Small school football coaches want to return to the root of an idea.
Last week 12 schools, the majority of small, rural schools west of the Apalachicola River, agreed to the formation of a new conference, the Rural League.
Frustrated by how Class 1A schools were determined by the Florida High School Athletics Conference, seeing the intent of a rural initiative of nearly two decades ago forgotten, the schools and athletic directors moved in a new direction.
“I don’t think there is a negative to it, necessarily,” said Bobby Johns, football coach and athletic director at Wewahitchka Jr./Sr. High School. “I think at the end of the day we feel it will be a benefit.”
The schools, including Port St. Joe, Wewahitchka, Blountstown, Liberty County, Franklin County, Baker, etc. are not leaving the FHSAA or the state Class 1A playoff format.
The feeling among the coaches, Johns said, is that school administrators would not support a move to exit the FHSAA.
Johns, a FHSAA board member, said the FHSAA would not want to see an exodus of small schools and is not erecting any obstacles for the new conference.
Membership in the state association is on the upswing, Johns added.
In addition, the issues troubling football coaches, a perception of an uneven playing field, are not as prevalent in other sports; Wewahitchka and Port St. Joe are reigning spring sport state champions.
“Other sports do not have the same issues,” said Greg Jordan, football coach and athletic director at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School.
The discussions among football coaches began shortly after Madison County won its second-straight Class 1A football title by reaching a running clock in a rout of Baker.
Baker, in turn, had dominated its opponents all season and entered the state title game unbeaten.
In effect, the coaches see the use of charter and magnet schools as mechanisms to blur true school enrollment as it should be counted to determine athletic classification.
And that runs counter to very idea of Class 1A, once known as the rural classification, which was created after a revolt of small schools nearly 20 years ago.
Back then, at a meeting at Liberty County High School, coaches and administrators from nearly two dozen small schools considered leaving the FHSAA for a new league and conference.
At the time the rub was private schools and, again, a degree of manipulation of enrollment numbers to ensure a lower classification.
The FHSAA responded by forming Class 1A, at the time for football only, as an attempt to separate rural public and private schools into more equal competition.
“The state established the rural league but it has really gotten away from what was intended,” said Jordan. “It has gotten to the point that some schools were ready to leave the FHSAA for football.”
And, compounding issues for rural public schools, several years ago the FHSAA adopted a playoff system that eliminated districts and adopted a point system for determining playoff spots.
With that decision some rivalries which had defined some programs disappeared.
“That really hurt us,” Johns said. “The effect on small schools, small communities, that is what hurt us.
“We lost that. (The Rural League) gives us something back.”
The 12 schools in the Rural League conference will still play under the FHSAA point system for playoff seeding after a 10-game, 11-week season.
Schools will schedule the first seven games over the initial eight weeks of the regular season, abiding by FHSAA dictates of a bye week in the first eight weeks.
“You schedule who you wish to play,” Jordan said, noting the Tiger Shark schedule includes Rutherford and Marianna. “And as they do now, the state will use that schedule to assign points for playoff eligibility.”
At some point during that first eight weeks, the Rural League’s coaches will begin to rank the 12 teams.
After the first eight weeks, the top eight teams will move into a three-week playoff with the title game played on a neutral field, the winner declared the state Rural League champion.
“This will add a little excitement at the end of the season,” Jordan said.
The other four teams will complete the season with a round-robin schedule against each other.
“At the very least it gives people something to play for, the ‘Rural League’ state championship,” Johns said.
Johns added that competition-wise, the Rural League should be a boon for the four to six Northwest Florida Class 1A programs that each year are in the hunt for a playoff spot.
There are concerns.
Schools agreed to a two-year term for the Rural League to prevent upheaval a year from now should some schools believe the concept is not working for them.
In addition, Johns noted, there is no guarantee any one team will have the usual five homes games each season.
The way the schedule will create itself over the final three games guarantees any one school four home games and one of those would be a preseason classic, Johns said.
And, football is the economic engine for all sports programs at small rural schools.
“To me the negative is revenue,” Johns said.