SALT LAKE CITY — How to divide Utah high schools into leagues has always been a tough topic.
Utah has a relatively small number of schools spread over hundreds of miles. Currently, 138 schools participate in sports and activities; only 102 play football.
That means Utah has a rare mix of small and larger schools in both its urban and rural settings. This makes aligning the state into equitable regions and classifications a very difficult proposition.
Urban schools often have more transient populations, deal with transfers more frequently and suffer when participation lags due to socio-economic pressures. Rural schools often have to travel hours for even the closest region game and face off against schools with much more diverse students who have access to club programs and equipment that, for the most part, rural students lack.
Each time the state's Board of Trustees attempts to realign the schools, they run into conflicting needs and ideas about what should be most important — school size or geography.
While having six classifications is not a new concept, it is not one that the Board of Trustees has been asked to consider as part of realignment until last week. That's when the state's executive committee heard the proposal for new realignment guidelines, including six classifications in football only, and approved them unanimously. The Board of Trustees will consider the parameters for the next alignment on Thursday.
Six classifications in football only is an idea suggested by the non-boundary subcommittee.
That group came to the realignment committee and suggested that a multiplier for non-boundary schools just wouldn't work in Utah. Non-boundary schools are private and charter schools that don't have a geographical boundary and thus no natural student body.
Over the years, administrators for boundary schools have complained that being a non-boundary school makes it easier, and sometimes more likely, that schools recruit students in order to survive. In academics, that's acceptable. In athletics, it's against the rules.
The issue has come to the Board of Trustees in the last few alignments as smaller rural schools, most of which play only with students who live in their boundaries, square off against private or charter non-boundary schools, who often have student-athletes from around the area or state.
Realignment committee chairman Paul Schulte said the subcommittee asked the realignment committee to put the idea of six classifications on the table for the Board of Trustees to consider in this year's realignment process.
"The 6A wasn't the agenda, but as the conversations developed, it made real good sense," said Schulte. "Trying to find a way to make the ratios more equitable was certainly a priority to everyone. It's just hard."
Once the committee started looking at what the breakdown of school populations would be with six classifications, the ratios between the school became very similar — and much more palatable to all involved.
"Even though you might have 12 schools, the difference between the top and the bottom was similar to the classification with only 12," Schulte said. "In other words, you're competing against people like you."
The news that the state was considering six classes in football only was met with a variety of responses. While some small-school principals lauded the effort to make ratios between competitors smaller, others said another classification would dilute the competitive field and rob student-athletes of valuable learning experiences.
Some questions and answers about the proposal:
If it's good for football, why not all sports? One of the criticisms is that schools don't want their football teams competing in different regions or against different schools than their other teams since rivalries generally extend to all sports.
"The short answer is that the committee … didn't want to have it that way," said UHSAA executive director Rob Cuff, who does not get a vote on either the executive committee or the Board of Trustees. "With that said, I don't think it's a done deal. … Most states have something different for football. Safety and competitive balance seem to be more of an issue when you have real small teams and big teams playing against each other in contact sports. I think if schools wanted to discuss it further, they could."
The fact that student-athletes are safer when playing schools of similar student body size is based on anecdotal evidence, Cuff said.
"Even the information we get from the National Federation is anecdotal," he said. "The ironic things is that we still see small schools scheduling larger schools in the preseason."
As for fair play, that's also an argument being made without any statistical analysis.
The fact that the change is being suggested without hard facts is one of the reasons coaches like Logan High's Mike Favero is uncomfortable.
"I haven't spoken to a coach who is in favor of it," said Favero. "The coaches I've spoken to are very happy with the current alignment. It's probably the best, most fair we've ever had. We shouldn't undertake such a drastic change, and six classifications in a small state like Utah is drastic … without factual, data-driven information that suggests we can't use the current system that we worked so hard to put into place."
But others, like Juab parent and attorney Kasey Wright, not only support the proposal, they'd like to see six classes in all sports.
"Ratios are important, but that's not the only factor," said Wright, who points out that Delta is 2.6 times smaller than Payson, both of which are 3A. "It's the rural thing, too. We should be playing schools that are similar in size and similar in demographics."
He said urban schools have resources that rural schools do not and it is unfair to the student-athletes to pit them against each other. Juab principal Rick Robins agrees.
He points out that rural schools often have ninth through 12th grades in the high school while most urban schools only have 10th through 12th grades in the high schools.
"That causes issues with our junior varsity and sophomore programs," he said. "It really comes down to resources. I've been the principal of an urban school and now I'm at Juab, and we're a larger 3A school. We don't have access to the kind of resources that urban schools have. We're looking for a more fair and level playing field."
He said rural schools rely more heavily on traditional, geographic rivalries that can be lost when schools are moved into a class or region simply because of its size.
"We lost traditional rivalries that were really important to our community," Robins said. "In rural schools, our issues are just a little big different. It's nothing against urban schools. We understand travel will be an issue, but that's just a way of life. I think parents, patrons in our communities live and die with these programs. It's the only ticket in town. We want to get back to some of those relationships."
Both Robins and Wright said part of the issue is that while a small-school team could compete for a game or two, sustaining that for an entire region or playoff run is difficult.
"It's great to pull off the upset once in a while, and it's kind of fun to watch Cinderella," said Wright. "But Cinderella never wins. It's very rare."
Favero argues that attempting to separate the state into like schools will deprive students of some of the very life lessons coaches are hoping to offer.
Why schedule schools geographically or socioeconomically different from one's own team?
"Because it's real life," said Favero. "It's about opportunities to play in all of life and all situations. Some of our most fun games were in playing schools that were very different from us. It's a chance to experience what real life is like, experiencing diversity opportunity and challenges and not making excuses."
He said taking his mostly LDS, mostly Caucasian team to play a California school with a very diverse student body was one of the best experiences he's been able to offer his athletes.
He's also sought those experiences in-state, like in 2005, when as a 3A coach he scheduled 5A powerhouse Skyline in a preseason game.
"To me, that would be very sad," Favero said of eliminating some of the crossover between rural and urban. "Rural kids are usually very, very tough kids, very hard-working, very hard-nosed, and they believe they can beat anybody. I don't think if you asked those kids that they'd tell you they can't win. To me, it's such a poor message to send our students."