By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
One year into “The Split” in football – public and private schools competing for separate state championships – one thing appears to be certain: public school coaches see it as a necessary evil while private school coaches abhor it.
The split was introduced into the landscape of Georgia high school sports, in Class A only, back in February, when the Georgia High School Association’s executive committee voted overwhelmingly to divide public and private schools in post season competition in nearly every sport, including football. The decision was in response to a threat by several public schools, mostly those in South Georgia, to leave the GHSA and either start their own association or join the Georgia Independent Schools Association.
The public schools felt that the ability private schools have to recruit students had become too much of an unfair advantage. As proof, many pointed to the fact that in last year’s semifinals, all four teams were private schools.
But in a grand case of “be careful what you wish for,” some coaches, at both public and private schools are not too sure that splitting was the best way to handle the situation. One byproduct of the split was a power rating system that was utilized to determine the 16 playoff teams on each side. It was criticized by some who thought it did not do an effective job of making sure teams were seeded in proportion to the season they had.
Still, GHSA executive director Ralph Swearngin believes the new system served its purpose.
“I think it all worked out pretty smoothly,” Swearngin said. “There were a few difficulties, but I think most of the schools cooperated very nicely and worked together to make it work.”
Swearngin said one issue was the fact that a number of various media outlets produced their own power rankings, which made for some confusion among coaches, parents and fans.
“I think when everything panned out, it worked,” Swearngin said. “If you look at it, for the most part the better teams advanced through the playoffs. So I think it worked.”
But some, even on the public school side, wish public and private schools were still competing against each other.
“I hated for the split to happen, and it bothers me to no end that people think that I was the cause of it. That’s just not the case,” said Lincoln County head coach Larry Campbell. Though he has long been a staunch critic of the advantages he believes private schools have over public schools, he hoped the issues could be resolved without the split. For example, he has been an advocate for a system that was used in the mid 1990s, when private school enrollments were multiplied by 1.5, which pushed several larger private schools in to Class AA.
“There are some fine, fine people at private schools and I’ve competed against them for years,” Campbell said. “But the advantages they have to recruit and bring in players from all over are just too great. The facilities they have are too much of a disadvantage.”
Mt. Zion-Carrollton head coach Ken Holloway supported the split, but wishes there was another way to equalize the playing field.
“I’m not sure if splitting us up is the way to level the playing field,” Holloway said. “I think maybe the 1.5 multiplier or having a limited radius of where they can draw players might work.”
But those on the private school side scoff at the notion of having great advantages. They argue that not all private schools have great facilities and large budgets, and student athletes must pass entrance exams and be able to pass rigorous classes to remain eligible.
“I’ve seen this thing from both sides,” said Mike Earwood, head coach at Our Lady of Mercy for the last three seasons. He is putting that program on the map after building a successful program at Starr’s Mill, a public school in Fayetteville competing in Class AAAA.
“The fact is, we all don’t have great facilities and that sort of thing,” Earwood said. “The bottom line is, it’s about coaches and kids and competing. That’s it.”
Landmark Christian head coach Wayne Brantley is not a fan of the split either. But he has resigned himself to the fact that the system is here, for now.
“I really wish we were still all competing against each other,” Brantley said. “I think considering what they had to deal with, the GHSA did the best they could. Maybe there will be some tweaks made, but the system is what it is.”