When the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association implemented its new high school football playoff system in 2013, many people around Eastern Massachusetts had a strong opinion about the changes.
Traditionalists complained that the Thanksgiving games would never carry the same luster or significance. Powerhouse schools rejoiced at the thought of capturing one of six “true” state championships instead of one of 19. Coaches squirmed at the potential of playing the same opponent three times in one season.
Two years later, athletic directors around Eastern Mass. largely have the same outlook they did then. Some ADs praise the system for giving more teams a chance to compete. Others bash it for including sub-.500 teams and meaningless nonplayoff games where almost no one is in attendance.
On Wednesday, the MIAA Football Committee will meet for the first time since the end of the season. One of the agenda items will be a review of a survey taken in the past month to determine feelings about the playoff system. That feedback is one element that will help determine whether the system lives beyond next year, the final season of the trial period, or reverts to some version of the old format.
“I think it has positives and it has negatives,” Braintree AD Michael Denise said. “I think it depends on which end of the spectrum you’re on.”
Initially the system was supposed to be a two-year trial run. ADs were under the impression that after this past season they would have a chance to reconvene, confer, and, if necessary, tweak the system. However, the MIAA did not provide that opportunity.
Some ADs are so infuriated that they have discussed withdrawing from the MIAA system and forming a separate football-governing entity. And the latest news, announced at the MIAA Board of Directors meeting last week, is that last year’s football tournament revenue was down $70,000 from the previous year.
The breakaway option
Dracut AD Tim Woods is heavily involved with the potential withdrawal. He has participated in two discussions with ADs from the Dual County League, Cape Ann League, Northeast Conference, and Merrimack Valley Conference.
Woods anticipates a third discussion in February. At that meeting, Woods expects the group will decide whether withdrawing is viable.
“A lot of ADs are talking about retaliation, in terms of breaking up the very fabric of the MIAA,” Woods said. “People are talking about forming their own tournaments and Super Bowls. In my opinion, [the system] has been a disaster.”
Woods said the format effectively ends the season for many teams after Week 7. Thanksgiving games are “a shadow of what they used to be,” and continuing like this isn’t feasible financially.
Dracut is a relatively small school, and Woods estimated the athletic department lost $6,000-$7,000 each of the past two years. For larger schools such as Billerica and Chelmsford, Woods said, that number is in the tens of thousands.
“Financially, most of us just can’t take it any longer,” Woods said. “The MIAA’s getting more money, but we’re losing thousands of dollars.”
If schools in those leagues were to withdraw, they would do so by simply not registering with the MIAA as a football-playing school. They would devise their own schedule and consider starting the season one week earlier. At the end of the year, there would be a Thanksgiving game and a small tournament to crown a champion.
Woods said he was shocked with the MIAA’s decision to proceed to a third year without their consent. He wanted a chance to tweak what he considers a far-from-perfect setup.
“It was a pilot program,” Woods said. “It wasn’t supposed to be permanent.”
Tom Gallagher, AD at Ipswich High School, vividly remembers his school’s 2006 Thanksgiving morning matchup against Hamilton-Wenham.
Ipswich blanked the Generals, 7-0. The Tigers advanced in the playoffs and eventually claimed the Super Bowl title.
“To think that that atmosphere isn’t there in the current system is kind of tough,” Gallagher said.
Many ADs around Eastern Mass. feel the new playoff system takes away from the tradition of Thanksgiving football. Beverly AD James Coffey dubbed it a “nonfactor game.” His players and coaches still want to beat Salem, but the game doesn’t have the same pizzazz.
Coffey said Beverly collected $30,000 less in football sales in 2013 than in 2012. The school usually takes in nearly $30,000 on Thanksgiving, but this year that number dipped close to $10,000. Coffey typically uses the extra Thanksgiving money to buy necessities for other sports such as field hockey uniforms, but now that has become more difficult.
“It’s really taken Thanksgiving out of the picture for everyone,” Coffey said.
Les Murray, commissioner of the Cape Ann League who used to serve on the MIAA’s Board of Directors, said it’s “a travesty” that some teams could play each other three times in a season, including on Thanksgiving. For instance, Winchester lost to Woburn by 15-plus points three times this past season. Wakefield lost to Melrose three times.
Lynn English AD Gary Molea calls himself a traditionalist. To him, nothing in high school football is as sweet as waking up on Thanksgiving Day and watching or coaching a meaningful football game.
Now he doesn’t feel the same way.
“It took all the zip out of that,” Molea said.
Finding their way in
Cohasset was the best team in Division 6 this season. That became clear when the Skippers outscored their playoff opponents, 118-44, en route to a Super Bowl title.
But the sixth-seeded Skippers’ playoff run never would have happened without the new playoff system. Under the old format, Cohasset’s 5-2 regular-season record wouldn’t have been good enough to qualify for the playoffs.
