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NCAA alters Friday football landscape

A new rule lets colleges play TV games on preps' traditional day. They see money, exposure. High schools see big conflicts.

By BRIAN LANDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2001


TAMPA -- Although his playing days at Tampa Catholic were two decades ago, Bob Henriquez vividly remembers his 1980 homecoming game.

As he trotted onto the field for the start of the second half on that Friday night in late November, he was stunned to see that the stands, once packed, were more than half empty. It had little to do with the scoreboard. The Crusaders were up big on St. Petersburg Catholic. But this particular game butted heads with the long-anticipated "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of Dallas.

"You're always going to have to compete with something on TV," said Henriquez, a Democratic state representative from Tampa and a former coach at his alma mater.

But that something is about to change.

As part of its deregulation blitz, the NCAA recently eliminated restrictions on the broadcasting of football games on Fridays, historically the province of high schools.

Conference USA and the Mountain West and Mid-American conferences will play two games apiece this fall at the time most fans are huddled in high school bleachers. All the games will be televised by either ESPN or ESPN2. The cable network also is exploring that option with the Western Athletic Conference, which has had teams permitted to play Friday TV games for religious reasons.

"It presents us an opportunity," said Gary Patterson, coach of C-USA newcomer Texas Christian. "The biggest thing that the conference is trying to do is improve our upward mobility."

The lifeblood for such growth requires TV and money. The rule change has opened a vein for both.

"If television is going to tell you, "We're going to give you so much money to put you on TV,' well, there's no decision because economics is what drives us," South Florida coach Jim Leavitt said.

Everyone understands that.

Not everyone likes it, however.

"We're extremely disappointed with the decision," said Robert Kanaby, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations. "We believe it establishes the potential to have some very serious conflicts within communities between the college game and the high school game being played on those same evenings."

Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, said the change is a mistake.

"High school football in America needs support from the NCAA and other entities, not the distraction Friday night college football will bring," he said. "The AFCA is in the process of contacting college conference commissioners and athletic directors asking that, as they make scheduling decisions, they give full consideration to the adverse effect that Friday night college games will have on high school football."

Though Kanaby expressed concerns about a college coach having fewer opportunities to see a prospect play and a prospect having fewer chances to visit a would-be suitor, principle among his fears is the possibility for an attendance drop.

For many high schools, football is the cash cow that fuels many of their other sports and extracurricular activities. They couldn't afford a hit at the turnstiles on Friday nights.

"The colleges really need to promote high school football," Hillsborough High coach Earl Garcia said. "They shouldn't do anything to take away one fan."

Plant coach Darlee Nelson echoed those sentiments. "It won't affect the people who are involved, but it will affect people who may just want to see a good high school game," he said. "It is a concern for high school coaches, high school athletes and anyone who's involved in high school sports."

Even in Texas, where Friday night prep football is almost a religion, fans should brace themselves for conflicts. TCU visits Southern Mississippi on Nov. 30 in a showdown that could determine the league's championship.

"It is a concern, especially as big as high school ball is in the state of Texas," Patterson said. "But we respect high school football. That's why it's not every Friday night."

No one is talking about such a schedule. For now.

"This is going to be an occasional thing, and it's going to be on a case-by-case basis depending on the matchup and the date because the date could make a difference depending on what state you're in and what (prep) football's like in that part of the country," Mountain West associate commissioner Bret Gilliland said.

UNLV is hosting both Mountain West Friday games, against Northwestern on Sept. 7 and league rival Colorado State on Sept. 14. But Las Vegas isn't exactly a hotbed for high school football.

MAC commissioner Rick Chryst said his league has tried to be "respectful of the high school calendar." Toledo hosts Minnesota on Aug. 31, the Friday before Labor Day. The only other MAC game on Friday will be for the league championship Nov. 30.

"I don't sense any wholesale move to Friday nights," Chryst said.

ACC associate commissioner Tom Mickle said his league hasn't allowed Friday games out of respect for high schools and doesn't anticipate that to change when the subject comes up at the ACC meetings this month. SEC and Big East officials have said they have no plans to move games.

ESPN officials concede that a Friday game isn't the right fit for every team and they aren't going to force one on anyone. Still, they realize the success of ESPN's Thursday night game, once scoffed at as unconventional Friday evenings are tougher for everyone to program, but ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz said the network expects "good ratings because college football does do well on our network."

That's what worries high school officials. "I'm not alarmed now, but I would be concerned if it's going to be a trend across the nation," said Ron Allen, associate commissioner of athletics for the Florida High School Activities Association.

Kanaby said the worst-case scenario would be high-visibility teams such as Florida State or Florida bolting for Fridays. "It sounds innocuous right now," he said, "but what can some of the consequences be?"

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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