‘Completely shocked’: Area high school football coaches weigh in on coming changes

Bartram Trail tight end Eli Sutherland (80) makes a catch and outruns Nease free safety Keveon Hodges for a touchdown in the first quarter, Friday Oct. 16. (Ralph D Priddy, News4Jax)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – One day after the Florida High School Athletic Association voted to split the state into new divisions called Suburban and Metro, area coaches were still trying to assess what the radical changes meant for their programs moving forward.

The overall feeling from coaches on both sides of the aisle after Monday’s historic vote — shock.

While the notion that some kind of change needed to happen, the fact that it did with so many questions still unanswered led to both excitement and a bit of apprehension across the board.

“I think the biggest thing is, a lot of people are surprised. They really did not think it would pass. A lot of coaches I talked to think they needed more time to digest the ins and outs,” said First Coast coach Marty Lee. “I definitely think it’s going to be a guinea pig year. A lot of issues. We’re just going to have to work through it. When are we going to have some clarification, a month? Two weeks?

“It’s exciting to have something new, but I wish this would have been two months ago.”

The FHSAA board passed the concept on a razor-thin 9-7 vote, largely following tight margins from the athletic directors advisory committee (8-7) and operations committee (3-2). While the proposal had followed the proper channels and protocol for approval the last two years, many athletic directors and coaches hadn’t studied it in detail until the start of this year.

Many of the hangups revolved around unintended consequences and a timeline that that felt rushed. Even proponents of the plan like Dunnellon coach Price Harris said that the tough questions being asked were all valid, but the proper channels were followed and concerns addressed at the committee level before going to the full board.

“I understand the process with which they’re talking but I still believe that it has had plenty of time. It’s been through the [football advisory committee] twice. It’s been through the [athletic director’s advisory committee] twice. It passed one time. It got voted down one time and we made some adjustments, and it came back and passed,” Harris said.

“And so I do not believe that six months is all it’s been [talked about]. I believe that it’s been a four-year process. So, I think that it’s had plenty of time and I’m excited about having the possibility of where it’s going to be.”

Board members Chris Patricca and Allison Forsyth Abney said before the vote that they hadn’t received much feedback from constituents in their sections about the changes. And Patricca said she hadn’t seen enough data to go along with such a radical change. Executive director George Tomyn was strongly opposed to the proposal and said that he preferred time for the FHSAA to take a deeper dive into how it would work. Tomyn, who is retiring June 30, said he favored a possible implementation to take effect for the 2024 year.

Football coaches passed the proposal unanimously the last two votes, citing an overwhelming number of state championships (89%) won by schools now considered in the Metro division over the past 10 years.

Privately, coaches say that this is a direct result of the state’s controlled open enrollment law that took effect in 2016 and allowed students to attend school anywhere they wanted as long as the desired school had space.

The public-private school debate that has raged for decades still remains a problem, but open enrollment made that less of an issue than it had been. State lawmakers have worked to loosen the FHSAA’s power through a series of laws over the past decade and likely aren’t done yet if bills like SB 738 continue to gain traction.

So, the metro/suburban divide was one way to combat that, even if there remain more questions than answers on how to actually craft a policy in roughly or a month or less.

St. Augustine coach Brian Braddock said he was stunned that the proposal passed, but said the need for some type of change outweighed the uncertainties that remain with the plan.

“I was completely shocked [it passed],” he said. “Truthfully, I just think there’s a lot of coaches who were intrigued to see some change. From that perspective alone, I’m kind of hopeful of it.”

Trinity Christian’s Verlon Dorminey, who trails only Bolles icon Corky Rogers in state championships in Florida, said the proposal has positives on each side. The competition will be diluted though. In a Class 1A Metro division, of which Trinity would be a part of, the Conquerors will be one of just 36 teams.

“Do you really have a state champion? Have we really determined a state champion? No, I don’t think so. I know it seems better for the schools in suburban areas. They won’t have to play the St. Thomas Aquinases, Miami Centrals and American Heritage Plantations, but in the end, are you just a divisional champion?”

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.