Varsity Xtra: State of the art -- Pennsylvania's football championship turns 25

Weird start, many great games characterize

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Imagine a team losing in the first round of the WPIAL football playoffs, but still making the PIAA playoffs while the WPIAL champion stays at home.

Imagine a team winning a WPIAL title, but not participating in the PIAA playoffs because its school board doesn't believe in state playoffs.

Imagine a team winning a WPIAL championship in one classification, and then competing in the PIAA playoffs in another class.

Those are all strange scenarios, but they are all true stories from the PIAA football playoffs.

This weekend in Hershey marks the silver anniversary of the first PIAA championships, and they have surely come a long way in 25 years.

"Even though what we had 25 years ago wasn't perfect, it started the ball rolling to what we have today," said Bob Lombardi, executive director of the PIAA.

A look back at the history of the PIAA playoffs and championships shows some great games, teams and great individual performances. The 2003 Class AAA title game between Pine-Richland and Manheim Central was unforgettable, played in a winter storm and on a snow-covered field. The performance of Aliquippa's Darrelle Revis in 2003 was also memorable, when he scored five touchdowns three different ways.

But a look back in time also shows how the playoffs and championships evolved from the early years that were filled with problems and oddities. Consider:

* A number of schools around the state, mostly in the WPIAL, did not believe the state playoffs should exist. So when the PIAA started playoffs in 1988, several schools in the WPIAL voted not to have their teams participate, even if they qualified. Upper St. Clair was one of the schools. Even though Upper St. Clair beat Central Catholic, 7-0, in the WPIAL title game, Upper St. Clair elected not to go to the PIAA playoffs. Central Catholic went instead and ended up winning the PIAA title.

To this day, that whole situation still irks Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render because his team could have possibly won back-to-back PIAA titles. The 1989 team went 15-0 and won the PIAA title.

* In the first few years of the playoffs, the PIAA had a goofy point system to determine teams that would qualify. Although the WPIAL had been conducting district playoffs and championship games for a long time previously, some districts around the state did not have district championships.

Therefore, the PIAA point system didn't take into account losses in district playoff games. So, in 1989 Greensburg Salem lost in the first round of the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs, but still represented the WPIAL in the PIAA playoffs, losing to Perry in the semifinals.

* During the first few years of the PIAA playoffs, there were some teams that played in one classification in their district, but yet were considered another classification for the state playoffs. For example, Wilmington won the WPIAL Class A title in 1988, but played in the PIAA Class AA playoffs.

But after a few years, all districts around the state started playoffs. So the playoff point system was scrapped and all teams played in the same classification in their district and the PIAA.

"I think the linchpin for everything was when we said, 'Hey, let's get everything decided on the field,'" said Lombardi, who was a PIAA assistant director when the playoffs started in 1988. "The districts finally had playoffs, we got away from the point system and everything has been terrific since then."

During the first few years of the PIAA championships, the four title games weren't played at one site. In the first year (1988), all four games were at four different sites. The Class AAAA championship was played at Penn State's Beaver Stadium, where the place looked almost totally empty.

Then in 1992, the PIAA decided to play all four games at one site -- Mansion Park Stadium in Altoona. The games stayed in Altoona until they were moved to Hershey in 1998.

One of Lombardi's lasting memories of the PIAA championships was in 1992, when the title games were pushed back a week because of a winter storm in Pennsylvania.

Although high school football is quite popular in Pennsylvania, the PIAA title games don't exactly draw large crowds. In the past nine years, attendance has been anywhere from a low of 12,412 in 2005 to a high of 21,226 in 2006. Attendance for the four games last year was 18,876.

The attendance is lower in Pennsylvania than some other states and Pennsylvania has fewer classifications than many other states. Ohio now has seven classifications and Michigan eight. The attendance for the four title games in the top four classes in Ohio last week was 21,640, and one of those games was played on a Thursday night. Inclement weather also hurt the attendance some.

In Michigan, there are eight classes and the state title games are played over two days at Ford Field in Detroit. Attendance for those four games one day was 27,000 and 24,000 the other.

Plus, Pennsylvania is one of the few states still playing high school football this weekend. The PIAA has long been criticized for having state championship games in mid-December, and sometimes a week away from Christmas. But the PIAA Board of Control hasn't been able to come up with a plan for a shortened schedule that will satisfy the districts around the state, who sometimes have different agendas.

"I think there a couple of maneuvers we need to make," Lombardi said. "I think at some point we have to look at expansion of classes because we're one of the largest states with the fewest classes. With the expansion of classes we might be able to shorten the season a little.

"I'm not trying to make this a political football, but when you see the weather we have this week, it's awfully late to be playing football. It's also a detriment to other sports. I'm not interested in shortening the season a month, but maybe we could shorten it a week."

Ohio finished its season last weekend and Michigan two weeks ago.

Although the PIAA championships are now 25 years old, how much do they mean to WPIAL teams? The WPIAL playoffs are so big, with the finals at Heinz Field, and some feel a WPIAL title means more than a PIAA title. Three WPIAL teams -- Central Catholic, South Fayette and Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic -- are playing for PIAA titles this weekend.

"The WPIAL used to be the ulimate goal," South Fayette coach Joe Rossi said. "In 2010, we were so ecstatic to win the WPIAL that we were just, like, whatever happens in the state playoffs happens. This year, you're a little hungrier and want more. My buddies who live in Florida, they don't know what the heck the WPIAL championship is. But they know what a state title is."

West Allegheny coach Bob Palko has won seven WPIAL titles and one PIAA title (he lost in two other PIAA finals).

"I actually think at one time, the state title meant more," Palko said. "But the way times have changed and the number of private, parochial and charter schools coming in, it has really been an uphill battle for public schools to win state titles."

The Philadelphia Catholic League joined the PIAA in 2008. This weekend, six of the eight teams in the finals are from either parochial or charter schools, which have no geographic boundaries.

"I'm not whining or complaining and I'm not saying anyone is doing anything wrong," Palko said. "It's the system we have in place. But when you're playing teams that have different rules than you, it's that much harder to win the state. So, just winning the WPIAL is a big deal."


For more on high school sports, go to "Varsity Blog" at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: mwhite@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh

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