TOPEKA— There will be only one more year of district play in Class 6A and 5A football.
As of 2016, 6A and 5A will have an eight-game regular season, and the ninth game will be considered the first of the playoffs, with all 32 teams in each class participating.
The change, which eliminates the decades-old and often-criticized district system, was made Friday night after a proposal brought by the City League was passed by the Kansas State High School Activities Association board of directors.
“I’m excited about the new changes and the new system,” said Panther head coach Tony Crough. “The district setup is old and needs to be replaced. This new system really opens things up and makes the full body of your schedule a whole lot more meaningful.”
“With the Wichita City League and the Sunflower League agreeing to help fill the Western Athletic Conference football schedules, I am excited about the future of the playoff system in Kansas,” said Great Bend athletic director David Meter.
“Great Bend will continue to play Garden City, Liberal, Dodge City and Hays. We will also have the opportunity to play three games in the Wichita City League and one game in the Sunflower League. With the present playoff system, some districts are tougher than other districts,” he said.
“It is a big change,” said Mark Lentz, a KSHSAA assistant executive director in charge of football. “I think, no matter what, it’s different than what we did previously. It will be interesting to see. I can’t say if it’s good or bad. It’s different.”
In each class, teams will be split between east and west and Lentz will seed 1 through 16 for each region. Higher-seeded teams will host each playoff game.
“Anytime there’s change in high school football, and it’s been only once in my 20 years, I guess it’s pretty shocking,” Carroll football coach Alan Schuckman said.
Lentz said the board of directors was the only group needing to approve the change. The executive board will figure out details such as tiebreakers.
Heights athletic director Rick Wheeler was an architect of the proposal and surveyed all 6A and 5A athletic directors.
“This is doing football like we do every other (team) sport in the state of Kansas, and that is play a regular season and then seed everyone according to record and then put them in a bracket,” he said.
For three years, the association for Kansas high school athletic directors had considered three proposals — eight-team districts, a variation on the current four-team districts, and no districts.
The eight-game, no districts proposal was approved 46-0 in March. The athletic directors’ support likely helped the KSHSAA board of directors, Maize district athletic director Marc Haught said.
Western Kansas schools preferred the eight-team district plan because it meant they only needed to fill one non-district game.
“The Western Athletic Conference, for as long as I’ve been AD over the last 10 years, every year we have proposed eight-team districts,” Dodge City AD Jay Gifford said of his league that includes Garden City, Great Bend, Hays and Liberal – the only 6A and 5A schools in western Kansas.
“It meant we would have our games scheduled for us because we struggle to fill our schedule. This proposal comes up, and with only five teams in our conference, we’d have four open dates.”
The City League, as a nine-school league, could fill its entire schedule with league opponents.
But the City League and Sunflower League (Douglas and Johnson counties) promised to leave spots in their schedules to aid the WAC.
“The Sunflower League has agreed to open up Week 1 to schedule,” Gifford said. “And the (City League) has agreed to open up enough games to make sure we can fill a schedule.”
The City League will play a six-game league schedule, playing an equal number of league opponents for the first time in decades. It will leave 18 non-league games to be scheduled.
“Now we can create some rivalry games,” Schuckman said. “Hutchinson-Bishop Carroll. Maize-Bishop Carroll. Maize South-Bishop Carroll.”
Lentz said the executive board would begin work on seeding details at its June meeting.
Tiebreakers could be an issue, although Lentz said the proposal included a recommendation that the current tiebreakers be used.
Derby coach Brandon Clark wondered if his team would be penalized in a tiebreaker for playing 5A schools.
“We’re in one of the best football leagues, yet we play some of the best 5A teams in the state, and we’re not playing 6A teams,” Clark said. “For a couple 6A teams in our league, if we have one or two losses to a 5A team, is it counted as a loss? Is it weighted? I really don’t know.”
Northwest coach Steve Martin also wondered about the seeding process in regards to scheduling.
“The big thing is, ‘OK, are you going to pad your schedules, get games that help in the playoffs, schedule games that will challenge you and get you ready for the playoffs? Or will you schedule and try to improve your seeding,’ ” Martin said. “I think everyone is in between.”
Why change now?
The current playoff system has 16 of 32 teams in the playoffs after nine regular-season game, and it pushed back the state title games to the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
But the system sometimes allowed teams with sub-.500 records into the playoffs out of a weaker district, while a 7-2 team in a tougher district could conceivably be left out.
“We believe that the playoffs system now is better than it was,” Heights’ Wheeler said. “… What we have done is try to brainstorm and problem solve and meet and discuss how things might be better.”
Wheeler said there have been proposals to change the current playoff system in both the football coaches association and athletic directors association for six years.
“What this tells me is people are waiting for change, any change,” Wheeler said.
It also means that all nine games are meaningful.
“You remember in districts, you might have that last game in the season where two teams in district are 0-2 and playing each other?” Means asked. “That game means nothing. Now, like in every team sport, you have a chance in Week 9.”
“There have been several years where every team in the district was very good. Two of the teams were going to stay home and two teams were moving on,” Meter said. “There have been cases where a team who placed last in the league qualified for the playoffs because of the weaker football district.”
“There will be issues on putting together a quality schedule to get ready for the playoffs or putting together a weaker schedule in order to have a better record and a better seed,” he said. “There are also issues with the tie breaking system. The best teams will make it to the championship game and every team will have an opportunity to get there. I like to new system.”