Several years ago I was covering the 3A state basketball tournament for the Standard-Examiner newspaper. While waiting for the Morgan Trojans’ boys’ game to start, I settled into my seat on press row and watched a girls’ game between two of the top teams in the state. Not long into the game, a middle-aged man, perhaps five rows behind me, began yelling toward the court. It was a state basketball game, and yelling was, of course, commonplace. But this guy stood out. His loud and angry squawking was not directed at players or referees, but at the administration of the Utah High School Activities Association.
Calling out UHSAA officials by name, he kept up a constant, obnoxious chatter for almost the entire first half. For a while, most people ignored him, including me. I decided to not even turn around to give him the attention he was obviously seeking.
I’ve been a freelance sports reporter for more than 25 years and have heard a lot of terrible things said by fans. So I’ve learned to tune most everything out. But this man was probably the nastiest, rudest and most persistent fan I’ve ever encountered. Eventually, people around him asked him to please be quiet. But he refused. As fans nearby got more annoyed, they started yelling at him to shut up. Pretty soon, he was shouting back at them, too. It was getting ridiculous.
Eventually, I noticed some people changing seats because he was impossible to sit next to. (Yes, I was amazed that the University of Utah security personnel or ushers did nothing to put an end to his nonsense.) Once done insulting other fans around him, he resumed his one-sided shouting match with the UHSAA. Finally, a 3A high school principal, a large and burly man who was standing near the scorer’s table, had heard enough. He turned around and very politely asked the man to give it a rest.
“We’ve heard you; now please stop,” he said.
Immediately, the unruly fan turned his attention to the principal.
“I’m not talking to you, fat man!” he yelled.
That set me off. I had been patient up to that point, but no longer. I wheeled around in my chair and for the first time, saw the person who was causing such a commotion. I was stunned to see him holding a small child – perhaps 4 or 5 years old – in his lap.
I said, “Would you knock it off? No one is interested.”
With that, he looked at me and shouted, “Turn around. I’m not talking to you either, you plaid-shirt-wearing pencil pusher!”
Well, what could I say to that? I actually was a plaid-shirt-wearing pencil pusher. Fortunately, karma prevailed. His team lost and I never saw him again.
I was oddly reminded of this incident recently after Juan Diego defeated Morgan in the 3A state championship football game at Weber State. Shortly after the game had ended, a person I respect very much said to me, “What are you going to write about? That a private school wins… again?”
For years it seems that people have had problems with how the UHSAA handles tough issues. For Mr. Annoying Pants at the basketball game, his complaint was the quality of game officials. For others, it’s UHSAA’s transfer rules. For still others, it’s how the UHSAA handles private schools and the competitive balance within the state.
When Juan Diego defeated Morgan on Nov. 11, it marked the eighth time in 15 seasons that the Soaring Eagle had won a state football championship, including the last three in a row. Juan Diego has long been accused by some of being able to attract or recruit some of the best players from around the Salt Lake Valley. As a private Catholic school, there are few, if any, restrictions relating to one’s place of residence and attendance at the school. If you want to pay the tuition, or if you can get financial assistance, you can go to Juan Diego. The school’s website says, “Our open enrollment draws students – of all faiths – living across the Wasatch Front including Davis, Utah, Salt Lake, Summit and Tooele counties.”
Adding to its opponents’ frustration is the fact that for all sports except football, Juan Diego is now classified as a 4A school. So how did the Soaring Eagle manage to stay at the 3A level for football, especially when they have been dominant for so long?
Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant is another example of a private school dominating public schools in a particular sport. For many years, the Tigers had little success on the basketball court. Suddenly, in 2010, they started winning. And not just winning, but annihilating their opponents. They won the 1A state championship in 2011 and then the 2013 and 2014 2A state titles. How did this happen? Easy. They recruited people from all over the globe.
When Wasatch Academy played Morgan on the first day of the 2013-14 season (and beat the Trojans by 30 points), the Tigers had players from Canada, Nigeria, France, and Illinois on their roster. And this was no weakling Trojan team. They were the defending 3A state champs and would go on to win another state title a few months later. (To be fair, the Trojans played the game without Matt Murdock and Bridger Streadbeck, two of their best players, who were recovering from injuries sustained during the football season.)
To Wasatch Academy’s credit, they recognized that there was a huge disparity in talent between their players and the rest of the teams in the 2A classification. So they resolved the issue by petitioning the UHSAA to let them play an independent schedule and not be part of the Utah state tournaments. Since 2014, they’ve loaded their schedule with top Utah schools and out-of-state competitions.
So what, if anything, should be done with the likes of Juan Diego, Judge Memorial, Summit Academy and other private and charter schools that don’t have enough students to be placed in a larger classification, but have open enrollment policies that seem to encourage the recruiting of some of the state’s best athletes? And it’s typically the smaller, rural schools, such as Morgan, who bear the brunt of the competitive disadvantage.
In several states, a multiplier is applied to private schools. For example, in Illinois, a private school’s enrollment is multiplied by 1.65, which typically results in the school being moved up a classification. Other states, such as Indiana, have a “recent success” system, which moves teams up or down based on recent athletic achievements. And other states, such as Maryland, have separate state tournaments for public and private schools.
But are private schools the real problem here? Just two weeks ago, South Summit defeated Beaver to win the 2A state football title. South Summit, a public school in Kamas, has had an excellent football team for the last several years, including a 50-point win over Morgan this year. But while the Wildcats are the 2A football champs, they participate, as Juan Diego does, in the next higher classification for all other sports. I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation for this from the UHSAA.
Over the years, public school teams like Mountain View girls’ basketball, Skyline football, Lone Peak boys’ basketball, and even Morgan volleyball have been accused of either illegally recruiting players or creating some kind of unfair advantage over other programs. (I’ll tell you what’s “unfair” – having Liz Wiscombe as your coach. You find me a better high school volleyball coach in the state – public or private school – and I’ll eat my hat.)
If I had any say in the private school matter and was forced to either do nothing or pick one of the options mentioned earlier, I’d probably opt for the multiplier, forcing private and charter schools to play up one classification because of their ability to enroll students from a wide geographical area. I’d also choose to get rid of the silly “football only” classifications.
But at the end of the day, perhaps nothing is to be done at all. History has shown that dominance is temporary. Skyline hasn’t won a football state title in a dozen years, and it’s been eight years for Mountain View’s girls basketball. So maybe Juan Diego’s success will shortly come to an end, too.
But what do I know? I’m just a plaid-shirt-wearing pencil pusher.