It was a theory that began about five years ago in conversations among several veteran Hamilton County coaches, guys who had coached football or boys' basketball or both long enough to recognize a troublesome trend.
"The county has too many high schools," they each repeated, adding that we soon would see a time when local prep sports programs wouldn't be competitive with the rest of the state because the talent pool would be so scattered.
Now it appears we have reached the point where the theory is being proven true, at least in the two revenue-producing sports of football and boys' basketball.
We haven't had a Hamilton County school even play for a football state title in any classification above 2A since Red Bank won in the state's largest class in 2000. And no boys' basketball team from the county has reached the championship game in either AA or AAA in more than 15 years. Brainerd is the last team in the county to both play in a final (1997) and win a championship (1992) in any class other than A.
Last year we had two, Howard in AA and Ooltewah in AAA, that reached the state tournament, but both were sent home in the first round with double-digit losses.
Howard has been the closest thing to a lock we have had of late, having earned six trips to the state tournament in coach Walter McGary's seven seasons. But if not for a heroic performance by Hustlin' Tigers' 6-foot-8 senior Brandon Walters, our entire area would have been completely shut out of the state tournament this year, much as we were in the fall when we had no area teams play in any of the state's seven football title games.
It took all of Walters' 20 points, 17 rebounds and five blocked shots to help rally Howard to a three-point win at home over DeKalb County.
All but one of our other seven boys' teams were eliminated in the sectionals by double digits, three by at least 20 points.
Since our last team made it to a state AAA or AA final, 23 Memphis schools have played for titles in the two largest classes and the Knoxville/Maryville area has dominated the state's largest three football classes, with 26 state championships since Red Bank's title.
This is by far the longest title drought our county has had since the TSSAA began its three-classification system in 1976.
One step that can and should be taken to help level the playing field so that our county's prep athletes and coaches are better prepared to compete would be to do away with the rule condensing the middle school season into a one-month schedule. Because they have such a limited time to work with, middle school coaches have very little practice time to teach fundamentals and eventually the more complex aspects of the game, because they are busy trying to squeeze a 15-game schedule into such a small window of time.
By comparison, Rutherford County middle school teams, under no such time constraint, play nearly 30 games, and the added experience is showing once those athletes reach the high school ranks. While we had only one area football team in the 5A or 6A bracket to get past the first round, Rutherford County had three reach at least the 2012 quarterfinals, and Siegel eventually eliminated the other two county rivals in the 6A bracket to reach the semifinals.
And while we have no area teams in the AAA basketball bracket for either the boys' or girls' state tournament, Rutherford County had three advance.
Also by comparison, with six new Class A high schools opening in the last decade, Hamilton County has the same number of small-school programs as Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville combined. Only two (Ooltewah and Soddy-Daisy) of the 26 public and private secondary schools in Hamilton County compete in the TSSAA's largest classification, compared with seven of Rutherford County's nine high schools with large-school enrollments.
All of which could begin to be helped by another, more radical, move. Since both Brainerd and Tyner are more than 50 years old, and the county continues to pump millions into those buildings with projects like the new heating and air system at Brainerd, why not close the doors of those two outdated schools and make way for a new consolidated high school for those communities.
That move could also help the overcrowding at four-year-old East Hamilton, which is drawing students zoned for Brainerd or Tyner simply because of newer, nicer classrooms, equipment and facilities.
"We lose not just athletes, but some of the better academic kids to newer schools already," said legendary Brainerd basketball coach Robert High. "I know it would be a big chance for our community, but personally I think it may be time to close the older schools and consolidate to make bigger, newer schools.
"The way things are now, with so many schools about the same size in our county, we're just falling further behind the rest of the state in a lot of areas."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...