Allowing local teams in District 6 football playoffs is a good idea; flirting with WPIAL departure is not
John Franco's comments to the Altoona Area School District Athletic Council last week disclosing his dissatisfaction with membership in the WPIAL and urging exploration of a schedule with more central PA flavor caught the attention of many.
Reached to elaborate, Franco said when he was hired back to Altoona in January 2012, he had concerns about the WPIAL but agreed to delay an evaluation process for a year.
That year has passed, and his feelings have not changed.
He'd like to see a league comprised of Altoona, State College, Hollidaysburg, Mifflin County, Central Mountain, DuBois and Williamsport.
He thinks the entire athletic council agrees with him, and its chairman, Dick Lockard, does. Lockard said Friday, "I think we have to go back to an independent schedule. We can not compete with the WPIAL or the league down east [Mid-Penn]."
They are not alone. In a letter to today's sports mailbag (Page B2), former Hollidaysburg coach Harold Price agrees with the sentiment to leave the WPIAL and is critical of Altoona Area Athletic Director Phil Riccio, who prefers to stay.
The problem with a potential move is just about every school that some envision as a future comrade is committed to another conference - and not the same one.
Hollidaysburg, per Bob Gildea, its new superintendent and acting athletic director, and Homer DeLattre, its incoming football coach and AD, are content in the WPIAL, where they're in a Class AAA section.
"We're currently very satisfied," Gildea said.
"I haven't heard any negatives," DeLattre, in the process of moving here after a solid run at Corry High School, said. "It's stable for us and one of the best conferences in Pennsylvania."
Williamsport, one of Altoona's oldest rivals, is a member of the Heartland Conference, and Central Mountain has been rumored to be considering a move there.
DuBois has aligned itself with the Erie-based schools in District 10 while Mifflin County, a merger of Indiana Valley and Lewistown, and State College, are pleased with the Mid-Penn, where they're participating in all sports.
"All of our teams just joined this year," State AD Peg Pennypacker said. "We're quite happy. We plan to be members."
Altoona went 27-35 as a Mid-Penn member from 2004-2009 before pulling out following a dispute with Harrisburg. Hollidaysburg spent two years in the Mid-Penn as a Quad-A affiliate, going 7-12, but left after its enrollment allowed a move to AAA which the Mid-Penn did not accommodate.
"It [competition] has been difficult, but the travel for us is pretty simple," Mifflin County AD Matt Shoemaker said. "We can get to most schools within an hour. We like it. We're committed for the next three years."
Of the WPIAL and Mid-Penn, Franco favors the Mid-Penn because it allows three open dates to start the season (the WPIAL has one and assigns the opposition, unless it's the 10th week and a school that's not in the playoffs can find its own game.)
The big difference is the Mid-Penn grants teams like State College and Mifflin County permission to come back to their home districts in order to participate in the PIAA playoffs. The WPIAL does not.
"Every team in our high school competes in District 6, and that's what I think we should be doing," Franco said. "We're not and shouldn't be in District 7. That's ridiculous. Somehow we've got shoved into that.
"My problem isn't going over there to play. We can compete with our schedule. I just think we need to get into the District 6 playoff format to be successful - and competing for a District 6 championship in our own district is more realistic. Winning in the [WPIAL] playoffs is a whole different set of circumstances. We shouldn't have to travel two hours to play for a championship where everybody else is in closer proximity."
The athletic council has recommended Riccio and Franco sit down to get closer to the same page.
Franco thinks everybody on the council agrees with him "except Phil," (even though technically Riccio is not a member of the athletic council.)
Riccio believes the WPIAL is a good fit.
"We've had a great relationship, not just football-wise but our entire department here," he said. "It's helped fill out the schedule [in other sports]. Being in the WPIAL is very beneficial. My theory is going back to an independent schedule [would] not be able to fill a full schedule. But John and I are going to look at this."
Franco met with Pennypacker and Shoemaker last week and is becoming resigned to the fact that a central PA league may not be feasible.
"It doesn't look like we'll be able to do it in the near future," he said.
But he also believes in previously not pursuing other options he feels were available, "We have wasted a lot of time this year."
Franco says the program he re-assumed after a terrific run at Tyrone and after an eight-year run (1986-93) at Altoona led him to Tyrone is not in good shape and has struggled to stoke interest in the student body, both its players and supporters.
