More to Friday night football than meets the eye
When the days become shorter and late August rolls into September, lights snap on at area high school football stadiums as parents, friends and students cheer on their favorite gridiron teams.
The “Friday Night Lights” experience is irreplaceable in the lives of many high school students, but before the first kickoff of the season, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work to do — tasks many fans, and even the players, might not realize.
Long before players try out for the team or the roster is finalized, athletic directors and the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association iron out the game details — who plays who, where and when.
No matter the district or the sport, season schedules and opponents are determined by the PIAA typically two years in advance.
Spring Cove School District athletic director Stacy Kuster said Central High School already knows its opponents for the 2023 season and that’s the case for all the other schools in the region.
Creating schedules — split between conference opponents and out-of-conference squads — is a juggling act.
Luke Rhoades, Tyrone athletic director, said while each conference determines its schedule, other non-conference games are left up to each school, depending on how many openings they may have.
“Our league gives us our league schedule, and then it is necessary to fill in off dates with out-of-conference opponents,” he said.
Filling in a schedule is completed through a series of emails and phone calls and even an online platform that helps teams find matchups with other schools that have corresponding openings.
Added into the mix this season and last is COVID-19, forcing unforeseen cancellations that can have athletic directors scrambling at the last minute to fill the schedule.
But there are no timeouts for athletic directors, or ADs as they’re called, once the schedules are complete.
Game day personnel
With the schedule out of the way — barring any last-minute adjustments — ADs can tackle some of the other tasks that fall under their purview, not the least of which is lining up the personnel needed at each game.
There are security guards, referees, ticket takers, announcers, scoreboard operators and a chain gang, not to mention emergency medical services — an ambulance and its crew.
According to Bellwood-Antis AD Charles Burch, game day workers are given a stipend at the end of the season, but how much and when they are paid is handled differently in each school district.
Most game day workers are scheduled before the start of the season, but there is also a backup list in case of emergency cancellations.
“You have a plan going in, but there are week-to-week changes,” Altoona AD Phil Riccio said. “There’s always somebody that can’t make it. We fill in the week of the game because usually some of those changes happen late.”
The responsibility of finding game workers falls on the shoulders of the athletic directors, who usually start with individuals and groups who were on hand during previous seasons. That can make the process a bit faster, but it’s still somewhat time consuming, local athletic directors said.
“I started verifying that all the people who had worked in previous seasons were going to continue, and if at any time some of them are not, you look for a replacement,” Northern Bedford AD Jeff Batzel said.
Even the referees need to be found and signed by the individual schools. Kuster said it’s important to get the officials contracted as early as possible because it requires a lot of coordination, and the supply isn’t plentiful.
“Athletic directors are to make sure that all the officials we do assign are in good standing with PIAA,” she said. “So they all have their clearances; they attend their meetings. We can’t pay them if they’re not in good standing with PIAA.”
Riccio said Altoona hires its officials a year in advance, usually as soon as schedules are announced on the two-year cycle.
The chain gang — those brave souls who hold the down sticks and try to keep out of the way of the action along the sidelines — varies from school to school and can be made up of volunteers or students.
Central Cambria AD Randy Wilson said as the school’s cross-country coach, he gets a team of his student-athletes to be the chain gang during the football season.
The EMS crew is a critical part of the preparations, as an ambulance and its crew are required to be on standby for each home game. Districts often have contracts and agreements with the local department for the season.
“I get a hold of the Southern Cove ambulance to have them ready to roll with an ambulance at the game,” Batzel said.
The fire department may also be involved. Batzel said firefighters help park spectators before the game at Northern Bedford.
Field is where it’s at
Stadium maintenance — from the bleachers and lights to the scoreboard and the playing field — is an ongoing project at every school, no matter the playing surface, although maintaining a turf field can be relatively easy compared to grass, athletic directors said.
Central’s grass field requires mowing every few days depending on the weather, Kuster said.
“For just a Friday night game, you’re talking anywhere between eight to 16 hours of prep,” she said.
