Congratulations to the Chandler Hamilton Huskies, who won their fourth 5A state title in six years Friday. But forgive me if I don’t make it to the victory party.
It’s not that I don’t respect what Hamilton has accomplished. I do. Its consistency and excellence are remarkable. I’m just not a big fan of dynasties, from Sung to Saguaro.
Sadly, that’s the state of high school football in Arizona.
Hamilton and Phoenix Brophy have won the last six 5A-I championships. Scottsdale Saguaro has won three consecutive 4A-I titles. Peoria Centennial made it three in a row Friday in 5A-II, and Scottsdale Notre Dame owns the last two 4A-II championships.
Everywhere you look, in every conference, there’s a school or two dominating the landscape. If you’re one of those schools, that’s great.
And if you’re not, well, as long as the kids have some fun on Friday nights, right?
It didn’t used to be that way. From 1986 to 1991, six different schools won 5A state titles. But parity has taken a vacation this decade.
“There are two or three schools that have a half-dozen Division I signees,” Chandler Basha coach Tim McBurney said. “You used to never see that. Now, all of a sudden, it’s every year. Something is wrong.”
What’s wrong is that some schools have become football factories. And some parents are no longer content for 16-year-old Johnny to play for the neighborhood high school. No, he has to be at a school where college recruiters congregate and championships are won.
The result: The gap between the haves and have-nots is greater than it’s ever been. And thousands of kids who work just as hard as Hamilton’s kids and Brophy’s kids and Saguaro’s kids will never know what a thrill it is to hoist the championship trophy above their head.
“When you have more of a level playing field, it’s good for everybody,” Chandler coach Jim Ewan said.
Arizona is no different than Texas, Louisiana or California, where private schools and schools with a large number of transfers win state title after state title. But just because it’s happening everywhere doesn’t make it right.
“I do think the whole idea of athletics at the high school level is for everybody to have the same chance to compete,” Arizona Interscholastic Association executive director Harold Slemmer said. “It’s our mission to create that level playing field.”
Given the dominance by a few schools, I’d say the AIA is failing in that regard.
“Look at Mountain View,” McBurney said. “For the most part, Mountain View doesn’t get kids that move. It has homegrown kids. They bust their tail, they commit to it, but they don’t have a shot. If Mountain View doesn’t have a shot, what about the rest of us trying to get to their level?”
One big problem is the freshman open-enrollment rule, which allows parents to send their kids to whatever high school they choose. The legislation was intended to help parents find the best academic environment for their teenager. But it has been co-opted by football parents who have their eye on an athletic scholarship.
(This is a public school issue; open enrollment does not benefit private schools such as Brophy and Notre Dame, because they can already draw kids from all over the Valley.)
McBurney plans to address the problem at this morning’s Arizona Coaches Association meeting. He’ll ask his peers to recommend a rule change to the AIA stating that freshmen who go to schools outside their boundaries will have to sit out a year.
It’s a common-sense idea designed to limit program shopping. But McBurney knows what kind of reaction he’ll get.
“I proposed it last year, and nobody ever talked about it. It was like I was an idiot,” McBurney said.
The AIA could step in and enact the rule, but Slemmer seems hesitant to do so.
“I think it would be difficult to get support from the rank-and-file families,” he said.
Sorry, but that’s a cop-out. If the AIA’s mission, as Slemmer said, is to level the playing field, then it needs to adopt the rule and not concern itself with what a few angry parents — or coaches — might say. The AIA should lead, not be led around on a leash by member schools.
Until that time comes, however, every high school football season will look like the last one. And the one before that. And the one before that.
Eventually, coaches who try to win the right way will succumb to temptation.
“Coaches are between a rock and hard place,” McBurney said. “Do I start cheating because I can’t compete? Do I have to go to youth football games and recruit seventh- and eighth-graders?”
There will always be schools that rise above the rest. Some coaches are better than others, and some schools simply place more of an emphasis on athletics.
But when a couple of high schools become the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and everyone else is the Kansas City Royals, the system is broken.
“I don’t think there will ever be balance again unless changes are made,” McBurney said.
So what is the AIA waiting for?