The year in high school sports is almost over in Georgia, but a war of words is still raging among some of the state’s prominent football coaches.
The issue is whether private schools have an unfair advantage over public schools. Private schools make up less than 10 percent the Georgia High School Association’s membership, but they’ve won 45 percent of the championships this academic year. That includes a rare title in football, the one sport that public schools usually count on winning.
"They have an unfair advantage, and … you are blind, stupid or both not to see it,’’ said Blair Armstrong, who won a football state championship in 2006 at Peachtree Ridge, a metro Atlanta Class AAAAA school in Gwinnett County.
Armstrong now coaches at Banks County, a rural school in Class AA.
"As a AA public school, I draw from my county only," Armstrong told Georgia High School Football Daily, an email newsletter that has aired the debate the past week. "Only kids from Banks County are allowed to attend my school. I am fine with that. That is who I am supposed to have. But private … schools can draw from a much bigger area."
Armstrong’s comments troubled Franklin Pridgen, the football coach of Wesleyan of Gwinnett County. Wesleyan in 2008 became the first Class A private school to win a Class A football title in 11 years.
"It saddens me deeply to see the inflammatory language and derogatory tone this debate has adopted recently," Pridgen said. "It sounds less like a civil discussion of differences between professionals and more like a political attack between adversaries."
The public-private feud first came to a head in 1999, when Georgia’s long-time speaker of the state house of representatives, Tom Murphy, strong-armed the GHSA into employing a 1.5 multiplier on the enrollment numbers of private schools, forcing many of them to play in higher classifications. Murphy was upset because his hometown debate team was beaten in the state championships by a private school.
Even with the multiplier, private schools continued to dominate sports below the highest classification, where there are no private schools.
In 2008, a year after Murphy died, the state legislature pressured the GHSA to reverse field and eliminate the multiplier, sending several schools back down in classification.
It’s Georgia’s smaller schools that compete most frequently against the privates. In A, the smallest classification, private schools have won 14 of the 16 state titles this academic year. Wesleyan, which dropped to A when the 1.5 multiplier was eliminated, has won four of them. (That’s actually one fewer than the school won in AA in 2007-08.)
Larry Campbell, whose 426 football victories at Lincoln County ranks No. 1 all-time in Georgia, agrees with Armstrong that the private schools have an unfair edge and wants a return to the 1.5 multiplier.
"Without the multiplier, it looks like they're going to dominate forever," Campbell said of the private schools. “I just hate to realize that all those towns - Homerville, Washington, Vienna, Bowdon and 100 more like them - are going to have a very tough time winning state championships in any sport unless we get a handle on it."
But Gerry Romberg, the coach of private-school Westminster of Atlanta, questioned Campbell’s timing. Lincoln County lost to Wesleyan in the football semifinals in 2008.
"How many state championships has he won?" Romberg said. "To me this is sour grapes, plain and simple.’’
Westminster has won more than 100 state titles in all sports, the most of any Georgia school. But Romberg dismissed the notion that private schools can pick the students they want to benefit the athletics program.
"I would like for the public schools to see the requirements to be accepted to Westminster," Romberg said. "To say we can select who we want and get any student-athlete in is absurd. The average SAT score at Westminster is about 1350 on the old scale. Most of the kids here are in the 99th percentile on the [Secondary Schools Admission Test]. With those kind of academic constraints, how could I possibly hand-select who is coming to our school?"
At Wesleyan, Pridgen defended any implications that his school recruits athletes.
"It is illegal, unethical and completely contrary to our stated mission, so therefore we do not do it," Pridgen said. "There are no scholarships given for athletics or academics. Financial aid is need based, and that need is not determined by the school but by an independent agency, and the pool is limited. Clearly however some are insinuating that our school in Norcross has been breaking the rules by recruiting football players and thus enjoying some sort of unfair advantage. I can say without hesitation that this is utterly absurd and lacks any type of factual basis."
GHSA executive director Ralph Swearngin declined to comment on the debate. He called it divisive and moot.
The GHSA will begin the process of reclassification in the fall of 2009, giving proponents of the 1.5 multiplier little time to change the GHSA’s bylaws. The GHSA also is going to a four-year reclassification cycle beginning in 2010 instead of the traditional two years.
That means private schools almost certainly will face no multiplier until at least 2014.
Todd Holcomb, a former high school sports reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, publishes a free e-mail newsletter called Georgia High School Football Daily, which covered Georgia's private-public debate last week. To join his mailing list, click here.