Viewpoint Thanksgiving games a leftover tradition ripe for change
Al Carbone, the commissioner of the Southern Connecticut Conference, had a question and his answer at the ready.
“Do you know when Thanksgiving falls next year?” Carbone said Friday. “Nov. 28.”
It means the entire 2019 CIAC state football playoffs will be in December and the finals will be scheduled for Dec. 14. The boys will be exchanging Christmas presents instead of handshakes at the pregame coin toss.
It also means the potential for weather-related problems is substantial. The last time Thanksgiving fell so late was 2013 and the state playoffs turned into a disaster of postponements, salt trucks and seat-of-the-snow-pants rescheduling. Southington played Fairfield Prep for the Class LL title on Dec. 19. Dasher hit Dancer for a 42-yard touchdown pass to win it.
Hard questions were asked about the future of Thanksgiving football and the length and breadth of the state playoffs five years ago. They were good questions with no easy answers found.
And, really, that’s the best part about the arguments that ensued over the rescheduling of the 2018 Thanksgiving games. This week’s argument and next year’s calendar should re-open the call to put everyone that counts — superintendents, principals, athletic directors, coaches — in a room to devise a plan for high school football in our state.
Carbone is calling for it. Hartford Public coach Harry Bellucci, football committee chairman committee of the Connecticut High School Coaches Association, is calling for it. Let my voice join the chorus.
“You know how it is with change in Connecticut, it’s like pulling teeth,” Bellucci said. “Part of it is the Thanksgiving game is sacrosanct. Getting some people off that is hard. The religion of Thanksgiving football is pushing out the schedule too far and stopping us from getting more deserving teams in the playoffs.”
“Thanksgiving is the obstacle,” Carbone said. “It’s a polarizing issue. God forbid we change. Don’t get me wrong. I understand and appreciate the tradition, but if we want to make good long-term changes we’ve got to start discussing that tradition.”
Some of the stuff I read on social media after most schools rescheduled their games from Thanksgiving morning to Wednesday night had me slapping my forehead.
Could schools have stuck to 10 a.m. Thursday instead of changing to 7 p.m. Wednesday? Absolutely. The weather was not so different. In some cases, with some snow showers, it was worse Wednesday night. Yet the idea that it was pleasant Thanksgiving morning is absurd. It was harsh, the coldest Thanksgiving on record in parts of the state. That doesn’t mean there weren’t colder games played in state history. There were. That doesn’t mean there was a foot of snow. There wasn’t. It means that conditions were harsh.
I went to the Plainfield-Griswold game Wednesday night. Harsh.
“We played Wednesday night,” Bellucci said. “Pretty brutal.”
There is a science in this. Lightning draws close: Clear the field. There is an art in this. Depending on road and field conditions, sometimes you can sneak in a game. What’s too cold is argumentative. This much we know. If it’s zero Fahrenheit and the wind is blowing 15 mph for a wind chill of minus-19, exposed skin can freeze in 30 minutes. Unless you’re drunk or a phony machismo cowboy, we can agree that’s too cold to play and sit in the stands for two hours.
Where the line to play falls based on forecasts of temperature is not a hard and fast one. With heat stroke early in the season and legal and health concerns, administrators have grown more careful. Can it lead to an element of over-caution? Sure, and in this case it did. Yet the fact that safety is paramount is not weak nor stupid. And for heaven’s sake, it’s not indicative of the wussification of America.
Some Connecticut schools already play Tuesday and Wednesday of Thanksgiving week. One thing high school leaders should decide is what tradition binds us: Is it absolutely Turkey Day kickoff? Or the rivalry itself? Westerly played Stonington for the 100th time. That’s a rivalry. Other schools change Thanksgiving opponents.
Are Thanksgiving weather decisions made based on the biggest gate possible and the most comfortable fan experience? There is some of that, but let’s be honest, we’re talking $15,000-$20,000 max, not $100,000. Carbone argues that powder-puff games earlier in Thanksgiving week bring in a good gate, too.
Carbone tweeted the other day that it was time to reconsider Thanksgiving Day games, that they were an impediment to expanding the playoffs. Bellucci tweeted back that he agreed 100 percent on playoff expansion.
“Am I willing to put myself out there to bring an issue out and try to influence things? Yeah,” Carbone said. “Am I going to take some abuse for it? Of course. I’ve also had a number of people privately contact me and say we’ve got to talk about this.”
There is no way to expand the playoffs, have teams playing on Thanksgiving and bring it home before Santa.
Bellucci and Carbone essentially are in favor of the Massachusetts model. Start the season earlier, have the playoffs start earlier. Teams not in the playoffs continue playing through November, including Thanksgiving. The playoffs can be wrapped up a week or two earlier than they are in Connecticut.
“I think the Mass model is the right model,” Bellucci said.
“So some school has to play a different Thanksgiving opponent in a given year,” Carbone said, “What’s so wrong about that?”
Right now eight teams make the CIAC playoffs in four divisions. Bellucci and Carbone harp on teams winning 40 percent of their games making the CIAC playoffs making it in other sports yet not in football.
“You can get into a basketball playoff at 8-12, but there are three football teams in the state with only two losses who didn’t make the playoffs this year,” Bellucci said. “Staples was 7-3 with losses to Greenwich, Darien and New Canaan. And Staples isn’t in the playoffs? That’s crazy. About 22 percent of the schools make the playoffs. It’s a ridiculously low figure.”
“I’ve had coaches in our league say it’s ridiculous they go 7-3 and have a ‘bad’ season because they didn’t make the playoffs,” Carbone said. “Just because you expand the playoffs doesn’t automatically mean you’re watering it down.”
“Automatically cheapening?” Bellucci said. “That’s a bunch of baloney.”
I’m certainly against blatant overexpansion of the playoffs, but there can be remedies. Bellucci floated an idea of six divisions with seven teams each. The No. 1 seed gets a bye. That’s only an expansion of 10 schools over the current format. Not bad.
It also would get rid of the only four days’ rest between Thanksgiving and the quarterfinals and the quarters and semifinals. It is too short a time for young people to recover from physical battles.
“Part of the argument,” Carbone said. “One of the reasons for some schools moving to Wednesday night from Thursday was getting more rest for the playoffs.”
Carbone said the SCC had four running-time games in Thanksgiving week. Some rivalries, he said, are turning into routs. As far as rivals drawing big crowds not on Thanksgiving week, Bellucci pointed to Conard-Hall.
“The Wallingford schools, Milford schools, East Haven-Branford, natural rivals play in every sport,” Carbone said. “We’ve had some discussions about a rivalry week, around Columbus Day. All of your sports playing, make it a true homecoming. But people are afraid to break the Thanksgiving tradition.”
“You know how we are in Connecticut,” Bellucci said.