Thursday, September 8th, 2011
By Robb Hemmelgarn
Playoffs have evolved through the years
Last Curtain Call
  In the autumn of 1971, Mike McKirnan guided the Marion Local Flyers' football team to a perfect record of 10-0. Within a couple of days of their season-ending victory over the Waynesfield-Goshen Tigers, McKirnan's troops packaged up the football gear and immediately began lacing up the basketball sneakers.
That was it.
No computer-point monitoring or predicting the location of their next game, high school football in late November simply did not exist in 1971.
A formal playoff system was still a season away from implementation in Ohio, giving McKirnan and dozens of other high school coaches throughout the Buckeye state arguments to debate years later which of their unbeatens were the best on the field.
"It was nice to finish the year with a perfect record, but after week 10 the kids surely weren't ready to quit playing," said McKirnan. "We had such a strong defense that year. I think we would have fared well but it is one of those things we will never know. The playoffs started the following year, but for us it was a little too late!"
In 1972, the Ohio High School Athletic Association launched their inaugural state football playoffs after dividing Ohio schools into classes - A, AA, and AAA - based on their enrollment. A point system was developed by Jack Harbin that awarded teams a designated number of points for each win they accumulated based on the size of opponent they defeated. Each class was separated into four regions and the team from each region to pile up the most computer points advanced to the postseason.
With just four teams per class vying for the chance at a state championship, it took only two playoff wins to hoist the trophy, a setup which presented glaring downfalls. Through 1979 a handful of local teams were left out of the playoffs despite undefeated seasons including Parkway in 1973, Coldwater in 1976 and St. Marys in 1979. There were also numerous others during that span to fall short despite going 9-1 - Marion Local and Parkway in 1974, Minster in 1975, St. Henry in 1976 and 1977, as well as St. Marys and Marion Local in 1979.
"We made the playoffs in 1977 and 1978 and were crowned as the A.P. and U.P.I. champions in 1979, but we failed to qualify despite being unbeaten," commented former St. Marys' assistant coach Dennis Vossler. "The way our schedule was set up with nine conference opponents, there was always someone you had defeated losing each week. Unfortunately, we knew going into the season that there was a chance we could be unbeaten and not get in, especially knowing Fostoria would probably win all of its games. It is a shame we didn't make it, I feel that particular team was one of the best we had during that era."
In 1980, Ohio's "class" system was buried in favor of a setup with five divisions. The playoffs were also enlarged, as the top two teams from each region were eligible to move on. This adjustment multiplied the total number of teams across the state advancing to the playoffs from 12 to 40.
In 1981, Marion Local became the first Midwest Athletic Conference team to secure a playoff spot when it went 9-0-1 and finished first in its region. The same year however, St. Marys was again the bridesmaid after rumbling to a 10-0 record and missing the postseason. Four years later, the OHSAA voted to award the top four teams from each region playoffs spots, doubling the total number of entrants from 40 to 80 schools across the divisions. Coldwater and St. Henry were the first pair of schools to benefit from this expansion, as they each made the playoffs in 1986.
"Before we made it that first year, there was always a lot of talk about changing the number of teams, but it never had an effect on us until 1986," commented former St. Henry head coach Tim Boeckman, who finished his career with a 29-7 playoff record. "Letting more teams get in was definitely very welcome and it opened the door for a lot of schools who otherwise didn't have the opportunity. I really feel every time there has been an expansion or change that it has been positive for playoff participation."
The five-division format was alive and well through 1994, when a sixth division was added. The expansion paved the way for another 16 teams, particularly some of Ohio's smallest schools, to have a possibility at the playoffs. In 1999, the final significant shift came when the top eight teams in each of the state's 24 regions were awarded postseason spots, bringing the total number of schools eligible to 194 out of more than 700 participating football schools.
"When the sixth division was created, there were a few years in a row immediately thereafter where the playoffs started with a lawsuit pending against the OHSAA," explained Ohio High School Athletic Association Assistant Commissioner Henry Zaborniak. "It boiled down to teams having ineligible players during the season and when the adjustments were made; oftentimes the opponents of the school using the ineligible player were left out of the playoffs. Allowing the eight teams in per region has eliminated those lawsuits. If you talk to coaches who play the extra playoff game now with the new setup, they will tell you how exhausted they are by the end, but they definitely don't want to go back to the old way!"
For the past four decades, a major facelift to Ohio's playoff system has occurred about every seven years on average. It has been 12 years since any major shake ups, begging to ask if there is anything on the horizon.
Zaborniak doesn't believe so.
"There was a study completed in a major sports magazine a few years back which examined high school football across the nation," he explained. "In the end, Ohio was right behind Texas in a number of categories, but one area where we were head and shoulders above the rest of the country was our playoff setup. They commended the fact that you had to earn your way in, that the first round was at the higher-seeded teams' home field, and also the fact that neutral sites were selected for the remainder of the games. I may be boasting a little, and this is just my opinion, but I think we do an awful good job with how we already have it. It is very hard to argue with the quality of our playoffs and it is truly what makes it one of, if not the best in the nation."
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