Class A public, private schools debate merits of plus-one championship game

By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC

Class A high school football fans soon could find themselves asking the same question that college football fans ask:

“Who’s No. 1?”

When the executive committee of the Georgia High School Association voted overwhelmingly (36-12) earlier this month to hold separate playoffs and championships in all sports in Class A, the handful of voters on the short end of the decision predicted several unforeseen consequences. Figuring out who the “real” state champion is — the public-school winner or the private-school winner — is one of those issues.

In a 16-team playoff scenario for public and private schools, a winner-take-all championship game could be played in the Georgia Dome during the same weekend that the other five champions are crowned. But opinions vary among on whether a “plus-one” championship game should follow.

“My sentiments, and most [Class A public school] sentiments, I believe, are that I don’t think I would be in favor of it,” Wilcox County coach Mark Ledford said. “That would just be circling back around to what we have been fighting the whole time.”

Ledford guided his team to a 13-2 record and the Class A state championship in 2009, defeating two private schools along the way — Wesleyan 20-15 in the quarterfinals and Savannah Christian 30-21 in the finals. But Wilcox County has been eliminated from the playoffs by private schools the past two years. Wesleyan won 45-28 in the quarterfinals in 2010, and Aquinas won 32-14 in the second round last season.

Ledford, who is 90-41-1 in 11 seasons at Wilcox County , was part of a group of mostly Class A public-school coaches and administrators who threatened to pull out of the GHSA and start their own association. The group believed the GHSA was refusing to address the group’s belief that private schools have competitive advantages over public schools, primarily their ability to recruit students without geographic boundaries. A number of GHSA executive committee members said the threatened defections was the reason they voted to separate public and private schools for the playoffs.

“There are just vast differences between us,” Ledford said. “All [a plus-one game] does, in a round-about way, is keep what had been going on.”

Alan Ingram, head coach at Seminole County , agrees with Ledford. In 2011, his Indians had their best season since the school began playing football in 1944, finishing 11-2, but they were soundly defeated by Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy , a private school, 51-7 in the quarterfinals.

“It kind of defeats the purpose. It gets back to the same issue, which is that we’re not competing on a level playing field,” Ingram said. “I wouldn’t mind at all being the Georgia Class A public-school champion and leave it at that.

“[Public schools] are playing the kids in our service area while [private schools] get to pick and choose,” said Ingram, who is 59-32 in eight seasons at Seminole County . “If I could enroll kids from [neighboring] Miller County or Decatur County , I could have an all-star team, too.”

In fact, Ingram said if having separate champions means missing out on playing in the Georgia Dome or not having the game broadcast on statewide television, it wouldn’t bother him. He said his feelings are shared by most Class A public school coaches, particularly those in South Georgia , where roughly 75 percent of the public schools in Class A are located.

“I think I speak for most when I say that we would rather play the [public school championship] game at home or at a neutral site in one of our communities,” Ingram said. “Those games are a big deal in our communities.

“The whole ball of wax is we want to be able to tell our kids that if they work hard they have a chance to win a championship,” he said.

The pluses of a plus-one

But not all public-school coaches are against a possible plus-one game.

“I would not have an issue with it,” said Bacon County coach Bobby Johns, who in his first year at the school led the Red Raiders to their best season (7-4) since 1979. He is very familiar with this issue, having coached the previous five years at Blountstown High School in north Florida, which competes in that state’s smallest classification.

“I understand the differences. Is it a fair playing field? No,” Johns said. “But to me it’s just like us as coaches allowing our kids to get upset because of a bad call. Bad calls are going to happen, but you can’t use them as excuses for not getting the job done.

“My kids put their uniform on the same as [private school players],” Johns said. “It’s up to me and my staff to prepare them to compete. There’s no way I can allow our kids to look in the mirror and think they are not as good [as a private school].”

Larry Campbell has led Lincoln County for 40 years, with 14 Class A titles, the last in 2006. He has been one of the most strident voices on the issue of private schools having an unfair advantage over public schools in Class A. His Red Devils have been eliminated from the playoffs the past four seasons by private schools — Wesleyan in the semifinals in 2008, and Savannah Christian in the past three quarterfinal rounds.

He would like to see the plus-one championship football game played in the Georgia Dome.

“I think it would be super,” Campbell said. “The opportunity to play in the Dome is such a special experience for your kids and your community. It’s not about what the coaches want. It’s the kids. People don’t talk about playing for the championship. They talk about getting to the Dome.”

