By Tim Rogers
After 24 years Stark County may be hosting football finals for final time; Columbus, empty seats await
Leaving a spot you are fond of is never fun.
Maybe it was the final day of a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe. Or, maybe it was the day you left the house you grew up in, or the day you handed over the keys to a summer cottage that had been in your family since the days of Babe Ruth. Walking away that last time burns a hollow feeling in your gut and dumps enough melancholy on you to make a Hallmark commercial.
It won’t be quite that traumatic this weekend when the state football championships are played for what could be the final time in Stark County.
But it will be close.
For the last 24 years the people in Canton and Massillon have poured thousands of man hours – not to mention their hearts and souls – into making one of the OHSAA’s two marquee events a whopping success. As far as I can tell they have fumbled about as often as Adrian Peterson.
Rarely in the last 40 years have I disagreed with how the OHSAA conducts business. In everything from introducing more sports – I can remember when soccer, girls basketball and other sports were pipe dreams – to the punishments invoked on those who just can’t seem to follow the rules, the organization has acted prudently.
Some of the programs it has in place, such as the Catastrophic Insurance plan are beyond terrific, without costing the schools one dime. There are no initiation fees, no dues and no assessments for entering the state tournaments. There aren’t many free rides these days but the OHSAA offers one. You have to respect that.
Participating in high school sports, whether you are an athlete, a coach, an athletic director, a principal or a superintendent, is a privilege. It is not a right, no matter what the politicians and attorneys may say.
More than 1,600 high and middle schools come under the OHSAA’s jurisdiction and each probably has its own set of issues. I think administering those 1,600 would be like trying to herd 1,600 cats. I firmly believe it pursues, in the most equitable manner, what it believes to be the best scenarios for Ohio’s student-athletes.
In this day of transparency, let’s make one thing clear. I have lived in Stark County for the last 23 years. However, I was raised in Cleveland and lived there for more than 40 years. In many ways, I still consider myself a Clevelander. So, this is no hometown whine. I don’t have a horse in this race.
That does not mean I condone moving the state finals to Ohio Stadium starting in 2014. Quite simply, moving state championship weekend out of Stark County was the wrong call, maybe the worst in the 107-year history of the OHSAA. It was a whiff, a shank, a swing-and-a-miss, an air ball. The OHSAA does not make many wrong moves, but this one could prove to be colossal.
Fawcett and Tiger Stadium have been recognized as two of the finest high school facilities in the country, big enough to hold crowds in excess of 20,000 but not so big that crowds half that size become lost. They are perfect for high school football.
To stage the tournament in Ohio Stadium, where as many as 95,000 empty seats might witness the action, is a mistake. Nothing anyone can say will convince me otherwise.
The OHSAA has pointed to dwindling attendance over the last several years as one of the reasons for pulling the plug on two of its most loyal customers. What did the OHSAA’s board of directors think was going to happen when live television entered the show?
Sources have said that Columbus has made financial guarantees to the OHSAA, be it through ticket sales or just a cash handout. Fine. So that’s what high school sports has come down to, the bottom line? Doesn’t seem right.
OHSAA Commissioner Dan Ross said no discussions have been held regarding the site for the finals beyond 2015. That tells me there is no guarantee the event will ever return to Stark County.
Representatives of the schools in the southern part of the state have whined that it has been a disadvantage for them to travel all the way to Stark County to compete. Sure as hell hasn’t hurt the St. Xavier swim teams, which have won 29 state titles in Canton’s C.T. Branin Natatorium.
Ten schools from Hamilton County have won 23 state football titles, second only to Cuyahoga County’s 25 (thanks to St. Ignatius) with two more – Moeller and Loveland – able to increase that number this weekend. Moeller has gone 4-2 in state championship games played north of Columbus. Nine schools from Franklin County have produced 15 state titles and four schools from Montgomery County have won six titles.
Don’t know about you, but if I had an opportunity to play for a state title, I’d travel to Mars, if necessary. The venue should not be an issue.
One OHSAA official told me that disposed OSU coach Jim Tressel addressed the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association at their annual clinic many years ago. During his remarks he said he would do all he could to get the playoffs moved to Columbus, putting the OHSAA in an incredibly awkward position.
I’m not even going to get into the intimacy of playing at Fawcett and Tiger Stadium versus the lack of intimacy at Ohio Stadium. Just keep this thought in mind: 95,000 EMPTY SEATS.
Don’t get me wrong, Columbus and its surrounding communities are vibrant and thriving. Everything is new. Plenty of good hotels, restaurants and a wonderful zoo. But tell me, how many people in Central Ohio are going to give two bits about the high school finals if Ohio State is in the NCAA playoffs?
For years the OHSAA preached that it preferred to use its members’ stadiums as playoff game sites, frequently bypassing the artificial turf at collegiate sites to play on sometimes unplayable high school sites. (Remember St. Ignatius and Walsh Jesuit, 1993, in pre-turf Fawcett. Started raining on Thursday and didn’t stop until Tuesday.)
Maybe I’m just getting too old and am suffering from a case of metathesiophobia. It means having a fear of change.
Maybe I will be surprised. Maybe the folks in Columbus will wow everyone with their operation in 2014 and 2015. If not, maybe they can move the playoffs to the University of Akron’s InfoCision Stadium and make Tressel the honorary chairman. There, about 17,000 empty seats can watch.