Rhoades agreed, saying Tyrone has a two-man maintenance crew that handles the care of the field, from lining the field to cleaning up the trash and cleaning the bathrooms after the game. He said the preparation process takes almost all of Friday, along with work the rest of the week.
Hollidaysburg, Altoona and Central Cambria have turf fields, meaning the day-to-day maintenance is not as time-consuming. They just need to make sure the turf is groomed once a week since there are several groups and teams that use the area.
“It’s not like the old days where we were playing on grass and only varsity football was playing on it,” Riccio said. “We have band, girls soccer, boys soccer, ninth grade football, high school football — we have a ton of folks who are on this during the course of the week, plus contests, so you want to make sure that the place looks pristine.”
Showing school spirit
The ADs work closely with the band directors to coordinate the timing of the bands’ performances throughout the game. There’s a pregame show and a halftime show, not to mention routines and chants scattered throughout the game.
“Typically, we have a Tiger Pride pregame show where we play ‘Eye of the Tiger’ and our fight song and then of course “The Star Spangled Banner” and the Hollidaysburg alma mater,” Hollidaysburg band director Scott Sheehan said.
There is also communication between the home band and visiting band directors before the game to decide on whether or not there will be a joint performance at halftime.
“If another band is coming to our school, there are traditions that the visiting band gets to perform at halftime first and then the home band goes second,” Sheehan said. “I know sometimes when we go other places, it’s different.”
Visiting bands don’t always travel with the team, but that varies each week.
The ADs organize travel and parking for the teams and the bands, so the band directors are given a break and need only to coordinate their performances and interactions with the other bands.
Cheerleaders also perform during the game, having perfected their routines for weeks and months. Crowd interaction is a big part of their job, so the cheerleader coaches come up with several different ways to get the crowd involved.
“We were fortunate at the Tyrone game that our student section was amazing that night, so it was really fun to watch,” Bellwood-Antis cheerleader coach Chrissy Shura said of the Aug. 27 game. “They really interacted with the girls, which was nice to see.”
Altoona coach Autumn Barry-Kyle agreed, saying she coordinates with the adviser for the student section to talk about planned interactions with the students during the game to show school spirit.
About the only aspect of Friday night football that athletic directors don’t operate are the concession stands. While they make sure the equipment is working correctly, the concessions are usually operated by a booster club.
It varies from school to school, but it is usually either the band booster or a football booster that takes charge.
“The concessions are dependent on booster clubs to operate during each season,” Claysburg-Kimmell AD Brian Helsel said. “They benefit from running concessions as all profits support the program they are representing.”
Ready for kickoff
On gameday, maintenance crews will give the field, lights, sound system and team microphones one last check before the game can actually begin.
After the national anthem and after many weeks and long hours spent coordinating the behind-the-scenes details, kickoff may just be the simplest part of the entire process.
Once the game is underway, athletic directors can see how all their hard work pays off for the students and the parents. While they keep an eye on any issues, such as technology malfunctions, for the most part they can relax a bit for the first time all week.
That relaxation doesn’t last long, however.
Depending on the district, uniforms and equipment are turned into the school and cleaned in preparation for the next week.
“We do laundry here for the game uniforms for our student-athletes,” Hollidaysburg AD Homer DeLattre said. “They’ll turn them in after the game and get them back prior to the next game.”
And so begins the process all over again.
Athletic directors jump right back into organizing the next Friday night’s game while juggling all the other sports they have to manage during the week. An often thankless, nonstop job, directors experience an enormous amount of physical and emotional pressure.
“There are so many pieces that have to go together for it to come into place,” Wilson said. “All it takes is one person to not be there or get sick, and it heightens the anxiety.”
Despite all they do, ADs credit all the other personnel and teamwork required to bring the season to life.
“It’s not as if any of it can happen without the people that help,” Wilson said. “I have my administration, the school doctor, the school nurses, the coaches — my interns are huge. I can’t do it without them.”
Mirror staff writer Nate Powles is at 814-946-7466.