NEW ORLEANS -- For the first 10 weeks, the high school season will look normal. Traditional rivals will tangle. District championships will be decided.
Then at playoff time, tradition is turned upside down.
"There's probably no one doing what we're doing," Louisiana High School Athletics Association Executive Director Kenny Henderson said. "I think this is the first anybody's seen anything like this."
In Louisiana's new system, private schools will be separated from public schools for the playoffs. Traditional public schools are known as "non-select" schools, because they do not choose their students. Private schools and the public schools which pick their students, like magnet schools, are referred to as "select" schools.
Rummel and Mandeville played in the 2012 5A state semifinals. Even though both schools still carry 5A enrollment numbers, they cannot meet in the playoffs in 2013. Mandeville remains a 5A schools. Rummel, as a select school, now moves into what's called Division 1.
Louisiana will hand out five state championships to traditional public schools and another four in the private school divisions. Louisiana handed out a total of five championships last year, nine this year. Florida has four times the population of Louisiana and hands out eight.
"Nine is way too many," Brother Martin High School Athletic Director Scott Williams said. "That's going to be interesting to see. I liken it to not playing for a National Championship in college but now playing for an SEC Championship."
"When you have about 60 to 65 schools in each classification, that's a good number," Henderson said. “When you start getting down below that where almost everybody's making the playoffs, then it loses some of its luster."
In 2013, none of Louisiana's nine classifications will have more than 52 schools.
"I understand the argument that we're diluting it somewhat," Mandeville High School Principal Bruce Bundy countered, "but I don't think as a 5A principal, if my kids won a State Championship, that I would feel that 5A was diluted. I wouldn't feel that way at all."
Separate, Not Equal
Public schools principals in 5A won't feel the separation, because in Louisiana's system, separate is definitely not equal. 52 schools will compete for the 5A State Championship this year.
The private schools which carry 5A enrollments, like Rummel, Jesuit, and Brother Martin, will now compete in Division 1 with just 10 schools in the entire division.
"Everybody's going to want to know, from a competition standpoint, who's the best in the state," Williams said. "You don't have that now. We don't live in a society where everybody should get a cupcake. You have to earn it."
How the Split Came to Be
"One of the things that led this to be where it is, or a possibility that it led it to where it is, is when we quit letting schools play up," Henderson said.
The competitive imbalance, especially among smaller schools, fueled the vote in favor of the split in January.
"This turned very personal in my opinion," Williams said.
At the heart of the fight is the belief by many public school principals across Louisiana, that private schools recruit players, and the belief that LHSAA rules to stop recruiting haven't worked.
A vote to split had actually come up before in the LHSAA, Kenny Henderson said, in the late '90s, then again in 2003. "This is an issue that has been plaguing the LHSAA for many years," Bundy said. "Lots of rules have been passed to try to keep the level playing field, and they just don't seem to be working. We don't want to penalize people, we just want to play with people who have the same rules that we have."
"As far as leveling the playing field with recruiting," Williams said, "I don't know if you're ever going to do that. I don't know if you can put it in a handbook. They have many rules in there regarding what you can and can't do."
Many public school principals admit that the 2013 play isn't a perfect plan, but in January they saw it as the best plan on the table at the time.
"We could probably do something better than what we have, but it was a step," Bundy said. "Principals wanted to take a step in that direction."
"I think the fact that this was an idea, and we had some people out there that were just looking for anything," Henderson said. "When you look at what's going to happen this playoff season and you realize - you mean, you've got a division with only 10 schools in it? People are going to look at that and say - well then, why didn't we include them in this process? So, maybe we could back off that just a little bit. I would like to see that happen."
"I want to believe in my heart that the public schools wanted to have their voice heard. I think they had their voice heard in January. That's my hope. And I believe cooler heads, I hope cooler heads will prevail next January."
"I think this January is going to be very critical," Henderson said.
In January 2014, three things can happen at the LHSAA meeting. Principals could vote to keep the football system we have in 2013, although no one believes that will happen.
Or, principals could vote to at least begin the process of bringing public and private back together again.
Or, principals could vote to separate public from private in all sports.
"I'd say, at this point in time, it's a toss of a coin," Bundy said. "I think you'll see a proposal to do away with what we did this past year, and I think you'll see a proposal to take it further."
"I would hope that cooler heads would prevail on that," Kenny Henderson added.
"If it happens for all sports, God forbid, you may end up having two separate associations," Williams said.
Talk of two associations has grown since January.
In Louisiana's new football playoff system, there are 72 select schools, but only 10 with 4A or 5A sized enrollments.
The obvious problem for private schools is that, if separated, the six New Orleans area schools (St. Augustine, Rummel, Brother Martin, Shaw, Jesuit, and Holy Cross) would play each other, over and over in all sports.
St. Paul's would have no similarly sized opponent for 30 miles. Scotlandville and Catholic in Baton Rouge would have no similarly sized opponents other than each other, for 60 miles.
"You're going to tax schools financially if that happens. There is no way that we can survive as two associations in the state," Williams said. "Some people seem to think we can. I don't know how you do it. I wish that somebody had a plan to show us to say how it's going to ... it's not going to work."
Whether or not a private, school-only association could work long term, many believe if principals vote to split in all sports, private schools will try it.
Louisiana's private schools are also some of the state's biggest moneymakers, especially in sports that aren't football, so two associations would definitely hurt public schools financially.
"I'm personally OK if a split takes place and public schools just play public schools," Bundy said. "But that's my personal stance and I know there's a lot to be debated, but I think it would work OK for Mandeville High School."
Reuniting the Big Schools
One idea expected to come up this January will be to have principals vote only for their enrollment divisions. So 5A principals would vote only whether then wanted to reunite 5A public and private schools. 4A would vote just for 4A, and so on.
"If that's the alternative, that there's a vote with just 5A principals," Williams said, "then I believe we come back together."
That would be a baby steps-approach to keeping private schools in the LHSAA, bring 5A and 4A back together while you work on the problems with the smaller schools. Under this plan, it's possible that in 2014, you'd have a united 5A State Championship, and two separated championships at 1A.
While private schools like John Curtis and Evangel have dominated play in smaller classifications, private schools have certainly not dominated among the big schools.
Louisiana added a 5A division 22 years ago. Public schools have won 17 state championships, private schools five. Rummel's title in 2012 was its first in school history.
Reunite or Further Separate
Bottom line, private school principals have very little power in deciding whether schools reunite or further separate. Public school principals cast 75 percent of the votes.
"I'm hoping we can bring this back together," Henderson said. "I think we're a much stronger organization when we play together."
Bundy said there are other recruiting rules being used in other states which may be worth trying.
"I think over the course of time, you see that folks want to stay together. I think we're stronger together," Bundy said. "We're a stronger association together, but by the same token, the rules that have been passed to keep the recruiting from happening don't seem to be working. And this issue is the same thing that other states are facing too. Everybody's having the same argument about what to do these unlevel playing fields, but I do agree, in general, that folks want to stay together, if we can have a set of rules that helps us play fairly."
One rule being talked about would require private schools to have no more football players on scholarship than the rest of the student body. Meaning, if 10 percent of your student body is on some type of financial aid / scholarship, then no more than 10 percent of your football team can be.
Whether or not schools further split, lawsuits are also possible.
"I think once emotions settle, once everybody gets to see how this year actually works, they'll realize that this is not in the best interest of our kids," Williams said.
"We've always been able to work together," Henderson said, "and I think we can again."
"I strongly ask all the adults involved, all the educators, on both sides to come together and fix this," Williams said, "because the alternative is not going to be good for our state."