Prep football: 49 Utah games kick off on opening Friday
Text messages flood Mike Bowring's cellphone when the calendar lands on Nov. 10 each year.
Bowring's Monticello Buckaroos, a Class 1A football program, defeated Rich 32-12 on Nov. 10, 2001, to capture a state crown.
The text messages to Bowring, who now is the football coach at Juab High School in the central Utah town of Nephi, come from players on that Monticello team thanking him for the memories of a season won and a championship earned.
Fast-forward 12 years, and Bowring and coaches across the state are a handful of days away from starting a new football season in a brand-new classification. Last November, the Utah High School Activities Association (UHSAA), finalized a move from five classifications to six statewide, which split the 3A football realm in two.
There now are two factions of 3A football, formerly consisting of 26 teams: 3AA football composed of 14 schools and 3A football made up of 12 smaller-sized 3A schools, many of which are based in rural areas of Utah. Class 2A downgrades from 16 teams to 14, and 1A drops from 10 football programs to nine.
Bowring contends the move, which has been met with equal amounts cheers and jeers, was necessary to establish competition and give high school athletes a fighting chance.
"I guarantee my 55 kids who won that year in 2001 were as happy as the 100-plus kids whoever won 5A that year," he said. "It comes down to this: Are we about the kids or not? If we're about the kids, why not give kids an opportunity to go deep in the playoffs?
"As a rural-type school, we can't beat Goliath. I wish I could say we could. I'm a confident guy, but you can't beat Goliath four times."
In comparing Utah to surrounding states in the West with similar population size and distribution, the move to six classifications isn't as outrageous as some think.
In New Mexico, high school football has classes 1A through 5A as well as six-man and eight-man football programs. In Nevada, where the largest populations are centered in the Reno and Las Vegas areas, Division I, Division I-A, Division III and Division IV are split into various regions appropriated with districts.
The UHSAA's classification committee looks at all sports every two years and investigates whether a realignment of schools is necessary. The alignment committee, made up of members of the UHSAA Board of Trustees, looked into how football could be more competitive across the board, from a ratio standpoint as well as a safety standpoint.
UHSAA Executive Director Rob Cuff pointed out some schools have much larger enrollments, which creates a larger pool of talent to pick from.
"There's no school that's more than twice the size of the school they're playing anymore," Cuff said. "Before, we had as much as three-and-a-half times the size difference because of the smaller classifications and schools. The bottom line is it came down to the ratio situation. This gives a breakdown between schools to have a chance to play teams more their size and hopefully grow their programs from a day-to-day basis."
Bowring said it's primarily about the high school athletes and their ability to recognize that they at least have a chance to contend for a state championship.
"It used to be you win one playoff game and you call that season a success," said Bowring, whose Juab Wasps will be in Class 3A. "As a staff, I think we've been rejuvenated by this move."
Bountiful coaching legend Larry Wall owns 218 career victories, which ranks fourth all-time in Utah high school history, and four state championship rings. He said the move to six classes doesn't directly affect him or his Braves, but he's not a fan of the change.
"I know in one of those classifications there's only a dozen schools," he said. "Back when I got going, there were regions that were almost that size. Now you can win a state title with that many, but it's not like it used to be that way."
Wall said he's seen a gradual progression in the expansion of regions and classes comparative to the days when he was coaching with just three classes in the Beehive State.
"If I'm one of those [classes] that has 12 schools, you've got a chance to win a state title that maybe you didn't before," he said. "That's the reality of it. It definitely will be a different type of state championship than maybe a 4A or 5A championship."
Hillcrest coach Casey Miller grew up playing football in Utah. He starred at Cyprus High School before going to play college football in Kansas. Miller's high school coaching career eventually took him to California's San Joaquin Valley, which stretches from Bakersfield to Sacramento.
"The Valley has approximately the same number of high schools as Utah and has six classifications for football," Miller said. "Out there, they tried to group schools and move them up and down by record, so if you're a 1A school with success, they'll move you up and you can be a 1A school playing a 6A school. It's kind of like the BCS out there everyone ends up pissed off."
Miller's Hillcrest Huskies were bumped up to Class 5A when the realignment and slicing of 3A occurred last fall. He attributes the constant change in high school football to the growth of the state's population, as well as the growth of the sport.
Miller pointed out that growing schools such as Herriman, Salem Hills, Corner Canyon, Desert Hills, Stansbury and other newer schools were yet to be constructed when he graduated from Cyprus in 2001.
The landscape has changed, he said, and it's impossible to please every program.
"I think [UHSAA] is trying to do it fair as possible," he said. "It's kind of like my chemistry class; some like it, some don't."
Judge Memorial coach James Cordova has adopted a mantra during his tenure with the Bulldogs. Like so many 3A schools, his has bounced around various regions every two years.
"There's a lot of potential to create a system that works for all, but the problem is you have too many different factions wanting too many different things," Cordova said. "This is an attempt to appease as many people as possible and make it work for as many different programs as possible."
That is the hope. Coaches are optimistic that the change will usher in better overall competition, breed new rivalries and inject some new energy into Friday night football.
"I don't think it's about winning," Bowring said, "but it's about having a chance to win."
A look at how many high school programs offer football and how many state champions are crowned each year in states within the region.
State Programs Classifications Programs per title
Wyoming 62 5 12.4
New Mexico 120 7 17.1
Utah 103 6 17.2
Idaho 139 6 23.2
Nevada 95 4 23.8
Montana 149 5 29.8
Oregon 242 7 34.6
Colorado 285 7 40.7