THE HIGH SCHOOL — Workers are getting ready for the most important part of Texas’ high schools’ autumn term. No, not math or English or even homeroom. It’s football, of course. CBS newsman and native Texan Bob Schieffer once observed, “In Texas, the week begins on Friday nights.” Drive across our state on a fall Friday evening and, as you go through small towns, you’ll see the stadium lights, hear the bands and cheers. A sports reporter once observed that he if were a smart burglar in Texas, he’d ply his trade only in the visitor’s towns on fall Friday nights because the populace, including the cops, would be out of town at the high school’s football game.
As the Fightin’ Wombats from East Tumbleweed High begin their season, let’s look at this mammoth, extensive and expensive operation. (My local stadium is so big and splendid many a college would love to have it. Do you use a plastic mower to cut AstroTurf?) Football in Texas’ public schools grades 7-12 is run by the University Interscholastic League or UIL. There are 1,470 member schools in the League, which apparently includes every public school in the state, plus two private schools — Dallas Jesuit and Houston Strake Jesuit — schools which are too large to be a part of the private school league, so a state law allowed them to become a part of UIL. I wonder if they get to cherry-pick the best Catholic athletes in Dallas and Houston? Notre Dame would probably know. Virtually every major college has young Texans on its roster, which explains a story that, at an NCAA coaches’ convention some years ago, Duffy Daugherty of Michigan State ran into Tommy Prothro of UCLA and berated him. “What are you doing poaching players in my territory?”
To which Prothro replied, “I haven’t even been in Michigan.”
“I’m not talking about Michigan. I’m talking about Texas!”
This situation chaps me because Texas taxpayers ready these young men to play college football and then they go somewhere else. Can we send them a bill? Thus far nine former UIL players have received the Heisman Trophy including two from Dallas’ Woodrow Wilson High. Twenty-four have been inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. It’s hard to give an exact number of UIL products playing professional football today, especially since the NFL has been in training camp and several will be cut. But it is around 150 players. One reason for the later success of our lads is that all Texas high school coaches in all sports programs must be full-time employees of the school district they coach for. And a lot of coaching there is: more than 150,000 student-athletes are in football Another plus: Texas is the only state where high school football uses NCAA rules, so there is no great change in rules between the Fightin’ Wombats and playing for the Lackluster Longhorns.
In recent years the UIL has toyed with where to stage the finals in football so that it is not too far away. That rules out El Paso and Brownsville, although neither town has had much luck in winning state football championships lately. And the stadium has to be covered. So Dallas (AT&T), San Antonio (AlamoDome) and Houston (NRG formerly Reliant Stadium) fight for the game. How big are these events? This from the UIL: Last year was the first time that all football state championship games, 11-man and 6-man, were held at the same facility (AT&T). The Texas high school football attendance record was broken during the Allen vs. Pearland game – 54,347 people showed up, no doubt a majority of them college scouts. 11-man football attendance: 221,339 (for 10 games) 6-man football attendance: 14,288 (for two games). As with my local stadium, some colleges would envy these attendance figures. Another change: This is the first year the UIL will have a Conference 6A. In football this means that all six-man football is Conference 1A and the 11-man schools are in conferences 2A through 6A. (The old line about the UIL goes: “There are better football programs, but they play on Sunday afternoons.”)
Besides football, five athletic events have state championships at The University of Texas-Austin facilities; swimming and diving, track and field, golf, softball, and baseball – only one conference of baseball and golf played at UT. The one-act play state meet and academics state meets are both held on UT’s campus as well as many music competitions. The Legislative Council voted in June to create a Game Day Cheer (Leader) Competition as a pilot program for the 2015-16 school year. Continuation of the pilot program beyond the 2015-16 school year will require formal action by the full UIL Legislative Council.
You may be wondering why we call this organization the University Interscholastic League, since linebacker Bubba McBlitz (18 years old, 6 feet 6 inches tall, 310 pounds, can bench press a VW Beetle, has trouble spelling UIL), is not university material nor scholastic. According to the Handbook of Texas, the group, which is now the oldest and largest high school association of its kind in the U.S., began life at a Texas State Teachers Association meeting in Abilene in 1910 as part of the newly created Extension Bureau of UT. Known first as the Debating League of Texas High Schools, the league expanded its functions and in 1911 became the Debating and Declamation League of Texas Schools. Athletics didn’t enter the picture until 1912 when a track and field meet – not football — was added by taking over the functions of the Interscholastic Athletic Association. Then came two public-speaking events, contests in dramatics, journalism, music, essay writing, and finally football, basketball, tennis, golf and a bunch of other events. Former UIL participants include LBJ, Ann Richards, Barbara Jordan, Earl Campbell, Bill Moyers and Sandra Day O’Connor.
Houston sports columnist Mickey Herskowitz, wrote: “There must really be something to religion. People keep comparing it to Texas high school football.” Amen.
Ashby competes at ashby2@comcast