Wharton: Can realignment be used to guarantee fairness?
Preps • New system designed to move teams up and down in class, based on performance.
Published: June 23, 2014 05:03PM
Updated: June 23, 2014 12:01PM
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Tom Wharton

At a recent Utah High School Activities Association board of trustees meeting where realignment was discussed, an administrator joked that the group should just divide the state into 70 classifications. That way, schools could finish first or second in every sport.

The facetious comment contained an element of truth. No matter how many classes are created or what new formula might be used to help less successful programs compete, the bottom line is simple. There are always going to be winners and losers. That’s just the nature of sport.

As someone who has covered prep sports for nearly 45 years, I think having six classes in football is ridiculous. Five for all sports is probably too many.

When the state expanded from two to three classes in the early 1970s, the result created some of the best and most entertaining state tournaments ever. In one memorable 2A basketball tournament, the eight championship bracket games were decided by three points or less. Making state was an honor, not an afterthought.

That said, an argument can be made that “going to state” is a morale booster for high schools, even for those who make the tournament with little chance of actually winning.

The UHSAA’s latest well-meaning attempt to level the playing field involves football only. Some schools want socioeconomic numbers, graduation rates and lack of success to be used in the realignment process.

Under a complicated formula used only for football that will likely be adopted in August after public hearings, schools that haven’t experienced success in that sport for four years can have their enrollment adjusted. In what will likely affect less than 10 schools, the proposal would allow some to drop down a class or move up a classification based on success or failure.

It’s an admirable effort to level the playing field. The reality, though, is that success in high school sports is cyclical. As an example, take what happened at Taylorsville in football last year. For years, the Warriors were not a factor in the sport. But Rod Wells took over as coach and turned the culture around. Taylorsville won Region 2 last year and hosted a first-round 5A game.

Another reality is that there is often little difference between the top teams in Class 4A and 5A, where student numbers are a big deal.

Finally, in an age of open enrollment, increasing numbers of private and charter schools, and fairly liberal transfer rules, the sad fact is that top programs will often draw the best athletes away from less successful schools.

What realignment should accomplish and often doesn’t is to maintain traditional rivalries while keeping travel costs low and eliminating as much time out of the classroom as possible.

As an example of how this would work, the UHSAA’s Bart Thompson talked about a system Illinois uses where geography is the primary factor in forming regions. A region might consist of schools in two or even three different classifications. Teams would play in regular-season contests and then power rankings are used to seed them into postseason play.

How would this work?

As an example, how about a Salt Lake area region consisting of Highland, West, East, Judge, Skyline, Olympus and Cottonwood? The teams would play preseason and regular-season games. Then, under the current alignment, Cottonwood and West would move into the 5A tournament, East, Highland, Olympus, Skyline and Judge would play in 4A, and Judge would move down to 3AA or 3A in football.

If some St. George-area schools outgrew 3A, southwestern Utah’s current Region 9 could stay intact, but the larger schools would move up a classification at state.

The bottom line, though, is officials can juggle, adjust and move schools around as much as they want. But the basic nature of sport is that no matter what you do, some schools will be winners, others losers, and total fairness will be impossible to legislate.

And if it were, what would be the point of playing?

wharton@sltrib.com