The subject on money, specifically money generated by high school football teams, comes up every year about this time.
The TSSAA, Tennessee’s high school athletics governing body, takes half of the gate from every football game played between Friday and the first weekend in December when the state championships take place in Cookeville at Tennessee Tech.
To give you an example, the first-round Sequatchie County-Bledsoe County netted $16,000. Granted the state paid for officials and a discount plaque for the winner and loser, but that leaves the two schools splitting approximately $8,000. Obviously the traveling team didn’t secure a charter bus, but it had to pay at least for one school bus and driver and possibly two. The host team had to pay for any field paint/maintenance, possibly lights and certainly security.
So here’s a fact that shouldn’t shock you: There is just one football coach in the Chattanooga area who participated in a survey by the Times Free Press that thinks the TSSAA should get anywhere near 50 percent, and he wants the state to provide expenses for teams that go on the road.
By a slim margin, the group said to give the TSSAA 25 percent. Most of the rest were more in favor of 15 percent.
“They tell us the [50 percent] is to cover the cost of catastrophic insurance,” Red Bank coach Tim Daniels said. “I get charged $5 a head at the beginning of season to help pay catastrophic insurance and state says money from playoffs goes to pay for catastrophic insurance. I don’t know how much they pay but if they’re getting half of the gates and $5 a head up front, catastrophic insurance must be an amazing number.”
It just doesn’t add up.
In Georgia, the state association looks at proceeds this way: $5 per mile one way for the traveling team. The GHSA then takes 12 percent and the teams split what’s left. If the playoff game is played at a neutral site, both teams receive the $5 per mile stipend.
Twenty of the 26 coaches who responded believe there should be some reimbursement for traveling playoff teams.
“So many teams lose money by being rewarded for [making] the playoffs,” East Ridge coach Mike Martin said.
Take Cleveland for example. Had the Blue Raiders made the playoffs it’s likely they would have been making their third trip to the midstate area Friday and the trips average 600 miles. That would have been close to 2,000 miles in a three-year stretch.
And when it traveled in the second round to Maplewood last year, Red Bank had two charter buses, yes, but the Lions packed ham-and-cheese sandwiches, made by their booster club, for their pregame meal to cut down on expenses.
“The initial reasoning behind the total [playoff format] change was to save teams money and to create more local rivalries,” Daniels said. “I’ve lost money on my normal gates because we’re not playing all teams we used to have to play. As far as travel it’s six of one, half-dozen of another. You’re going to lose money.”
So much for the state’s idea of cutting down travel by keeping teams closer to home in the early rounds, often forcing local teams to play (and possibly for the second time) in the first or second rounds, i.e. Grace Academy vs. South Pittsburg in Class A and Brainerd vs. East Hamilton in Class 4A. That’s another subject that raises the ire of most of the coaches.
“This is the first time for us. If you have strong districts or regions you could see somebody from your district in the second or third rounds and I think playoffs should be geared toward getting the best in the finals regardless of geography,” East Hamilton coach Ted Gatewood said before his team’s win Friday over Howard. “It seems like [current playoffs] are geared more to keeping everybody closer to home and traveling in later rounds rather than getting the best people to the finals.”
Gatewood was among the majority of coaches who don’t like the idea of first- and second-round pairings of local teams. 14 of the coaches said they’d rather travel than to play a local team in the first or second round. Seven said no and two abstained.
“Playing someone else gives you an opportunity to test your program against other geographic regions. In most cases you’ve already played the local team,” he said. “If you’re going to play them again make it in the finals or semifinals. [The current format] doesn’t do the sport justice.”
Now if you want to take a look at injustices, Tyner two years ago — the first year for the new system — was paired against perennial state champion Alcoa. Last year they won the district and their reward was not a home game but rather a trip to District 5-AA champion Polk County.
“[The TSSAA] seeded it based on overall record,” Rams coach Wayne Turner said. “Last year we were first in the district but Howard was seeded higher than us although we beat Howard head-to-head, and we wound up going to Polk.”
