“In Texas, the week begins on Friday nights.” — CBS newsman Bob Schieffer
How true. Have you ever driven across Texas on a Friday evening during the fall? You can hear the crowds and see the glow of those Friday night lights. High school football is big in Texas, and the Houston area has some of the biggest and the best.
In the Houston Independent School District alone, last season on the middle school level, 2,264 students (2,263 boys and one girl ) played football. At the high school level, 2,467 students (2,466 boys and one girl) took to the gridiron.
The district has produced one state football championship: Jack Yates High School in 1985. And don’t forget Vince Young, who played for Houston’s Madison High School. He should be a Houston Texan, but that’s another story.
Houston ISD has so many players and teams that five football stadiums host games on Thursday through Saturday during the season. None of these stats, of course, include the private schools and suburban districts in the area.
How big is high school football in the Lone Star State? Last season there were 163,229 9th-through-12th grade students playing the game in the University Interscholastic League program, or UIL, which governs Texas high school competitions. That is more players than in any other state. One estimate is that there are 350 Texans playing Division I football today and, in the past, at least five of them have earned the Heisman Trophy. Every single team in the NFL has at least one member who played Texas high school football.
We have 1,283 public high schools in this state of which 1,121 have football programs. Each weekend the varsity teams play 600 games before an estimated 1 million spectators. Last season there were 46,339 fans at the Division I championship game, which is more than attend a lot of college contests and, back then, many Oiler games.
Not all good pigskin fights are played by large schools in huge stadiums.
“Six man football is what small town life in Texas is all about,” said Jack Pardee, former Aggie football player, NFL linebacker and head coach of both the Washington Redskins and the Oilers, who played on the Cristoval, Texas, six-man team.
We do love our Fightin’ Wombats. As Houston sports columnist Mickey Herskowitz once noted, “There must really be something to religion. People keep comparing it to Texas high school football.” Another example of our priorities: under Gov. Rick Perry’s order, school districts must spend 65 percent of their budget in the classrooms — but coaches’ salaries are excluded.
This fall, the school year started later, so football practices were pushed back. Practice for the fall season began on Aug. 6, when equipment was issued. Then the players started conditioning drills without equipment except for helmets. If the teams held spring training, they started a week later. The UIL runs the playoffs until there is just one team left standing, so the two top teams will have participated in 16 games stretching from summer vacation to the Christmas season.
In 2000, researchers at Texas A&M and the University of Texas-Pan American compared Texas school districts’ athletic budgets per student with that district’s SAT scores and American College Testing (ACT) exams to see if there was any correlation. They found large athletic budgets can adversely affect SAT scores by as much as 45 percent and ACT scores by as much as 1.2 points. The researchers also found that non-athletes in these powerhouse districts have lower aspirations because they feel all the district cares about is winning a state championship. (At this point we must note that the researchers were studying “athletics,” but in Texas that can only mean “football.”)
Furthermore, the researchers also found students in big budget athletic districts are less likely to take college entrance exams, and less likely to get a high score if they do. The student-athletes in the big spending districts did better on the state standardized tests. Of course they did well; if the students didn’t pass the test, they couldn’t participate in athletics.
As an example of the link between athletic budgets and test scores, the study pointed to Texas City which, at that time, had the highest per-student athletic cost in the Houston area at $187. The district’s average SAT score was 864 while its ACT score was 17.3. On the other hand, the nearby Galveston school district spent less than half that — $92 per student on athletics — and had an average SAT of 1020 and an average 18.6 on the ACT.
The old line about Texas high school football goes: “There are better football programs, but they play on Sunday afternoons.” A few years ago, Odessa Permian, the subject of “Friday Night Lights” and a long-time football powerhouse, was looking for a new coach. In the town of Sealy, which was also a powerhouse, there was a winning coach named T.J. Mills.
Odessa Permian sent for Mills and his family — in a private jet. He was won over with a yearly salary of $78,000 plus a new car. That was several years ago, so no doubt the price has gone up. One football coach is reputed to make $100,000 a year, but, as a school administrator noted, “If he loses, he gets fired.” A survey showed nearly 80 percent of Texas high school football coaches made more than the best-paid teacher in their districts. On the other hand, most classrooms don’t have a scoreboard — or a press box.
Texas’ players are much sought after by out-of-state schools. Oklahoma State last season had 51 Texans and 22 Oklahomans. Oklahoma had 35 Texans compared to 19 Oklahomans. Even Army, way up there in New York, had 33 Texans trying to beat Navy. On the other hand, the University of Texas had only six non-Texans, the University of Houston had five out-of-state players and Rice had 12. Former UH football coach Bill Yeoman once lamented that he could field a championship team every season if only he could hang on to the local talent.
There’s a great story about an alleged confrontation some years ago at a coaches’ convention when Michigan State head football coach Duffy Daugherty ran into UCLA head coach Tommy Prothro. Daugherty thoroughly upbraided his colleague for “recruiting in my backyard.” Prothro replied that he hadn’t even been in Michigan lately, much less recruited there.
“Not Michigan,” Daugherty fairly yelled. “Texas!”