It may be the first week of July, but it’s never too early to start looking ahead to some of the bigger storylines to follow, both on and off the field, this fall.
Recently, “Zone Read” went in-depth with AIA Executive Director David Hines for a closer look at Arizona High School in 2023, from the leader of the Arizona Interscholastic Association, which governs high school athletics here in our great state.
There are no prep sports on the calendar for the next several weeks. Is this a “down time” for you, or is there plenty to do to keep your staff busy getting ready for the fall? “It is a slower time but we are really cranking up for the fall and upcoming year. There are less calls to the office because school is out and families are on vacation but we never really shut down. It’s time that we can plan, prepare, and work together.”
I feel you were dealt really bad hand during the COVID year, but you, and your staff, seemed to pivot when needed and navigated through a difficult time. Where do you feel you grew the most as a leader during that chaotic, unforeseen time? “Well, we had to rely on each other. I think the big thing to remember is we do this for the kids, and the kids, throughout the pandemic, were just absolutely awesome. They adjusted to everything we needed to do. Our coaches, same thing. This was so different. There was no game plan. There was nothing to fall back on from past experiences. 50 other states were going through the exact same thing…for me, specifically, it was a chance to say, ‘We’re all in this together, let’s figure out a solution. Let’s move on, and let’s continue to grow.'”
Do you believe the Open Division Playoff format has lived up to everything you had hoped when it was created? “Absolutely. I think the thing we see it from is that, with a little more crossover from regular season play, the games are much more competitive, and certainly our playoff games have been much more competitive. I know it’s a challenge to pick the Top 8. Which eight teams are going to get in? But I think our coaches have done a really, really good job, and I think [the] goal of these top programs is to play in The Open. It’s a big deal. We’re going to try to make this even bigger year after year. If you’re in the Top 8, we want to recognize you more. We want to make it important. We are even under consideration for doing a different trophy for our Open Division Champions to make it unique and something they can look forward to. I do think the coaches and the communities have bought into [The Open]…it gives everybody something to shoot for.”
Following up, is the new Open Division Championship trophy something we could see this winter, or is it still a year or two away? “We’re working on it now, and we’re going to share it in the next month or so to see what people think, and if that’s the case, we’ll start this fall with it.”
Do you see any scenarios where you could pair the eight-team Open Division down? “We did have that discussion but the membership thought eight was a really good number. If we went less, then how would we still have The Open Championship as the culminating event if they only have two rounds, or three rounds? We already have a week off for them to start [The Open], and with us going a week earlier, then they’re not going to have a week off before their championship game. It comes down to the timing of all the events. The one thing we did discuss was what if we went down to a nine-game season and have 16 teams play into the final eight. But between the coaches and the AD’s, they said they’re not ready for that yet.”
With more and more student-athletes transferring, do you feel the AIA transfer rules and regulations are fair for all parties involved? “It’s a thing nationwide. Transferring everywhere is a big deal. Everybody has their own little ways of doing things. To tell you the truth, I think, for the most part, our schools have done a good job. ‘If a kid transfers, there’s a consequence. This is what you do after your first transfer, after your second.’ We do have an appeals process and I think our appeals committees, and the executive board, have done a great job of trying to decipher what really is a hardship. and what really is more of a want. There is a consequence. I don’t like the word, “portal” because I’m not in favor of something like that…I think parents and kids feel, if they go to a different school those kids will have a better chance of getting a scholarship. I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think if you’re at a school and you’re playing for a high-level school, there’s a lot of [college] coaches looking at our athletes now. They’re looking at film going up against other kids and saying, ‘Well, wait a minute. This kid is playing really well against this top kid. Who is he?’ It’s the job of the college coaches to find the kids, and they do a really good of that. So, it doesn’t matter which school you’re at, they’re going to find you. But there’s a perception out there…the best thing to know is coaches want to know, ‘Are you a leader? Are you going to step up? Are you going to do what you need, and are you going to bring your teammates up?’ I think you can do that at any school you’re at.”
Big school championship venue. How do you feel it’s been working out at Sun Devil Stadium, and is the plan to continue hosting these in Tempe? “Yes. ASU has been great to work with. The whole athletic department has been very, very supportive. We’re actually moving the [Open Division] championship up a week this year since we’re starting the regular season one week sooner…I think for the kids, it’s outstanding to have that opportunity [to play at Sun Devil Stadium]. As long as ASU is going to continue to work with us, we’re going to continue to do that.”
Does the AIA have any strategies in place to try to increase attendance at these championship games at ASU? “Thank you, Eric, for bringing that up (laughing). Yes, as a matter of fact, we’re actually having a brainstorm meeting in a couple of weeks. Our biggest thing is, it’s not just the championships, or the playoffs, my push, really, is to increase attendance to our regular season games…this is an experience for the kids, and for the community. You know, as well as anybody, we have more and more great talent here in Arizona. We have 5.7 million people in the Phoenix area alone. I think it’s important for people to see these great players when they’re in high school. It’s something that really bothers me. I think we need to continue to reach out to the communities to get involved with our schools.”
Myself, and many others who cover high school football in this state, were excited to see the big school championship games on live television last winter. I know how many hoops you have to jump through to make those broadcasts happen. Overall, how do you feel those telecasts went? “I thought it went really well. Our relationship with AZ Family [Television], from that standpoint, they were really helpful with that. They were great to work with. Anytime you deal with live tv, you have your own set of challenges because the games don’t always go as we planned and there are certain start times we’re trying to get to [for tv]. We had good viewership on those games, so people are watching…we’d love to [broadcast] more state championship games but you have to understand what a challenge that is to get air time.”
When it comes to scheduling, is the plan to go year-to-year or in a two-year block? I know coaches I’ve spoken to are split on this. “For football, we are going to go to a two-year block. Last year’s schedule we considered as Year 1. This coming year will be Year 2. So, the year after we will re-schedule football for two years. What we’re doing is putting football in the off year that we’re scheduling all other sports. Football is just a real challenge to schedule. We’re trying to cross-conference play. We’re working with all the conferences, and it takes them a really long time to [schedule]. Football will be every other year that we’re scheduling our typical two-year block.”
I know getting enough game officials has been an issue. Are you and the AIA making progress on that front? “We still have an officials shortage. However…we have several programs in place. We are trying to look at kids who are seniors in high school and are graduating. Anybody who still loves the sport, and are not going to move on to play at the next level, this is a great part-time job that could turn into an advocation. Another thing we’re doing is, if you’re a current official, and you bring in a new official, we’ll waive the officials’ fees that brought that individual. We were actually up, overall, about 100 officials for the year. This is a positive but every year we have older officials aging out. Trying to stay up with that is our biggest challenge. We have moved some games to Thursday nights. If every school at every level played on Friday nights, we would not have enough officials.”
Do you feel, in the future, there could be any scenerio where we could see padded, live scrimmages in spring football? “At this time, no. We did talk about that this spring. It was brought up by some coaches. We talked amongst the board and some district athletic directors, and AD’s across the country. The two big things with that is, one, insurance. We cover spring ball but there are no pads, so our insurance is different. With pads included, insurance would go up. Catastrophic insurance would have to go up. The biggest concern for us is we want kids to participate [in] and play multiple sports. So a lot of football kids also play baseball and run track. That’s right towards the end of their regular season and the beginning of their championship season and I don’t ever want to see that take away the ability to participate in another sport and be successful. The other thing is the injuries. Any time you have more contact, the chance of getting hurt [goes up]. I’d hate to see kids getting hurt in April or May and not be able to play in the fall.”