After competing in junior high against the central PA teams, he says, "The biggest thing my kids want is the opportunity to play against the local teams where we have legitimate rivalries. I think rivalries are everything in high school, and the fact that we don't have a rivalry at Altoona hurts us. It hurts us in getting kids out for football."
Altoona has gone 7-21 over the last three years in the WPIAL, though 4-5 last year which qualified the Lions for the playoffs (vs. North Allegheny, 42-14 loss). There, too, are certainly some in Hollidaysburg who would like to see the Tigers in a different league where they could be more competitive. The Tigers are 12-16 in the WPIAL.
Former Hollidaysburg AD Dean Rossi, who worked with Riccio to secure WPIAL membership and prior with Vince Nedimyer to gain Mid-Penn acceptance, is a strong proponent of the scheduling security of an established conference.
"John's entitled to his opinion, but I can tell you the pitfalls that are out there if you decide to withdraw - not just Altoona but Hollidaysburg also. Anybody that withdraws from the league they're in, where are you going to go and, where are you going to get a schedule?
"[As an independent, post-Mid-Penn], we were getting four games but we had to go find six [more] and that was really difficult ... and the distances, they [opponents] don't bring anybody. Our attendance went way down. Speaking for Hollidaysburg, the WPIAL teams follow, they bring their bands and the cheerleaders and your attendance doesn't suffer. And the exposure is good.
"Trying to be an independent as a large school in central PA is not the way to go."
More ideally, and to Franco's point, Altoona could lobby the WPIAL to consider allowing the Mountain Lions to participate in the District 6-9 playoffs with State College, Central Mountain, DuBois and Mifflin County.
But Altoona is just one seat at a very large table - a table steeped in football history in western PA, one that is sending its members on the road two hours because it accepted Altoona (and Hollidaysburg), effective in 2010.
Prior to the Mid-Penn entry, the Altoona-Hollidaysburg contingent was voted down by the WPIAL - "25-2" Rossi said - which only eventually accepted the local pair to help balance out its sectional alignment.
Altoona was technically a WPIAL member from 1939-74, when it played a partial league schedule. From 1969, when Altoona won the All-West Conference but lost to Gateway in the WPIAL final, through 1974, it was granted a fuller schedule, and when that changed, Altoona withdrew.
"If you pull out again, you may never be able to pick up an exhibition game," Rossi said.
The WPIAL rotates sectional alignment every two years. Both Altoona and Hollidaysburg are currently in the middle of their second two-year cycle.
Though Hollidaysburg likes its section and travel, which Gildea said averages less than 90 minutes per game, it's also gotten used to sacrificing schedule control. For example, last year's non-league game, or exhibition as the WPIAL calls it, was against Thomas Jefferson.
The Tigers might as well have played the Steelers.
If Hollidaysburg doesn't make the playoffs, and the 10th date is workable, DeLattre would welcome an area rivalry. He mentioned Central or Altoona, saying, "Both games would be a huge draw, and I think great for football in this area."
In between the Mid-Penn and WPIAL, Hollidaysburg went 34-21 as an independent and/or member of the Mountain Athletic Football Conference, but that league tired of a bigger school dominating and showed the Tigers the door.
The WPIAL provided a soft landing, even if the competition is anything but soft.
Franco doesn't buy that the message he's been sending could be viewed as counterproductive to his program and its players.
"[Concerned about the competition] is not the message," he said. "The message is we should be competing in our own area playoffs. We don't belong two hours away."
There's no question that a central PA league of traditional rivals would be attractive, but that ship sailed 30 years ago when opportunities were lost, or botched, to keep relationships going with Williamsport, when Indiana left for the WPIAL, when Johnstown's enrollment started its decline.
To be in one of the best leagues in the country with its teams willing to come two hours isn't the worst thing for a football program with Altoona's facilities, enrollment and tradition.
And given that the WPIAL could decide at any time to crop one of its new members, whose Hall of Fame coach isn't all in, out of the picture should be of equal concern going forward.
Franco's first go-around at Altoona was filled with frustration, and it sure seems like he's seeing some red flags - some legit, some he needs to deal with - now that the honeymoon for his second tenure, if not over, is sounding a lot like it's in need of some re-marriage counseling.
Here's hoping some common ground can be reached.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or email@example.com.