Pennsylvania football’s highest-profile college coaches are lending their support to high school coaches seeking to add a spring football practice period — an idea that has been around for a while, but has never gained traction with the PIAA, the governing body for Pennsylvania scholastic sports.
Skeptics remain and the PIAA this week offered a lukewarm response, though backers of the idea hope to get a boost with JoePa and Wannstedt now on board.
“Absolutely,” Paterno responded when asked if he would support a measure before the PIAA to install a spring football period.
Three members of the Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Coaches Association traveled to Penn State this week to garner the support of Paterno and Wannstedt. Temple coach Al Golden could not attend because of a scheduling conflict.
“Now we’re trying to put some action behind the talk,” said Red Land coach Frank Gay, one of the PSFCA emissaries, about spring practice. “It’s something that we felt we needed the support of Coach Wannstedt, Coach Paterno and Coach Golden because they see it, and that will give us some meat behind our argument.”
States like Texas and Florida already have spring practice periods. A spring period would not only hone the skills of developing high school players, but also get perhaps second-tier players not drawing attention from Division I schools more recruiting looks from Division II, III or Ivy League schools, said Clearfield coach Tim Janocko.
At issue are full-contact spring practices, similar to the spring drills held at Penn State and Pitt. The PIAA in December allowed schools for the first time to let players wear pads during spring workouts, though physical contact is not allowed.
“We’re inching closer,” Gay said. “If we’re going to get to that level, why don’t we just get it over with and do it that right way?”
The high school coaches would like a spring practice period in late May, mainly toward the end of track and baseball seasons.
“We all know how many repetitions it takes for a young man to develop a skill,” Wannstedt said, “and the more that he can get an opportunity to do that, the better opportunity he has to improve his skills and better his opportunity to be a better player and go to college somewhere.”
Paterno said his support has nothing to do with giving Penn State a recruiting advantage.
“But there are a bunch of kids that are this close, and with a little coaching, a little encouragement, a little pride in some things, they can do well and make a difference,” he said.
Getting the PIAA to approve a spring practice period may be challenging even with the high-profile support.
PIAA executive director Brad Cashman, in interviews this week with several reporters, cited a PIAA bylaw that states a sport could not operate at the detriment to other sports. In Pennsylvania, a potential spring practice period could interfere with track, volleyball, lacrosse, baseball and tennis.
“We don’t see it happening, and mostly because it will be a detriment to the five other spring sports,” PIAA assistant executive director Melissa Mertz said Friday.
To approve spring practice, the PIAA would also have to amend the bylaw. The last time the topic came up was in 2000, when it was voted down by a PIAA football steering committee, Mertz said.
The PIAA is also concerned that allowing full-contact drills outside of the fall would put more players at risk for concussions, Mertz said.
The PIAA, she added, has also “always been a proponent of letting kids be part of as many (activities) as possible,” she said. “We don’t think high school is a time to specialize. Some will do it, and that’s fine ... but we will always try to promote from this office always getting involved in several activities.”
A late May football period could conflict with multi-sport athletes in the state track meet or state baseball playoffs, “but when we look at the numbers, it’s not that many,” Gay said.
Athletes at schools with smaller enrollments may have more difficult choices. For instance, about three-quarters of the 60-70 football players at Selinsgrove participate in spring sports, said Brian Catherman, a track coach who will become athletic director this summer.
Catherman said the spring football practice issue hasn’t come up at Selinsgrove, which excels at track and won the Class AAA football title last season. Catherman also likes his students to play as many sports as they like. Football players working on speed run track, and linemen needing practice with footwork take part in field events.
“When you tell athletes you have to pick, well that’s not really fair to them,” Catherman said.