Turner believes the problem remains even this year.
“The way it’s set up now is totally unfair,” he said. “Everybody in our district is Class 4A except Howard and us. You take some of these other districts and they’re basically all 3A with one or two 4A teams sprinkled in. And then there’s our non-district schedule.”
Tyner has the reputation of being a tough team — the Rams have missed the playoffs once in something like the last two decades — so Turner winds up having to schedule higher-classification teams and private schools, which are basically Class 6A teams.”
He’d like to see the playoffs changed. He’d like to be in a district/region with teams that are the same classification, and he’d like to see the top four in each district/region advance; the top two hosting and the third- and fourth-place finishers traveling.
Polk County is in a similar situation. The Wildcats are now in a five-team district after having spent the previous years in a nine-team district with eight built-in games.
“I don’t like being in a five-team district,” Polk coach Derrick Davis said. “We benefit with the current situation but a five-team district is not very good. That nine-team district was a lot tougher that what we have now.”
What’s tougher for Polk is finding opponents. This year’s schedule included Class 6A Bradley Central and Walker Valley, the former of which played Friday for the District 5-AAA championship; Signal Mountain, which would have been among the Class 4A title picks if not for running afoul of the TSSAA; and South Pittsburg, the defending Class 1A state champion that is among this year’s championship favorites.
“I used to worry about it more than I do now,” Davis said. “I know last year (Polk) hosting Tyner — they won a tough district and had to travel. There’s something wrong there. I don’t understand the whole system and all these scenarios, but it’s not fair for Tyner, having to play Red Bank and a lot of Class 4A schools.”
He freely admitted, as did other coaches, that he didn’t really understand the current TSSAA scenario to choose and pair its teams.
“I used to spend more time on it, but I don’t really understand the current one,” he said. “We just try to win our district games. And I don’t even know if we’re going to be hosting or not. I don’t know the tie-breakers. I just keep going to last year. If you’re district champs you should play at home. A district champ traveling to district champ and another school gets in there at 5-5? Do away with two classification teams in the same district. Right now it benefits us the way it is but let single-A play single-A and so on.”
He’d rather have a bigger district of same-classification teams.
“Travel is one thing but you’re still traveling if in a small district because of the non-district schedule,” Davis said. “Tyner’s same way. You have to play big schools because nobody [in their classification] wants to play them. Us playing Bradley school doesn’t benefit us any. The [postseason] seeds are determined a lot by number of overall wins. When playing a Signal, a South Pitt and a Bradley and lose it can set you up to traveling a ways early or playing a much tougher team early. Tyner’s a perfect example of a team playing a tough schedule and getting penalized.”
Tyner is one of the 41 teams in the playoffs that has a record of 5-5 or less (including two 3-7 teams), but 15 of the local coaches answered yes when asked if teams were getting into the playoffs that shouldn’t.
Class 6A has only two teams with records of .500 or less and one of those is 3-7 Coffee County. The other is 3-7 Kingsbury in Class 4A. Class 5A has 10 and excluded 5-5 Cleveland out. Class 4A has nine, Class 3A has four, Class 2A has six and Class 1A has five. Division II-AA, Class 2A and Class 1A brackets have four byes.
TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress told the Tennessean earlier this week that the state would indeed listen to what coaches are saying. But one has learned over the years that the TSSAA often listens without hearing unless it is the cha-ching of a cash register of the phone ringing with a potential sponsor on the other end.
“When they started the TFCA [Tennessee Football Coaches Association], and we’re been in that 15 or so years, it was designed to have a voice from all corners in state,” Daniels said. “Some people like me got involved thinking we’d have input, and I can’t think of one thing where we’ve had input on the way the TSSAA runs its business. It’s kind of like having one cable company in town.”
Contact Ward Gossett at email@example.com or 423-886-4765.
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...