“It’s been an awesome experience for us,” Cohasset AD Ron Ford said. “It’s made football really exciting around here in October and November.”
Lexington would not have made the playoffs in either of the past two seasons without the current setup. This year, the 4-3 Minutemen earned the No. 5 seed in Division 1 North and lost a close game to Peabody.
Naomi Martin, AD at Lexington, concedes that the system could be improved, but said it has helped Lexington play in more meaningful games.
BC High wouldn’t have made the playoffs and wouldn’t have upset Brockton and Newton North as a No. 6 seed. Braintree wouldn’t have participated in a playoff game for the first time in 16 years. King Philip beat the Wamps, 34-6, but Denise, Braintree’s AD, was still thrilled that his student-athletes got the opportunity to play in the playoffs.
“Obviously being the 8 seed, having to go up against the No. 1 seed, was a Herculean task, given the success that King Philip has had,” Denise said. “It was a difficult battle, but I think our kids did Braintree High School proud.”
BC High AD and football coach Jon Bartlett was surprised when he heard that 21 teams in Eastern Mass. made the playoffs despite having a losing record.
“Wow,” said Bartlett. “That’s high.”
BC High was one of those teams. The Eagles, who played one of the toughest schedules in the state, finished the regular season 3-4 but ultimately made the state semifinals.
For other teams that got into the playoffs, the opportunity wasn’t quite as worthwhile. Whitman-Hanson, for example, lost to Somerset-Berkley, 51-15.
There was only one first-round upset in all of Division 3.
Some ADs across all divisions, including Braintree’s Denise, favor a four-team playoff instead of eight, allowing for more competitive first-round games.
“I certainly think that our regular season is too short,” Denise said. “I think we should at least have an eight-game season, if not more, to determine who goes to the playoffs.”
Gallagher has been Ipswich’s athletic director for 11 years. Only twice in that span has the school lost money during a football game — both consolation-bracket matchups in the past two seasons.
Murray calls them “cricket games” because there are virtually no fans in attendance to make any noise. Lynn Classical once had a total of seven fans at a game.
The attendance is low because the games don’t matter, and it’s not worth paying for business managers, buses, referees, and other expenses. Schools end up losing hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars on those games.
“What tournament do you continue to play after you lose?” Murray said. “There isn’t one. We’re in a culture that really values winning. When you’re not in the playoffs, those games take on an absolutely meaningless structure.”
ADs are split when it comes to opinions on the system, but the ones in opposition appear much more passionate. Beverly’s Coffey believes the format favors perennially contenders such as Everett, Brockton, and St. John’s Prep.
Four of the six Super Bowls were lopsided this year, as Western Mass. teams struggled to contend with Eastern Mass. teams, and that, too, irked some ADs.
ADs such as Denise simply want the MIAA to take another look at the current format.
“If it’s worked out for you, you’re going to like it,” Molea says. “If not, you’re probably going to be on the other end.”
Ins and outs of the system
One of the goals of the new playoff system was to make football like other MIAA sports, in that all teams with a minimum winning percentage of .500 would be allowed entry into the postseason. But as the lists below show, the new format allowed 21 Eastern Mass. teams with losing records into the playoffs and kept 10 teams with winning records out of the playoffs.
Teams below .500 that made playoffs:
Attleboro, Division 1 South (3-4)
BC High, Division 1 South (3-4)
Beverly, Division 2 Northeast (3-4)
Bishop Feehan, Division 3 Southwest (3-4)
Burlington, Division 3 Northwest (2-5)
Danvers, Division 3 Northeast (3-4)
Hopkinton, Division 3 Southwest (3-4)
Lynn Classical, Division 2 North (3-4)
Nauset, Division 3 Southeast (2-5)
Oliver Ames, Division 3 Southwest (3-4)
Plymouth North, Division 3 Southeast (3-4)
Revere, Division 3 Northeast (2-5)
Sandwich, Division 3 Southeast (3-4)
Scituate, Division 4 South (3-4)
Somerville, Division 3 Northeast (2-5)
Swampscott, Division 4 North (3-4)
Waltham, Division 2 North (3-4)
Westford Academy, Division 2 North (2-5)
Whitman-Hanson, Division 3 Southeast (3-4)
Wilmington, Division 3 Northeast (3-4)
Winchester, Division 3 Northwest (2-5)
Teams above .500 out of playoffs:
Arlington Catholic, Division 4 North (4-3)
Bishop Stang, Division 4 South (4-3)
Bristol-Plymouth, Division 6 South (4-3)
Durfee, Division 2 South (4-3)
Lowell, Division 1 North (4-3)
Lawrence, Division 1 North (4-3)
Marian, Division 6 North (4-3)
Old Colony, Division 6 South (4-3)
Old Rochester, Division 5 South (4-3)
Seekonk, Division 5 South (4-3)