Tennessee: a world apart
Private schools' success in football led to separation; now there are eight state champions
By C. Ray Hall
Ed Foster, principal of Ooltewah High School, was contemplating the aesthetic and educational wonders in the mountains of southeast Tennessee.
"If you drove to Chattanooga," he said, "and I took you to the campus of Baylor School and McCallie School, you would think you were at one of the Southernmost traditional colleges you've ever seen. ... Buildings everywhere, facilities that are second to none. They're like little small colleges."
Then Foster recalled a time when a private school won the boys' state tennis championship.
"Not only did they not have a player from the state of Tennessee, they didn't have one from the United States," he said. "Now, you talk about an equal playing field ... "
Tennesseans might have been bemused by a short-term foreign takeover of high school tennis, but it didn't rouse them to revolution.
Football was another matter.
Everyone has a chance
After watching private schools repeatedly whip public schools in the state football playoffs, Tennessee high school administrators voted to separate public and private schools for sports championships.
Ultimately they segregated only those private schools that give financial aid to their scholar-athletes. Those schools were consigned to Division II, which now has 38 members. Thirty-two private schools that don't give financial aid still compete with the publics in the postseason.
Since the fall of 1997, there has been no chance of a state championship game between football powerhouse Brentwood Academy and its public school counterpart, Riverdale. That game was so compelling it drew 28,000 fans in the mid-1990s.
"It was a big deal because the private school was playing the public school," Brentwood athletic director and football coach Carlton Flatt said.
Several states — notably Texas and Virginia — traditionally have had separate public and private school champions. Tennessee scuttled an entrenched public-private competition.
"There's none that have done what we're doing," said Ronnie Carter, executive director of the Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association, which has about 375 schools.
"It was totally the football thing that drove it (the split)," Flatt said. "We won it in '95 and '96, back-to-back, in the largest classification — with 300 kids — and that is what kicked the thing over."
Austin Clark, athletic director at Baylor School, agreed.
"That's what it's about," he said. "And it's about small public schools that might go 9-0 in their regular season, and then when they get to the playoff series they play a private school that beats them 55-0.
"I'm a country boy from Roane County — Kingston — Tennessee, and I went to public school, and I'm telling you that's what it is. It's all about winning."
The larger public schools apparently have found the split agreeable.
"I would say in football your 4-A and 5-A schools have benefited," said Scott Brunette, athletic director for Nashville's public schools. "I would say those schools are pretty happy."
Tennessee used to crown five state football champions. Now it has eight, including three in the privates-only Division II, which has 26 football-playing schools.
Michael Ellson, athletic director at Christ Presbyterian Academy in Nashville, thinks that lessens the value of the titles.
"I think championships come watered down nowadays," he said, "and the sport of football ... is an example of society teaching student-athletes that winning a gold ball with eight teams in a class is more important than dreaming of achieving a championship where 100 or more schools are involved."
Ellson concedes that he might hold a minority view.
"Has it worked in Tennessee?" he said. "The majority of football coaches would say yes because everyone wants a realistic shot at winning a state championship every year — with every year being the key phrase."
Ellson's school doesn't give financial aid, and it stayed in Division I with the public schools. He understands the impulses that led public schools to want the split.
"A local high school here draws from a certain region within a county," he said. "We can draw from three or four different counties — or 90, if they (students and parents) want to drive four hours one way."
Is a state championship truly a state championship now?
"You kind of have like a devalued sense of accomplishment," said Tyler Siddens, an Owensboro (Ky.) football assistant who used to coach in Tennessee. "Who's really the state champion?"
Carter, who opposed the split for philosophical and practical reasons — and still thinks it was a mistake — said, "The perspective of the media covering our events would be it has changed and it's watered down."
But he quickly added that, to the competing teams, "It's the Super Bowl. ... The teams that are playing in our state championship, they don't care how many's in it. Their communities don't care."
One of the last unified championship games — Riverdale against Brentwood — drew 28,000 fans.
Last year those two teams played for championships in separate divisions — before combined crowds of fewer than 12,000. Riverdale vs. Franklin drew 7,670; Brentwood vs. Memphis University School drew 4,000.
Brunette said the split has meant some hardships for private schools in football.
"For some of the smaller private schools who give very little financial aid, it's been extremely hard, because they get the crap beat out of them by the larger private schools that give a lot of financial aid," he said. "... And then the Division II schools have to travel way, way too far."
Baylor's Clark said his football team's average road trip used to be 20 miles. Now it's more like 200.
"Now we play in a league that is statewide in football," he said. "We have seven teams — two in Memphis, three in Nashville and two in Chattanooga."
It might cost $8,000 to send the team to Memphis.
"That's a lot of money," Clark said.
How many fans follow the team across the state to Memphis?
Still, Carter said, he knows of no private school that has dropped any sport since the split.
"Private schools, their whole basis of existence is attracting people," he said. "If I eliminate programs, I've just lost the ability to attract."
However, he added, four private schools stopped giving financial aid so they could join Division I. One did so for competitive reasons. The others did it because the increased travel was costing so much. Playing in the larger division gives them more opponents closer to home.
The end of traditional public-private rivalries also has cost some schools money.
"I think they regret losing money off us," Clark said. "When you lose those rivalry games ..."
The Brentwood Academy-Brentwood High game once produced gate receipts in excess of $20,000, Flatt said. Now the schools don't play each other.
Given the negatives and the inevitable wounded feelings, why didn't the evicted private schools simply break away and form their own organization eight years ago? Carter says there was some sentiment for that.
"The immediate emotional response is, `Let's form our own,'" he said.
Then, he said, practical considerations take over. Who would write and enforce the rules? Who would train and hire officials and run tournaments? The TSSAA already was in that business. Starting a new organization seemed less attractive.
"That pragmatic side sort of shifts in," Carter said. "It's the dog catching the car. He's got it; now he doesn't know what to do with it."
In Tennessee the separation issue appears far from settled. In late 2003 the public schools voted solidly to make the split complete, consigning all private schools to the same division whether they give financial aid or not. But a leadership group, the TSSAA's legislative council, voted 5-4 to keep things the way they are.
However, some school leaders expect a complete separation eventually.
"We think by 2009 we're probably all going to be in Division II," said Ellson of Christ Presbyterian Academy.