Monday, April 21, 2008

Could MEGA Break-up Be Followed?

UPDATE: Copy was updated with new information courtesy of Dearborn Edsel Ford Athletic Director Bob Picano.

Imagine an Oakland Activities Association (OAA) football season without Clarkston playing Lake Orion. That would be nearly unthinkable today, but from 1957 to 1976 that's exactly what happened. Last year, for the first time since 1966, Detroit Pershing didn't face Detroit Denby's gridders, two historic rivals that dominated the Detroit Public School in the 1950's and 60's, then known as the Metropolitan League. Birmingham Brother Rice and Novi Catholic Central haven't missed a meeting since 1962, the year Rice opened.

When the OAA began in 1994, it was the combination of two small but highly-successful suburban leagues, the Metro Suburban Activities Association (MSAA) and the Southeastern Michigan Association (SMA). While the south Oakland trio of Berkley, Ferndale and Hazel Park hailed from the SMA, both Rochester schools were in the MSAA. The sister schools from Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Royal Oak, Southfield and Troy in each league combined as one. Lake Orion, Clarkston and the Pontiac schools joined. Farmington's trio joined in 2002. Others have come and gone in that time, for better or worse.

Why is this important? In the past few weeks it seems everyone -- coaches, directors, officials and fans -- have a valid opinion about the Mega Conference's possible demise. This is big news as it relates to high school football and specifically, rivalry games. A possible Mega break-up potentially endangers one school to losing a handful of big games. Dearborn Fordson's Tractors could potentially lose their rivalry with Allen Park, Monroe and Edsel Ford if rumors prove true about the three Mega League schools parting ways for different affiliations.

More than a few Oakland County athletic directors have grumbled about increased costs of travel in the OAA. The prep community in metropolitan Detroit is watching with rapt attention while a potential monster-league break-up plays out in real time downriver.

Allen Park Athletic Director Ken Stephens says this isn't about rivalries and hurt feelings but rather, dollars and sense. Allen Park is one of eight schools trying to put together the Downriver League, along with Woodhaven, Wyandotte, Trenton, Southgate, Gibralter Carlson and Taylor's Kennedy and Truman high schools.

"Our budgets are getting hit at every turn with increases on an annual basis. It makes no sense not to play schools we border with," Stephens explained this afternoon. "While nothing official has been submitted, on May 6th, we'll either be moving or not. That's the day the Mega Conference asked these eight schools to submit their plans, in writing, about leaving or returning for the 2009-10 calender year.

"It's amazing all the things that are being said about the possibility of schools leaving the Mega. It's not about Fordson, it's not about leaving other schools behind," Stephens said. "There will still be a Mega Conference, but currently we're playing schools we have no rivalry with and don't take in enough to pay the workers at our games on a Friday night. Plus, our students miss so much class, and that's all we hear, that this is all for the students. Well, it's time to put the money where the mouth is," Stephens said. "This is what makes the most sense for the downriver schools."

Dearborn Edsel Ford Athletic Director Bob Picano wouldn't add to the heavy amount of conjecture when I spoke to him this morning of who's leaving and staying, instead offering, "I can tell you I've been granted permission by our district to attend some purely informational meetings about other possible affiliations -- I can say that much -- but I'm bound by the fact we (Dearborn Public Schools) have three high schools and a school board that ultimately represents us all."

It's no secret there's no money to burn in Michigan, and even Dearborn, the biggest district in the Mega Conference, had moved to school of choice enrollment within the district to try to survive but recently closed district borders after pushing Fordson to 2,300 students while dropping Edsel to just over 1,400. Picano says he encounters kids having to work when a parent has lost a job and admits his frustration about travel times and cost. "I'd feel better if my kids were back at school 15 minutes after a game rather than 45 minutes after a game. With snow storms, 45 minutes can turn into an hour and a half. The cost of travel and what you take in at the gate is very important these days."

Picano isn't yet sold on the idea of the Downriver League's ultimate formation but admits all schools are looking to cut cost while not being orphaned without a league to compete in.

"The word is this is about proximity and average travel time, and I think the schools rumored to be moving could do what they want to do, based on geographics, from within the Mega League. No one wants to do something that costs money, and I think the threat of lawsuit could kill the Downriver League from forming," Picano said. "We're not the only ones looking. If you look at the south Oakland County schools, they're a good fit, geographically speaking, for some of the Mega schools. There's a possibility of schools expanding to the Mega as much as there's the possibility of schools leaving the Mega."

Ensuring long-standing rivalries don't die in the wake of the Mega's rumored demise is what's most important to most coaches and fans. Picano hinted that an annual Fordson game would be easier if Edsel was in a smaller league. "Having a chance at six wins makes it tough to schedule Fordson when we already have a tough, nine-game schedule."

Stephens agreed rivalries are important while hinting at a rivalry week in all sports if Allen Park were domiciled in a smaller league.

"Imagine if we had a 'Gibralter Carlson Week', where Gibralter Carlson and Allen Park could face each other in cross country, soccer, football and volleyball in the same week -- that would really capture the essence of a rivalry, and it's something you can do when the league is manageable, " Stephens said. "You know this as an official, T.C., that working a rivalry game is always better than working a game no one cares about."

Currently Edsel Ford doesn't have a single Dearborn rival on the football schedule in '08, while Fordson plays Divine Child, Allen Park, Monroe and Dearborn in the upcoming fall.

~ T.C. Cameron is the author of Metro Detroit's High School Football Rivalries, due August 25th , 2008 from Arcadia Publishing.

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