Answering the big questions on the suburban/metro football split

Bartram Trail running back Eric Weatherly picks up yards in the third quarter against Oakleaf during a playoff game on November 20, 2020. (Ralph D. Priddy) (Ralph D. Priddy, News4Jax)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Florida High School Athletic Association’s board of directors voted on Monday to shake up the structure of the sport in the state. With that 9-7 vote, a new format will be in place for the start of the 2022 season. Here’s a breakdown on what the changes are, how we got here and what to expect.

What does it mean?

Schools will be split into two divisions, metro and suburban. The metro will be home to schools in Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach, Pinellas and Seminole counties. The suburban will have schools from the remaining 59 counties. The Class 1A division, also called the rural division, will remain and open to schools with enrollment below 600.

How many championships are there now?

We had eight last year. Now, we’ll have nine.

What other sports are affected?

None as of now. This only pertains to football.

How did we get here?

In the past 10 years, schools that are considered metro-area have won 89% of the state championships outside of the Class 1A rural division. Football coaches in the state began dialogue on how to even the playing field since schools in that area have dominated the title count. This was the proposal that passed the football coaches advisory committee in back-to-back years, passed the athletic directors advisory committee this year, and passed in the operations committee this year. Those various committees agreed by majority that change was needed.

Why not split public and private schools?

This is the most common question asked, and a debate that has raged on since the early 1980s. It hasn’t happened yet and is less likely to happen now. Private schools are some of the best football programs in Florida.

The five most successful teams in state history, Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (13 state championships), Bolles (11), Trinity Christian and University Christian (both nine) and Tallahassee’s North Florida Christian (eight), are all private schools. Those programs will likely continue to have success in the postseason. But state law that went into effect in 2016 allowed controlled open enrollment in the state and essentially removed transfer restrictions at public schools, too. Many coaches aren’t fans of the rampant transfers. Numerous coaches have said privately that the metro/suburban issue was triggered by that state law.

What was the main point of contention?

Two of them. The timeline was one. While this proposal followed the proper channels and made its way through the various advisory committees, it didn’t get significant public attention until early last month. Two board members Monday even said publicly that they weren’t well-versed with the proposal and hadn’t heard much from constituents for or against the proposal.

Metro schools also feel like they’re being singled out. Why punish programs for being too good?

What will districts look like?

Suburban and Metro will have four classifications apiece. Schools will fill those classifications by enrollment numbers much like they currently are. Districts will remain. Interesting situations could happen in Metro’s Class 4A class locally. Based on enrollment numbers, Atlantic Coast, Mandarin and Sandalwood could potentially form a three-team district. The closest district opponent outside of the area for those three would be a school such as a Sanford Seminole.

Can teams appeal their placement?

Getting down to the granular level on appeals or teams petitioning to move from one division to another has not been decided yet. The FHSAA staff has been given flexibility to draft a policy. Things such as teams moving or others going independent are not yet decided, but will be in the coming weeks.

What now?

The FHSAA staff will crunch enrollment numbers and assign schools districts in their new divisions.

Justin Harrison, associate executive director of the FHSAA, said the timeframe is quick to get things put in place but it could be done. He gave a ballpark guess on the time to have a policy in place and schools locked in at roughly two weeks.

“The hard thing about getting it done and trying to meet a timeline is you always want to be as thorough as you can. And the fear is you potentially could not think of a scenario,” he said. “But with the desire to get it out in a quick way, that’s probably the most concerning thing.”

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.