Private-school coaches, including Eagle’s Landing Christian’s Jonathan Gess, say they too would like to see a “plus-one” game played. ELCA was one of the four private school teams that advanced to last season’s semifinals, along with eventual champion Savannah Christian, Landmark Christian and Aquinas.

“My opinion is that I would like to play it,” said Gess, who led the Chargers to a 12-2 record last season and is 48-14 in five seasons. In 2010, ELCA was knocked out in the quarterfinals by eventual champion Clinch County 34-27. “You want to see who is the true champion.”

Are they one or separate?

Still some of his peers are not so sure the game will happen.

“To me it’s like, didn’t we just vote that game down?” Landmark Christian coach Kenny Dallas said. “That’s what we had before when we were all competing against each other. I’d like to see us go back to that. If not, maybe we should just move on.”

“I would be in favor of it, but we’ve already been down that path,” said Mike Earwood, coach at Our Lady of Mercy in Fayetteville .

Before taking over at Mercy, where he is 13-7 in two seasons, Earwood started the program at Starr’s Mill and spent 12 years there. Before that he coached 10 years at Cartersville, where he won a state title in 1991. He thinks the plus-one game would add even more drama to the situation.

“They came up with all of these issues about why public and private schools should be separate,” said Earwood, who has 195 career victories. “If you play the game and the private school wins, they’ll say that’s why we need to be separate. If the public school wins, then you think why did we do all of this?”

But before the plus-one game receives serious discussion by the GHSA executive committee, the first priority is resolving the issue of how the 16 playoff teams on each side will be selected, according to GHSA executive director Ralph Swearngin.

“I haven’t heard [the plus-one game] being discussed as an option,” Swearngin said. “We’re trying to cover the front end first of determining the 16 [playoff] slots. I’m not sure [a plus-one game] is something anyone would want.”

16 comments Add your comment

bucket

January 31st, 2012
8:52 pm

Not trying to be picky, but that was Prince in the Final Four and not Aquinas. BTW, this entire mess still stinks.

Rockmart Needs a Coach

February 1st, 2012
9:54 am

No need for the other game, order the rings and celebrate your championships, both programs.

S. Thomas Coleman

February 1st, 2012
12:35 pm

@bucket: Thanks for the correction. Let’s see how all of this plays out next school year.

S. Thomas Coleman
s.thomascoleman@yahoo.com

Cary

February 2nd, 2012
1:51 am

WOW! You don’t think mail ordered players in the Private schools are a unlevel playing ground. Come do my taxes. LOL… If you really believe that you need to go back to a real school where they teach common sense.
While we are on the subject, how do you think Calhoun city schools and Bufford Private schools are in the top rankings of the state in there division ever year. I know, they just all happen to have the best coaches in the world. Please.

Cary

February 2nd, 2012
2:44 am

What is the population of Gordon County Ga 52,800 and we pay for them to have how many school systems? This is how Calhoun CITY schools are able to compete with the private schools every year. They claim to be a Division Double A school. How does that Gorilla math add up. I thought school divisions were divided up by the population of the county they are in. How do you expect your TRUE Division Double A teams that only have a population of 20,000 or less to compete.

S. Thomas Coleman

February 2nd, 2012
7:49 am

@Cary: Schools are placed in classifications (A, AA, AAA, etc.) based on the population of the school, not the county a school is in.

S. Thomas Coleman
s.thomascoleman@yahoo.com

Noneya

February 2nd, 2012
12:56 pm

I the state title game between Landmark and Savannah Christian. I was expecting to see 6′3 275 pound lineman and college prospects all over the field. I didn’t. What’s the big deal? Are these schools really recruiting as so many people allege or are they just outworking and out coaching the public schools?

Second since you have already decided to separate them why play a Plus 1? Just move on. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an all public school league soon. If you cant beat them, make a lot noise and make them change the rules.

Rockmart Needs a Coach

February 2nd, 2012
2:36 pm

You should have watched the AA game, Buford was loaded with the beef, some of the best prospects in their history and they got beat by a scrappy Calhoun TEAM.

MR is a Hypocrite

February 2nd, 2012
4:16 pm

Public school coaches must have a hard time explaining to their teams how they should keep fighing and not give up when they are down when the coaches ran like a bunch of little girls becuase they could not win. They didn’t running when they were beating up on the private schools in the early years but now its a thing of principle. HA!. The problem is not that the private schools recruit, it is that no kid wants to go to a pulic school anymore.

