Commentary: Are there high school football monopolies?

Brad Stephens brings his own Southern flavored sports perspective and humor to Bartow Sports Zone. He is a Bartow County native and has his own law office in Cartersville, but he's mostly a Georgia Bulldogs' football fan.

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"He can take his'n and beat your'n and take your'n and beat his'n."

That quote is attributed to Bum Phillips, the longtime Houston Oilers coach, when asked about the coaching ability of Don Shula. Coach Phillips was basically implying, in his own Texas way, that Shula could find any way to beat you with whomever took the field for him. Shula’s longevity and success in the NFL still resonates today for that reason – the man could simply get the most out of anyone he coached.

Georgia high school football and its perennially successful programs appear to have this same trait. Some programs seem to reload every year and if there ever is a layoff, it is not for long. Whether it be from metro Atlanta, middle Georgia or below the gnat line – there are several teams that you simply cannot ever count out.

There is an undercurrent of doubt, however. Fans across the state allude to this doubt more and more as each season goes by, compiling more circumstantial evidence than Johnnie Cochran. As certain teams and regions continue to pile up trophies while others are left holding the bag, many folks wonder aloud, “Are these teams winning with their own people?”

The answer to that question is as clear as Stamp Creek after a thunderstorm.

In the last fifteen years, the power structure has shifted in the bigger classifications. Prior to 2000, Valdosta was the premier program in the state, winning a record 24 state titles, including seven between 1982-1998. “Winnersville, USA” ran through their south Georgia counterparts in the regular season and then more often than not, ran the metro schools off the field with ease in the playoffs.

Valdosta not only had superior talent, but an immortal coach in Nick Hyder that seemed to be one step ahead of every other coach in the state. Colquitt County, Tift County, Lowndes and Warner Robins also claimed titles during this time, giving rural Georgia a strong grip on a classification rife with metro Atlanta schools.

In fact, metro Atlanta schools only won five state titles in the state’s highest class (AAAA) from 1980-99. As the nineties came to an end and we all thankfully survived Y2K, a rift in the landscape occurred. The population of the metro area boomed, better coaches filtered into the area and programs began to gear up, both physically and financially, to stop the south Georgia juggernaut.

Parkview, a Gwinnett County school with a largely mediocre history, ran off three straight titles from 2000-02. En route to those victories, the Panthers eviscerated the likes of Valdosta and Northside-Warner Robins. Many were glad to see the kings knocked off their throne and Gwinnett County schools gained confidence for the rest of the Atlanta area – eight of the last fifteen state titles in the largest class have gone to Gwinnett or Fulton County schools.

Still, there have been rumblings about these schools and their access to talent, which seems unabated by district lines and residential requirements. With the gigantic population of the county and the amount of money contributed by boosters, Gwinnett’s rise to power is no secret. However, the amount of transferring, open enrollment, district re-drawing and de facto gerrymandering that occurs has raised more than a few eyebrows.

This has not only been an issue at the highest level. No school in Georgia is more scrutinized than AAAA’s current defending champion, the Buford Wolves. While the poormouthing usually comes from rivals who simply cannot upend the Buford program, their cries are not without credence. When you win ten titles in fifteen years, often by lopsided victories over completely inferior opponents, whispers become roars. When you only lose thirteen games (two by forfeit) since the year 2000, flashlights become spotlights.

Buford schools have admission policies that differ from many schools and over the years, it has been pointed out that a great deal of their talent comes from outside the city limits. The GHSA combatted this by moving them up from A in 2001 all the way to their present position in AAAA in 2014. This move has had little effect so far – Buford closest region game was a 32-point victory and the Wolves won the AAAA title over St. Pius in a 55-10 snoozefest that was over at halftime.

To keep up with the likes of Buford, other programs like Calhoun have pulled out all the stops. They have no choice. Concentrated efforts to improve facilities, strength training and coaching techniques have surfaced, along with the occasional transfers that seem to go along with territory. These new faces moving in and appearing on the sidelines of the same teams every year is wearing thin the patience of their less fortunate counterparts.

Families want to be part of winning programs and that is understandable, but talent pools are being diluted unfairly. Schools unable to “keep up with the Joneses” lose their best players without recourse, then get clobbered on Friday night by a perpetual club team made up of the best talent in a four-county area. These kids work hard, lift weights, sweat in the heat and get chewed out by coaches all summer long – only to get waxed 63-0 with no hope of winning their region. This type of hopelessness can cripple a program.

One of the things I love about high school football is the sense of community. Our way of life versus theirs. These schools are robbing us of that in a way. While there are plenty of young men on those teams that hail from their respective district, it cannot be denied that move-ins and transfers make their marks in the starting lineups. It is a fine line to walk, as the kids cannot be blamed for wanting to win. However, I believe that football should be played with your hometown players, take it or leave it. Some years will be lean, but that makes you appreciate the good times.

It is the same reason why monopolies cannot exist in a capitalist economy. The elimination of competition creates an inferior product - games that are foregone conclusions with the state champion essentially predetermined, barring a meteor crashing to the earth on their practice field. If Cartersville expects to win the AAAA title, you can bet your bottom dollar that Buford will be there in the end. Their region is still completely inferior with absolutely no shot of dethroning the Wolves.

Maybe Cartersville will have to join them to beat them. They can “take your’n” from Floyd, Polk, Paulding and Cherokee County and make a club team right there on Church Street. I wish the Canes luck in their quest for the title because they are going to need it. At the rate Buford is going, Valdosta’s state title record is very much in jeopardy.

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