Plan to shake up high school football in Florida moves on to vote next month

Bolles QB DJ Moore (1) picks up yards in the second quarter against St. Augustine during a Week 3 game. (Ralph D. Priddy, News4Jax)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Big changes, possibly the biggest ever for high school football in the state, could be on the way.

The Florida High School Athletic Association is mulling a significant makeover for the sport, which includes changes in the regular season and playoffs across the state in what could be the biggest shift in years.

The seismic change — taking the eight largest counties in the state, which includes Duval County, and putting them in a four-classification metro division. The remaining 59 counties in Florida would be divided into suburban and rural and split among five classes.

That would mean nine state champions and a more equitable playing field, say coaches behind the plan. The football committee voted 9-0 earlier this month to proceed with the suburban/metro overhaul. On Wednesday, the athletic director advisory committee had seven votes to not endorse the proposal and eight to endorse it.

The power now lies with the board of directors. They convene on Feb. 27-28 when the football overhaul will be voted on.

Radical? Too much, too soon? Not enough? Data from various committees in this process — which has been discussed for more than a year — point to a desire for change. Under the current format, private- and metro-area programs dominate year after year. With open enrollment now state law and transfers booming like never before, one way to level the playing field and ultimately get the best games in the postseason is to consider shaking up the norm.

“My belief is there is a super majority in state of Florida that believe that structure of classifications needs to change,” said John Sgromolo, Clay County’s coordinator of district athletics who also serves on the AD advisory council. “Devil is kind of in the details in how that should look. There’s varying opinions around the state of Florida on how this is going to unfold.”

Also getting the green light Wednesday was the vote to replace the football Ratings Percentage Index metric with the FHSAA power rankings, a system used by the other major team sports to determine playoff qualifiers.

Teams quickly figured out how to make the best of the RPI system, which had been in place since 2019. A weak schedule could lead to eight-, nine- or 10-win regular seasons for teams who clearly weren’t as good as other programs with more challenging schedules.

Also, districts could be coming back in Classes 1A-4A. Districts for those classifications went away starting in 2017, with teams qualifying for the playoffs via points, and later, RPI. That was the biggest shakeup to the state playoff format since the FHSAA expanded the playoffs in 1993 and gave district runners-up a berth in the postseason.

Big changes, possibly the biggest ever for high school football in the state, could be on the way.

So, what exactly does this all of this mean?

Nothing — right now.

Committee votes are non-binding until the FHSAA board takes them up for an official vote. But if the board does vote to pass the shakeup, the biggest change to the playoffs in years is on the way.

If the proposed changes are approved, it would create an additional classification for what there currently is. Instead of all 67 counties in the state playing under a single umbrella, metro would take the largest eight counties in Florida — Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach, Pinellas and Seminole — and put them in a division. Schools would be separated into classes by enrollment. Suburban and rural get the remaining schools from the 59 other counties, although rural would remain Class 1A.

Creekside football coach Sean McIntyre, who represents Section I in Florida with Chiles coach Kevin Pettis, said the plan as it stands now affords a more level playing field. Schools from the eight major metro areas have won 89% of the state football championships over the past 10 seasons, according to the data from the football advisory committee.

When divvying up metro and suburban, McIntyre said that it became clear to him in conversation and polling coaches in his section that a change could even things out.

“Those districts with schools similar to each other are similar in capacity, how school operates. There’s more parity and competitive balance. It’s more apples to apples, oranges to oranges,” he said.

“They feel like, I’m OK not winning a state title. That would be an awesome event if it happened. If that’s what programs are basing success on, they’re going to be disappointed most years. [The plan] just gives you a chance to compete with programs you’re similar with in meaningful football games.

That proposal passed two football committee votes unanimously. It was voted down (8-7) in the first athletic director advisory committee but passed on an 8-7 vote Wednesday.

Recruiting remains a significant issue for the FHSAA, too, although it’s not going to be addressed in this cycle. The suburban/metro split is about the closest thing to a compromise that could put a chunk of the schools who benefit the most from rampant transfers in the same pool.

During the football coaches meeting earlier this month, Calvary Christian football coach Kirk Hoza proposed eliminating FHSAA bylaw 37.1.2, which details recruiting. The association doesn’t have enough power to enforce such a widespread issue.

“Recruiting is out of control in football and basketball in particular. What is written in the rule book is theory only for our most egregious offenders. What is practically occurring in Florida is an embarrassment to all associated with the governance of our HS sports whether admitted or not,” he wrote. “Too often, institutions who appear in championships, and rounds leading up to the final, are among the worst offenders. Championships are often determined by institutional ignorance, tolerance or at its worst, mission. Our legislatures are fearful of legal pushback and funding and manpower is not available to enforce the rules.”

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.