Waste of time

February 2nd, 2012
8:31 pm

Plus One – really? Either play each other through the play offs or accept the fact that Public Schools have decided to water down the schedule in ‘A’ Football.

LOL at Wilcox

February 2nd, 2012
10:49 pm

Ledford and Ingram are crybaby losers. I would be ashamed to play for them

t. j. earwood

February 6th, 2012
7:48 pm

Why not start up a Class A minus region for the weak south GA teams that can’t compete with the other reagion A people.

Cary

February 7th, 2012
8:23 am

LOL… Obviously we have a few Privi babes on here. Yes I have to agree the County schools use to beat the city schools when they were a true public school but when they were tired of getting beat, instead of coaching the players, they beat the system. That will teach those kids. If open enrollment schools can play non open enrollment schools then they should let all schools be open enrollment. Oh I’m sorry that would not make it fare for the private/city schools. If you will look back when these private/city schools were getting beat, they were small counties and they more proud of how they taught kids rather than coaching. Checkout how we/the state of GA pay for these city schools when there are county school system that should hold all these students.

1-AA

February 7th, 2012
1:12 pm

WHEN THE BALL IS KICKED ON THE NEW SEASON–THE STUDENTS WILL KNOW WHO IS THE BEST OF THE CLASS(POLL AFTER POLL).TO KEEP THE SCHOOL EVEN–THE ONLY WAY TO DO IT IS TO OPEN THE DOORS FOR ALL PLAYING.. THE DOORS ARE OPEN BUT NOBODY KNOWS WHO IS GOING IN THE DOOR.. THIS IS THE BIGGEST PROBLEM WHEN THE DEBATE STARTED. THE VOTE GAVE THE SAME MESSAGE.. ONE CLUB CAN NOT LOOK AT THE OTHER TEAM PLAYERS(PRIV-CAN SEE PUBLIC). THIS VOTE GAVE PROTECTION TO THE PUBLIC SHOOL PLAYERS, HE OR SHE KNOW THAT THEIR NOT PLAYING THE PREANTS OF SOMEBODY OR A PLAYER THAT SHOULD NOT BE PLAYING. THE SPLIT GIVE A CHANCE TO SAY WELL THEY(GHSA) DID WHAT SHOULD HAVE DONE WITHOUT DEBATE..—THINK OF THIS ONE—CHAMPIONSHIP GAME–PUBLIC PLAYERS VS——–. THE PUBLIC CAN NOT SEE THE PRIVATE SCHOOL PLAYERS(THAT IS WHY ONE GO TO PRIVATE SCHOOL. AFTER THE GAME WHO WON??. MY CHILD HURT,TRIED,A LOSER. WHO DID THIS TO MY CHILD(WIN AT ALL COST). THE BOTTOM LINE(CORRECT VOTE THIS TIME) WHO GOT THE MONEY OR THE RECRUIT FROM MIDDLE SCHOOL(COULD NOT MOVE THE FAMILY). LET THE BALL BE KICK. LET THE POLL MAKE NUMBER 1 NUMBER. LONG TIME SINCE AGREE WITH A VOTE FOR THE BETTER OF THE STUDENTS PLAYING THE GAME(ONE ACT PLAY—-PASS CHILD ACTOR VS RAW TALENT OF STUDENT)

Joe

February 7th, 2012
2:55 pm

Enter your comments here

Joe

February 7th, 2012
3:10 pm

If it is not recruiting when the Principal of Landmark Christian states on the PBS at halftime that her team is represented by five different counties, what is it.

Also, Look back in the history of City schools and corresponding county schools in the past….The city schools like, Americus, Valdosta, Waycross, Dalton, Gainesville, Cartersville, Lagrange, Carrollton, Vidalia, Thomasville,R.E. Lee, recently Buford and Calhoun…Check out what the records of Sumter Co, Lowndes before 1980, Ware, Troup, Carroll co, Cass, Whitfield Co. Upson, Gordon Central, etc. The city schools won because they had a smaller more populated school zone than the County schools. Look at the consolidation of the County and City schools Ware and Waycross, Americus-Sumter, Upson-Lee. Demographics, and student attendance per county or city has a ton to do with it.

Pelham, Trion, Bowden, Bremen, Commerce, Social Circle are all class A city schools, They cannot recruit from their local county school as does the Private school from anywhere they wish….Class AA, Buford,,,Get real if you do not think that is what they do along with their Good coaches you have your head in the sand.