Utah’s activity association’s new RPI-based ranking system rankles high school coaches
(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Corner Canyon quarterback Austin Bell runs the ball for the Chargers, As Olympus Noah Bennee defends, in 5A football semifinal action between Olympus and Corner Canyon at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018.
In the past, the only metric that ever really mattered in Utah high school sports was a team’s win-loss record in its region. Sure, preseason games, particularly against stronger teams, made a difference for preparation and allowed for live game action after weeks of practice sessions. In the end, however, it was region play that counted.
But with the introduction this school year of the Utah High School Activities Association’s new ranking system
, everything matters. Every game. Every opponent. Every opponent’s opponent. And with the football playoffs set to begin Friday, with volleyball’s not far behind, the system — called ratings percentage index, or RPI — and its efficacy will be put to the test.
Meanwhile, several high school coaches across the state have already made up their minds about the RPI: the test failed.
“I think the RPI is a joke,” said Kovi Christiansen, coach of the Morgan football team that competes in 3A and finished fifth in the classification’s rankings.
Jon Oglesby, assistant director of the UHSAA, said overall feedback on the RPI has been “positive,” but acknowledged that others have been critical of it “for various reasons.”
Christiansen’s team finished with an 8-1 overall record in the regular season and is seeded fifth, while the two schools ranked above them — Manti and Grantsville — lost two games, and are seeded third and fourth, respectively. Even when the Trojans had an undefeated record two weeks ago, they were ranked third. That’s what makes Christiansen so upset.
In the previous system, Morgan’s 4-1 record in Region 13 would have placed it in second place among four playoff teams, likely leading to a more favorable seed once the state tournament came around. Last year, the Trojans went 5-0 in their region and received a bye for the first round of the playoffs.
That reduced importance of a team’s region record is why Olympus coach Aaron Whitehead, whose 5A football team is ranked fourth, is calling foul on the RPI.
“Programs can gain more points by succeeding against a higher classification team than they can against teams from their own region,” Whitehead said. “If all contests count toward this RPI, why have regions, let alone region championships? The value of winning the region championship will diminish because of the RPI system.”
The RPI places higher value on defeating teams in higher classifications. For instance, 1A teams have a “game value” of 1, with 15% increases until 6A, which has a value of 2.01, per the UHSAA. So if a 3A team plays and beats a 1A team, for example, it doesn’t count as much toward its RPI as if it would have beaten a 6A team.
The exception to that rule is only if a team is playing down a classification for the first time in a season and it wins that game. In that case, the lower classification team’s game value counts as if it the two played in the same classification.
It’s not just football coaches who dislike the RPI. Brian Phelps, who coaches the 2A Enterprise volleyball team, has issues with the devalued region games and the scheduling problems that could arise with schools wanting to play teams in higher classifications — just like the football coaches do.
But Phelps also doesn’t buy the idea that it was good for every school in the state would be guaranteed a playoff spot under the ranking system as opposed to the previous system in which teams had to qualify for the postseason.
“The state went to a play-in game the weekend before in most sports,” Phelps said. “That alone would have been sufficient to try to allow all teams to have an opportunity and also allow the best teams to get to [the] state [tournament].”
Whitehead said it is “detrimental to competitive athletics” to have every team compete in the playoffs regardless of their regular season records.
“It is a harsh reality in life that there are winners and there are those that come up short,” Whitehead said. “There are great lessons to learn from both wins and losses. Those lessons are put at risk as all teams get that participation trophy reward of postseason play.”
Koby Byrd, coach of the third-ranked the Grantsville football team in 3A, surmised that the RPI will affect how athletic departments schedule non-region games. He said he’s “more likely to schedule better opponents than in the past.”
That’s especially true for Silver Fonua, who coaches the 6A Copper Hills volleyball team that sits atop the classification’s RPI. He said he now wants to schedule non-region games against teams that are projected to be good so that his team’s ranking will improve if it beats them.
While he thinks the RPI hasn’t affected the athletic department at Copper Hills as a whole, Fonua said the mere existence of a rankings system puts more pressure on a coach to win.
During varsity tournaments, Fonua made it a point to play all his best guys so the team could have the best chance to prevail. In years past, however, he would more often give his bench players more time on the court, he said.
“The risk of losing even just one set and then causing a domino effect and losing the match frequents my mind often,” Fonua said.
Still, there are some coaches who welcomed the RPI and its potential. Justin Hemm, coach of the 5A Brighton football team ranked fifth in RPI, thinks it’s a step in the right direction and hopes it will one day eliminate the need to frequently reclassify the schools.
Hemm also didn’t seem concerned that region games mean less than they did under the previous system.
“Teams change and the competition within a region change[s] from year to year,” Hemm said. “As a result, regions aren't always the most balanced.”
Fonua likes the intent of the RPI and feels it rewards teams for playing well against teams outside their regions. He said the ranking system was “overdue.”
“We needed something in place that could help measure your team’s true strength outside of region games,” Fonua said. “You could make the playoffs playing in a weak region. The new RPI at least uses non-region games to determine rank.”
Chris Howell, coach of the second-ranked 4A Sky View football team, said there it still more to learn about RPI as other sports are set to experience it. He likes that some of the better teams in certain regions will get to make the playoffs when, in the past, they may not have. He doesn’t like that it’s possible to face an opponent from his own region early in the playoffs, a sentiment shared by others.
But, Howell said, the whole situation is still in wait-and-see mode.
“It has definitely added another interesting dimension to Utah high school athletics,” Howell said.
PREP FOOTBALL RPI SEEDINGS
Going into this week’s state tournament games.
1 Corner Canyon (10-0)
2 Herriman (8-2)
3 Bingham (7-2)
4 Skyridge (7-2)
5 Kearns (9-1)
1 Salem Hills (9-1)
2 Provo (8-2)
3 Farmington (8-1)
4 Olympus (9-1)
5 Brighton (8-2)
1 Park City (10-0)
2 Sky View (8-1)
3 Dixie (7-2)
4 Green Canyon (7-3)
5 Pine View (7-2)
1 North Sanpete (9-1)
2 Juab (9-1)
3 Grantsville (8-2)
4 Manti (7-2)
5 Morgan (8-1)
1 Beaver (9-0)
2 Milford (9-1)
3 Millard (8-2)
4 Duchesne (8-1)
5 Enterprise (5-5)