College teams have played postseason football since 1902, but this season for the first time, six high school state champions will go to bowl games.
The Burger King State Champions Bowl Series, including three games, all televised by ESPNU, will be played Dec. 27 at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, organizers have told USA TODAY Sports. The series will be announced Wednesday, though the teams, including four state champions from Florida and state champions from Washington and Utah, will be announced Dec. 16.
“We initially looked …to see if we could develop the idea with a third party in 2000,” said Rashid Ghazi of Paragon Marketing, which put together the series. “We have been looking at doing something like this for the better part of 15 years. We haven’t pushed it like we have in the past eight months. This year, we were able to get the state of Florida to commit. Once we were able to do that that, we had a stake in the ground.”
Roger Dearing, executive director of the Florida High School Athletic Association, said his dealings with Paragon initially through the ESPN National High School Invitational postseason basketball tournament which became the DICK’S Sporting Goods tournament, paved the way for the FHSAA’s approval.
“The future of high school interscholastic athletics has to reach a broader-based audience,” Dearing said. “Paragon goes the extra mile to make sure that the student-athlete is treated well. They stay in nice hotels. They are taken on educational field trips. … They ensure that there is one chaperone for every three students. It’s really professionally done from a standpoint of an administration person.”
The series has not been an easy sell. Some state associations either don’t want to extend the football season or fear a postseason bowl would dilute their own state championship.
“Whenever you’re doing something than isn’t the status quo and you make decisions that may not be popular with traditionalists, there will be challenges,” Ghazi said. “The interest in bowl games has always been there. Once we test it and launch it, my hope is we will be able to make it grow.”
The bowl series isn’t a national championship. With more than 14,000 high schools that play 11-man football, a playoff system for a national championship would be impossible. However, rankings such as USA TODAY Sports’ Super 25 will be used to help select the teams. A team has to win a state title to participate.
“We’ve sent in a contract,” said Dave Peck, the coach of No. 8 Bingham (South Jordan, Utah). “We’re definitely going to go if we win the state championship. We felt like we had to tell the kids what is on the line with parents and Christmas vacation.”
Peck said the choice to play was an easy one, even though his team would have a five-week layoff between a state championship game and the bowl and some of his players are also on Bingham’s basketball team.
“Our starting quarterback and best receivers are starters and captains on the basketball team,” Peck said. “The first guy I talked to about this was our basketball coach. We all decided we would work around it. It’s a great opportunity for our program if we can take care of business.”
Booker T. Washington (Miami) coach Tim Harris, Jr., said the chance of playing in a bowl is an added incentive for his players to do well in the state playoffs.
“I don’t think at any point, the bowls are taking away from a state title,” Harris said. “Last week, I started telling the players that if everything went together, we had four more games. The players told me, ‘No, coach, we can play five more games.’ It’s something they’re really excited about. Our kids feel like they have to stay hungry.”
Another potential Florida team would be unbeaten Dr. Phillips (Orlando), the top-ranked team in 8A and the No. 46 team in the Super 25.
“It sounds like a great opportunity for coaches and players,” Dr. Phillips coach Rodney Wells said. “The time of the year wouldn’t be a big problem. School would be out.”
No. 6 Bellevue, Wash., would be eligible to go if it won its state 3A title but has declined. “I am sure it is a great event and a great situation, but we have already played two out-of-state games,” coach Butch Goncharoff said. “If we make it to the state championship, we will have played 14 games. It just seems like a lot to me. … Maybe I’ll regret that and change my mind. I’m probably the only crazy coach in the country who would turn it down.”
Bellevue’s withdrawal is an opportunity for Bothell, Wash., the No. 28 team in the Super 25.
“We would go,” Bothell coach Tom Bainter said. “The administration is pushing it with the school board. The overlap into other sports is all part of the consideration. We have basketball and wrestlers on our football team. In order for all of this to occur, the WIAA has to allow us to practice the sports at the same time.”