BY MIKE ECKERT
TRAVERSE CITY — The football season ended earlier than normal in Frankfort last fall.
The Panthers failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1994, finishing 4-5 while playing eight teams in higher classes. But under a new proposal, Frankfort — which has been forced to look to the Upper Peninsula, Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Lansing and Flint markets to find opponents in recent seasons — would have kept that streak alive.
After years of tweaking, a new playoff structure has been approved by the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association and the MHSAA football committee. It could be put into place in a couple years if approved by the MHSAA Representative Council, which meets in May.
Under the current system, which has been in place since 1999, teams with six wins automatically qualify for the playoffs. The rest of the 256-team field is filled out based on a points system. Seven wins would be required to automatically qualify under the new proposal. Strength of schedule would then play more of a role in determining the remainder of the field.
"When our current system was adopted, it was about the most popular decision I can ever remember the Association making," MHSAA executive director Jack Roberts said. "It was very well received, as we doubled the number of qualifiers. The six wins and in was very well received by media, coaches and schools. But as time went on, I guess I didn't factor in human nature. Human nature found that there were ways to work the system to find wins. That put stress on existing rivalries, league affiliations and made scheduling very difficult."
Andrew Pratley, who played at Frankfort and is now the football coach at Ogemaw Heights, started working on the proposal years ago. St. Francis coach Greg Vaughan, also a regional director for the MHSFCA, was among those to jump on board.
"It was an idea, coming from talking to coaches at clinics and hearing people complain about the 6-3 and what it was doing to scheduling," Pratley said. "I came up with a proposal about four to five years ago and took it to our board of directors. It got mentioned, but not really voted on. As years evolved, we tweaked it a little bit. It finally got through our association and now for the last year and a half it's been working its way through the red tape and has finally reached the executive council level."
The proposal has several components.
n Teams are divided into divisions prior to the start of the season. In the current setup, divisions are formed after all of the playoff teams have been determined.
n Teams would automatically qualify with seven wins, as opposed to the six wins needed in the current structure.
n Points for a win are based off eight divisions. Previously, points were awarded based on whether a team was a Class A, B, C or D school.
n Bonus points are awarded based on your opponents' win-loss record — whether you beat them or not.
"What it does, is say that whether you win or lose, your strength of schedule matters," Vaughan said. "It'll never be more valuable than beating a team, but it makes it better to go play a good team and get points, than to beat a bad team. If I play a 9-0 team and lose, that's a better team than beating an 0-9 team."
Because of the "human nature" element, Roberts said he's cautious about the new proposal.
"Anytime you put more emphasis on the point system than on wins, it disadvantages schools in the remote parts of our state," he said. "It disadvantages the Upper Peninsula, it disadvantages the northern Lower Peninsula, where it's hard to put together a schedule of schools that are at least as large as you and at least as good as you."
Scheduling, though, has already been difficult for many remote schools across the state.
Since 1988, Menominee has played at least three Wisconsin teams each season. Some years, the Upper Peninsula powerhouse has played as many as five out-of-state opponents.
For the last 11 years, Saginaw Nouvel has failed to put together a nine-game schedule of in-state opponents. The Panthers have either played teams from Canada and Ohio, or just taken a bye week. Some years, they've done both.
"It's all risk, no reward," Vaughan said of the current system. "We have a great playoff system. But the problem it's created is too many people are scheduling to get six wins. Too many people in the north, the U.P. and on the border are struggling to find games. They're playing Canadian teams, Ohio and Indiana teams. That distracts from Michigan high school football. We want teams to play."
Pratley and Vaughan believe the new proposal would entice teams to play better opponents — especially ones closer to home.
"Economic-wise, our schools are in tough times right now," Pratley said. "The travel to find games, especially for the good teams, has really put a strain on budgets and what high school football should be. Hopefully, this will alleviate some of that and get back to some local rivalries and open the door to play some people you haven't in 20 years."
The MHSAA simulated what would've happened last fall if the proposed system was in place. Over the eight divisions, 31 playoff teams from last year would not have made it. Eight playoff teams would have played up a division while eight would have been down one division.
"Doing a case study of the numbers, I looked at the teams that wouldn't have gotten in. Eighty percent of them lost in the first round this year," Vaughan said. "I don't know if six wins is a true tell all of where you're at."
One of the stranger cases of a team left out under the proposed system would have been Detroit Catholic Central in Division 1. The Shamrocks lost to Detroit Cass Tech in the state championship game, but only went 5-4 in the regular season with two losses to Ohio teams and a win against a Canadian squad. That would have kept them out of the playoffs, along with Traverse City West and Kingsley.
However, if put in place, perennial playoff teams like Detroit Catholic Central, Traverse City West and Kingsley would all be more attractive opponents, and would likely be able to get into the playoffs with an adjusted schedule.
Under the scenario, Petoskey, Frankfort and St. Francis all would have made the playoffs last fall despite coming up short under the current system.
The Gladiators went 4-5, but four of the five losses were to playoff teams in higher divisions. While St. Francis missed out on the playoffs for the first time since 1989, the proposed system was hardly a reaction to the Gladiators missing out.
"When the state finally ran the numbers this year and seeing that we would've made the playoffs at 4-5, it was more of a chuckle than anything," Vaughan said. "This plan started five years ago when we lost one game in two years. The reason I jumped in was I knew we were going to have scheduling issues. I felt like if I've got problems, other people have the same issues. It's ironic and coincidental that it's the year we go 4-5 and don't make the playoffs."
Vaughan said he and his staff have been showing the proposed playoff system to coaches around the area — and getting positive feedback. But there is some opposition to the proposal.
"(On Wednesday), we discussed this proposal with representatives of leagues and conferences from across the state," Roberts said. "There were 35 conferences represented by a group of about 75 people. I would assess the reaction as lukewarm or a little bit better. There were representatives from conferences that were concerned it would put even more stress on their conferences. On the other hand, there were other people in the room that thought this would solve their scheduling problems. It was a mixed reaction at best, so I cannot predict what will happen with the council in May."
There have been previous proposals to the football playoff system, but none had reached the Representative Council before this one.
The OK Conference in Grand Rapids proposed a reduction of the regular season to eight games, in order to double the number of playoff teams. That proposal never received the support of the MHSFCA and the football committee, so Roberts said the emphasis has been to look at adjustments within the nine-game regular season.
Vaughan said that they've looked at playoff systems in other states and found that a focus on strength of schedule is common in other places. Roberts, though, pointed out that Michigan is unique.
"States are different enough, with their number of schools, with the climate they have and their geographic configuration," Roberts said. "With the climate we have and the geographic configuration of two peninsulas, we're just not the same as another state. We have to acknowledge that we just can't copy someone else. As a matter of fact, our point system that's been in place here, is the model for a number of states."
Regardless, there will be a lot of attention on the Representative Council when it meets in early May.
"We've taken it as far as we can take it," Pratley said. "Hopefully, the vote will go well in May. We're probably two years out because a lot of people sign two-year contracts. I'd imagine the 2013-14 will probably be under the current system so we could adjust scheduling for the 2015 season. But I don't want to speak to that, because the MHSAA is in charge. Whatever they vote, they will decide."