Class A coaches see private schools as title threat

Lincoln County football coach Larry Campbell (center) contends private schools are overpowering Class A public schools. "One of the GHSA people said the only people who complain are the people in Class A, the people they're beating," he said. "I said, well, naturally the only people complaining are the people they're beating. That's common sense."

It is happening right before our eyes in the Class A football playoffs.

Warren County got steamrolled last week by Wesleyan. Washington-Wilkes got annihilated by Eagles Landing Christian.

Now Lincoln County has to travel to Darlington's 400-acre campus in Rome, Ga., tonight and face a 10-1 Tigers team with a roster representing seven states and three foreign countries.

It is a scenario Lincoln County coach Larry Campbell has been forecasting for years -- the eventual extinction of public school state champions at the Class A level.

"Coach Campbell told me four years ago that single-A athletics were about to be taken over by the private schools," Washington-Wilkes football coach and athletic director Lee Hutto said.

"He was right. It's not just football. Look at basketball and baseball, and it's a trend throughout Class A athletics. It tends to be more of those Atlanta-area private schools that have such a large group of kids that they can choose from."

Since the Georgia High School Association got rid of the 1.5 multiplier (of school enrollment to determine classifications) for private schools two years ago, the trend is getting more pronounced. Private schools from the more densely populated areas of Georgia with no district restrictions on where they can draw students from are dominating the state's smallest classification.

What advantages they already have in reach are magnified by multimillion dollar capital campaign endowments that make them equal to some small colleges.

How can small-town programs compete when they can't use taxpayer money on athletics and rely almost exclusively on football gate receipts?

"We're the ones that are suffering," Hutto said of his Class A brethren. "The days of Lincoln County and Washington-Wilkes and towns like that winning state championships, I don't know if you're going to see a lot of that anymore just because of the impact private schools are having in GHSA."

Campbell has been preaching that disparity for years to no avail since former statehouse speaker Tom Murphy from Bremen is not around to defend the smallest schools. It was Murphy who got the multiplier enacted only to have it disappear after his death in 2007.

"It's really falling on deaf ears now because the only classification it really affects is Class A," Campbell said. "Most of the (private) schools that were AA moved down and have taken over Class A."

Count GHSA executive director Ralph Swearngin among the hard of hearing on this subject. Even presented with numbers such as 15 of 17 Class A titles being won by private schools in the first season that the multiplier was eliminated, Swearngin was unfazed.

"I wasn't aware of that," said Swearngin, who said the multiplier was eliminated after a study by public and private administrators found that it didn't work. He doesn't believe the balance of power has shifted to the private schools in Class A.

"I think it's about the same as it's always been," he said. "Two years doesn't make a trend. There are very few schools that are like Lincoln County and Charlton County that are year in and year out always strong. I don't think it's time to push any kind of panic button because for the last couple of years one school pops up and another school pops up that are private."

That attitude baffles Class A coaches.

"I don't really understand why they don't see it as a problem," Hutto said. "If you go to Wesleyan or Darlington and see the facilities those places have and compare them to a Washington-Wilkes or Lincoln County or Warren County, there's just no comparison. The playing field is just not level."

It's a simple concept to understand. One look at Darlington's roster illustrates the point. The Tigers have kids from Chapel Hill, N.C.; Brooklyn and Jamaica, N.Y.; Maysville, Ky.; New Bedford, Mass.; Upland, Calif.; and New Orleans as well as the Bahamas, Jamaica and two players from Germany. Its roster base also spreads from the Atlanta suburbs to Savannah, Ga.

"How can that be fair to the public schools that open their doors to the 400 or so kids who happen to live there?" Campbell said.

Campbell understands that disparity has always existed at the lowest level where tiny communities like Glascock County have to try to stay afloat against relative behemoths such as Lincoln, Charlton and Wilkes counties. His Red Devils have been at the top of the Class A food chain, winning a record 14 state titles in the past 50 years. So when Campbell complains about schools having a favorable advantage, critics are quick to call him a hypocrite and crybaby.

Campbell doesn't care. He doesn't expect to be coaching when the next reclassification rolls around, but he still stands up for those who will continue the uphill fight after he retires.

"For those who want to make light of it and say we're whining, well that's exactly what we're doing," he said. "One of the GHSA people said the only people who complain are the people in Class A, the people they're beating. I said well naturally the only people complaining are the people they're beating. That's common sense."

Many Class A coaches are quick to point out that not all private schools are created equal. Aquinas and Athens Academy aren't building themselves into athletic factories like Wesleyan, Eagles Landing, Savannah Christian and Darlington. Others such as Marist choose to play above their classification level.

But Campbell and Hutto believe if something such as a multiplier isn't implemented, Georgia might follow the lead of neighboring states South Carolina and Tennessee and adopt some kind of split system between public and private. Nobody wants that.

"I don't think you should punish Aquinas or Athens Academy who are doing it the right way," Hutto said. "But something has to be done to protect your small-town schools. It concerns me that GHSA is just sweeping it under the rug like we're not a concern of theirs."

Six of the 16 remaining schools in the Class A playoffs are private schools, and Campbell expects that percentage to go up with each successive round. But he'll try to keep his Red Devils from bowing out a third consecutive season to a private power.

"We're going to put our pads on and go up there and give them the best game that we can give them, but that is not eliminating the problem," Campbell said. "We all play to try to win some championships in the end and we all want to have an equal shot."

Those days for the smallest public schools might be numbered. "It's only going to get worse, because I think you're going to see more schools leave the GISA and join the GHSA," Hutto said. " I think it's going to come to a point where you won't have a public school win a state championship in Class A."

That point might have already arrived.

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