Thursday was not a banner day for WPIAL football in the news.
The inimitable Mike White of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote a fantastic story breaking down the incredible loss of upper-level talent in WPIAL football over the last decade, something that I’ve touched on many times here at Pittsburgh Sports Now.
Meanwhile, Don Rebel of TribLive High Schools Sports Network broke the news that Albert Gallatin is planning on withdrawing from the WPIAL in football because of an inability to remain competitive.
There are multiple reasons for the drain on upper-level talent. There’s been an overall national decline in the football participation, while the youth population of this area has been flat or in decline. There are plenty of opportunities in Western Pennsylvania for young athletes in sports such as hockey, lacrosse, soccer and wrestling that don’t carry the same stigma of concussion risk that football does. (Whether that stigma is deserved or not is another story.)
One of the things a sport has to do to stop that momentum is create a competitive environment that attracts the top athletes. In a world where sport specialization is the norm, many top athletes could perform well in multiple sports, but playing more than one is sadly no longer an option for most high school athletes.
So, if you were at top athlete from Albert Gallatin, why would you want to play for the winless Colonials football team when the boy’s basketball team made the playoffs last year?
Then there’s the scheduling mess that the move to six classifications has created. It’s not like the Colonials players get to spend their season playing their long-hated Fayette County rivals. Their section includes Franklin Regional, McKeesport, Penn-Trafford and Plum. Connelsville, 45 minutes to the northeast, is the only other Fayette County team.
Instead, schools are forced to play their longtime rivals in meaningless Week 0 games, while out-of-nowhere non-conference games like this week’s North Allegheny vs. West Allegheny matchup get thrown into the late-season schedule. That game is so meaningless for both squads that the coaches wanted to play it with a running clock and shortened quarters, another black eye for the league in this week’s news.
The additional classifications has also ended for many the dream of playing in a WPIAL title game at Heinz Field, something that has been a staple for decades, dating back to Three Rivers Stadium.
The change was supposed to prevent situations exactly like the one Albert Gallatin is in: where teams are forced to play schedules against schools they can’t compete with.
The issue is that there isn’t a perfect correlation between the number of students, which is the criteria used by the PIAA and WPIAL, and the ability of a school’s teams. There are many factors that create winning (and losing) environments in high school sports.
There’s the overall genetics of the talent pool, the ability of individual coaches, the attractiveness of a program to get players to come out, the money and resources of the school’s athletic department and many, many other factors that translate into wins and losses just as heavily as the number of available students.
If the goal of the WPIAL and PIAA is to create a level playing field for teams, they should take those things into consideration, too. That would create a system where teams like Albert Gallatin could play more competitive games and there wouldn’t be a need for six classifications.
But how? How to account for all of those things when dividing up the WPIAL schools into classifications? Easy: Add up the wins.
Why try to account for what goes into making a winning program when the actual results of a winning program are right in front of everyone’s faces? It’s no secret which teams are the best ones across all levels of WPIAL football. They’re the ones winning section titles and raising trophies at the end of the year.
There are plenty of systems available to use wins and losses to sort the teams into classes.
There’s the European soccer model of promotion and relegation where the top few teams of each class go up ever year and the bottom few go down. That could work.
But there’s an even better system that’s being used a lot closer to home. The PIHL, the organization that sponsors high school hockey in Western Pennsylvania, uses a system that awards full points for a win in the highest classification, successively smaller partial points for wins in each of the lower classifications, totals them up and divides the hockey schools into three classes.
A fourth class exists below the other three for programs that either voluntarily drop down or are formed as a result of multiple schools combining to create a team. With the news that Carrick will close its football team in Pittsburgh’s City League and several WPIAL schools playing with fewer than 25 players this year, that’s an idea worth pursuing.
Football is on the decline nationally. There’s no question about that. Western Pennsylvania is place with more football history than almost anywhere else. From the very first professional players to the “Cradle of Quarterbacks” and the six-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s a place that uniquely appreciates the game.
It’s also a place where the future of the game is very much in peril. The leaders of the PIAA and WPIAL have the opportunity to be forward thinking and find a way to make the product better for fans, recruit more student-athletes into the game and secure the future of the sport in the region for a long time to come.
I’m not saying my idea is the only answer, but there has to be something better than the product put on the field in 2018.