Deseret News file photo
This is not good for the spirit of high school football. —Herriman High coach Dustin Pearce

An effort to create an AAU tackle football league ran into massive resistance from high school coaches, who not only oppose the idea but also promise to actively fight it.

“This is not good for the spirit of high school football,” said Herriman High coach Dustin Pearce, who is the president of the Utah High School Football Coaches Association. “It’s just not. It goes against everything we’ve been trying to accomplish the last little bit with the (State School Board and Utah Legislature).”

Highland High coach Brody Benson said it will “decimate” current youth programs like Ute Conference Football, and the AAU philosophy emphasizes many of the things prep coaches try to eliminate.

“High school football is less than 4 percent of your life,” Benson said. “And right now everything is geared toward getting a scholarship and moving on and getting to the next level. The reality is that most of them are not going on. So what do you get out of sports? What are you able to use that you get out of football? That’s where I think we’re missing the boat as a society.”

Adam Arrington is the commissioner of the new AAU Youth Football league, and he said he and his partner, Jimmy Eaton, began talking in February about the need for an “elite club” football program for little league players.

“I believe the demand is there from the athletes to have an elite club,” said Arrington, who has four boys who play football from elementary school to college. “The demand starts with the athletes, goes to the parents, and then the coaches. That’s why we started it. … It’s really just a new opportunity to try and get the better coaches involved in giving kids more of an elite level of playing.”

In fact, he said the response was so positive, the two Utah County men decided to seek input on the league from high school coaches.

On April 20, Arrington sent an email to 54 high school coaches telling them who he was and how they were planning to structure the AAU football league. There would be age-based divisions, 11-under, 12-under, 13-under and 14-under, as well as a 15-under for freshmen whose high school program didn’t include them.

There would be no boundaries, unlike current youth league programs like Ute Conference, which requires players to compete in the areas where they live. There would be a “true state championship” and all-conference teams in every age division. There would also be no weight limit and no minimum play rule, also a requirement of programs like Ute Conference, which states every player must receive a certain number of plays.

The league would be divided into two conferences of eight clubs each, with those clubs overseeing the creation of teams in each age group. Conferences would be based on geography, but players could try out and play for any club.

Arrington outlined all of this and more details in the email sent to high school coaches, which immediately turned into a stream of criticism as coaches repeatedly vowed to fight the league and the sentiments behind it.

Arrington was stunned.

“Our whole thing is, well, we’d like our programs to be ran with the high school coaches’ blessing,” Arrington said. “We’d like to have them get involved and work with us. So I decided to send the email … to see if I could start a dialogue, to see if they had any words of advice or any degree of involvement they wanted. … It got pretty ugly, pretty quick. Not only were they not wanting to be involved, they said they would do everything in their power to shut us down. They said they’d make sure their facilities weren’t available to us. They told us we are a joke and they’ll do whatever they can to shut us down.”

Arrington said he thought the AAU program, which serves fifth through ninth grade, could benefit high school programs.

“We planned on getting the elite kids and working with them in their systems, so when they were in high school they were better prepared to go,” Arrington said. “That’s the way I thought we would help them.”

Benson said taking the elite players away from youth leagues and putting them in their own conference runs counter to what high school football tries to teach. He offered the example of NFL defensive end Nate Orchard, who played at Highland.

When Orchard was a senior, he told Benson he didn’t want to attend a summer camp because he didn’t think he’d get anything out of it.

“My response to Nate was, ‘You’re probably right, Nate. You’re a gifted athlete. But it’s not what you’re going to learn. It’s what your team is going to learn by you not being there.’ When you have someone with that kind of talent, they have the ability to raise the ability of other players. That’s what the great ones do. People want to play harder because of them. … It does enhance the game overall. It can’t just be about the elite guys.”

Part of the backlash comes from how the AAU was pitched to some coaches. Pearce said he received a text message about a month ago that alarmed and offended him.

“He demanded we sit down and talk about how AAU would help recruit kids in our local area to come to Herriman High,” Pearce said. “We’ve had 40-some-odd coaches respond saying they won’t give them access to fields.”

Pearce said he sees as much negative in the rise of AAU sports as some see positive. He and others echoed Benson’s sentiment that sports have become more about “What can you do for my kid? What can you do for me?” instead of “building character and teaching teamwork.”

Arrington said this is simply the direction sports are going, and Utah is just falling behind. He said most states have an AAU tackle football program. The National AAU website lists 16 states with leagues.

Utah AAU director Mike Killpack said there are 35,000 to 40,000 children playing in AAU tackle football programs across the country. He hasn’t heard of this kind of backlash in other states to an AAU football program.

“AAU has a business plan for those sports that AAU sponsors,” Killpack said. “We have the mechanism for you as an entrepreneur to run that program. We have insurance; we background check the coaches.”

He said he would support an AAU football program, but not if the community won’t support it.

Pearce and others have said they won’t allow their football fields to be used by Arrington’s AAU program, but the reality is the decision to rent a field is usually made at the district level.

Jordan principal Tom Sherwood said every district is different in how and when they assess fees, but he doesn’t think most coaches can keep people or groups from using high school facilities.

“It costs money to rent the fields, and it’s expensive,” Sherwood said, pointing out that most districts have more favorable rates for events or groups that benefit the high school community. “But whatever the rate is, if they can pay it, they can rent it, if there aren't scheduling conflicts.”

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Arrington said they plan to go forward with their league, which will begin play in August. He said they’re close to capacity with two conferences of eight clubs, and expects them all to be spoken for by the end of May.

“This was supposed to be just a beginning dialogue, not the end,” Arrington said. “We’d still like to speak to the coaches.”

He said he was simply trying to change a mindset that currently exists where youth coaches operate completely independent of high school programs.

“We just thought (working together) was a better situation for everybody,” he said. “I was mistaken.”