the field goal went through the uprights.
“It was the jayvee kids,” Hulea said. “They had seven weeks without a game and were finally done getting their heads kicked in by a team good enough to win a state championship. To them that was their state championship, just getting through all of that.”
United coach D.J. Ogilvie, who will serve as the Ohio coach as part of the 42nd Penn-Ohio Stateline Classic set for June 24 at East Liverpool’s Patterson Field, has a different perspective of the situation since he served as a head coach of Lemon Bay in Florida from 2011 to 2016.
“I voted for 12 because I liked the idea of a bye week for the top four seeds,” Ogilvie said. “In Florida, we had a bye week during the season and having been through that I viewed that as a positive. It was really nice to get a week in there to get a break and get some kids healed up.”
Ohio has stood its ground on making bye weeks a mandatory part of the regular season and now will have one of the longest postseason tournaments in the country. A lot of other states include bye weeks into the regular season or program it into playoff schedules to reward excellent teams. The NFL and college football have not asked teams to play anywhere near that many consecutive weeks in a long time.
Ogilvie said he is not hung up on the outcome however.
“They’ve decided 16, so that’s what we are going to go with,” Ogilvie said. “There are coaches who are deadset against this and will continue to fight, but I am fine with whatever they decide.”
Even though he supports the 16-team plan, Hulea said he is not pleased that 16 of 18 teams in each Div. I region will make the playoffs.
“In Division I in the four regions, 90 percent of them area going to the playoffs,” Hulea said. “If the goal is to have more kids involved in the playoff experience, it sure seems like it’s setup to get more Div. I kids in the playoffs.”
Hulea and Ogilvie said the length of the season is still 16 weeks regardless of the plan, so it really doesn’t matter all that much.
The threat of a 16th-seeded team backing out of playoff game with a top seed may also be a reality too, but again Hulea doesn’t think anyone is going to pass up an opportunity to play an extra week.
“If I walk into a locker room and we’re the 16th seed and I ask my kids if they want to play another game, what do you think they are going to say?” Hulea said. “They’re going to say ‘We want to play coach’.”
As for the expansion of the playoffs being framed as a way for OHSAA to scrape back lost funding from years of financial mismanagement, Hulea said he doesn’t care.
“Some people are upset because the state wants to make more money,” Hulea said. “I bet you want to make more money, right? So, do I.”