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.”