Starting this school year, the Georgia High School Association will have different state playoffs for public and private schools in Class A for all sports. The change comes after some public schools threatened to leave the GHSA because they thought private schools, especially those around Atlanta, had an unfair advantage.
“I haven’t lost any sleep over it,” Aquinas head football coach Matt LeZotte said about the move. “You have a lot of folks that were so gung ho about it, that it had to happen. But I wake up in the morning and do my job to the best of my ability. That’s all I worry about.”
The move is expected to have financial consequences.
Class A will have one less playoff round; LeZotte estimated a home playoff football game brings in revenue of “multiple thousands.” He also said gate receipts in the playoffs were about 12 percent of the total athletic department budget.
“That will be a financial hit for us,” said Aquinas assistant principal Shannon Williams, who also expects more playoff teams and more playoff travel time. LeZotte said there was an 8 percent increase to the travel budget.
Aquinas begins its season Friday at East Laurens and will compete in Region 7-A alongside public schools such as Lincoln County and Warren County, though the Fighting Irish won’t see these teams in the postseason. There will be separate 16-team brackets, with only region champions assured a berth.
Previously, the top four teams in each region made the state playoffs. Now, teams that don’t win their region have to qualify by a power rating. The formula awards teams for wins (10 for each), for playing a school in a larger classification (two points for each class up) and for opponents’ success (opponent’s win total divided by opponent’s total games is then multiplied by 10).
“I didn’t want to see separation,” said Lincoln County head football coach Larry Campbell, whose school wasn’t among those planning on leaving the GHSA.
For the other classes, playoffs will again be made up of 32 teams in a single bracket.
GHSA Executive Director Ralph Swearngin said there are two 16-team brackets, which means 32 Class A schools make the playoffs. That keeps the number the same as the other classifications, which was a concern, Swearngin said.
All these changes come after some public schools, most of them from south Georgia, threatened to leave the GHSA and create their own association. Public schools describe private schools’ recruiting opportunities – public schools have limited areas where they can get students – as a reason why private schools have dominated championships. This past season in football, all four Class A state semifinalists were private schools.
Campbell has also been adamant about the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program increasing the gap. Such scholarship programs help pay for a student’s schooling at a private school, though GOAL’s Web site says decisions are based on a family’s financial need and not a student’s “co-curricular achievement.” Scholarships are funded by taxpayers, who can contribute up to $1,000 annually through the state’s tuition tax credit law.
But after the GHSA split public and private schools into different playoffs, those Class A public schools didn’t leave en masse.
Also, despite Campbell’s wishes for a “plus-one,” where the public and private champion would play for another title in the Georgia Dome, Swearngin said it was never seriously considered.
“That’s probably the fans wanting something more,” he said. “We didn’t want to prolong the season.”
But Campbell sees only positives about a “plus-one.”
“I would still be public school state champion and still get my kids the opportunity to purchase rings – you’re public school state champion,” Campbell said. “I think there would have been a tremendous gate. It would have been super, even if you got beat.”
As for Swearngin, he said he’s received mixed reactions about the split. Some schools have said they now have a better chance to make the playoffs; others are disappointed because they wanted the chance to play the other side.
“It’s been very complicated,” Swearngin said. “It sounds simple, but making it work has been difficult. Right now, our office is focused totally on making the plan we have now work.”
The coaches are focusing on what they can control this season. At Aquinas and elsewhere, that means preparing their team for a season that includes regular season games against both public and private schools.
“Every time we step over that white line, we try to win,” LeZotte said. “We could be playing the Washington Redskins – we’re going to try to win. They have to believe we’re going to win every game. It shouldn’t matter if it’s a public or private school.”