Return of six-man football seen as partial cure for small-school ills


[Site Manager's Note: As of the date of publication of this article, none of the schools serviced by KFFOA are part of the 6-man football pilot]

It vanished from the Oregon high school sports landscape more than a half-century ago, but it appears primed to make a comeback.

Six-man football -- played in the state’s small towns from 1947 to 1959 before it was replaced by the eight-man game -- is on the verge of being revived as a way for small schools to keep their programs alive amid the trend of declining participation.

The OSAA football ad-hoc committee has proposed that six-man football be offered as an alternative for schools with an adjusted enrollment of 89 or fewer starting next season. It would be a two-year pilot program with no OSAA championship awarded.

“I think it just makes sense in our state at this time,” said Tony Smith, the coach at Class 2A St. Paul and a member of the committee. “Overall, the response has been very positive.”

Six-man football not only could help current eight-man programs stay afloat, but it could allow some schools to offer football for the first time. It also could eliminate some co-op teams and cut down on travel.

“The whole idea is that we could do something that would allow a town to have consistent Friday night football. That was a big part of that,” Smith said. “I didn’t personally think the six-man piece would take off like it has, with a large number of schools that would be interested in participating.”

The football ad-hoc committee plans to present its recommendations at the next meeting of the executive board Feb. 12. Changes would require approval of the executive board and the delegate assembly.

CO-OP DECISIONS

Sixteen schools have informed the OSAA that they would participate in the six-man pilot program. The OSAA has proposed dividing them into special districts of 10 and six teams.

Among the schools that would opt to play six-man is Triangle Lake, which last season entered into a cooperative agreement with Class 2A Monroe and the team won the state title.

“We knew it was probably a short-term deal. They want to get their program running,” Monroe coach Bill Crowson said.

Greg Grant, longtime coach at Class 2A Heppner, said the composition of teams at the small-school level is splitting into two directions.

“I think you’re going to have regionalization in football in some areas, where all the kids in three communities go to one to play football, or you’re going to break them into smaller groups and stay in their own communities,” Grant said.

“I think there’s a possibility for six-man to be something that people enjoy. If a kid at Dayville wants to play six-man against a kid from Prairie City, maybe that would be more exciting for them than them all driving 30 minutes to meet once a week for practice.”

SIX-MAN ISLAND

Neighboring states Washington, Idaho and California do not play six-man, so scheduling is a concern for schools in outlying areas near the border.

The potential for future interstate competition exists, though, considering those states also have issues with declining participation and their associations have had discussions about options such as six-man football.

Six-man -- popular in states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Montana -- is played on a field that measures 80 yards long (not counting end zones) and 40 yards wide. The game has its own set of rules, so teams and officials would need to get up to speed.

ENROLLMENT ZONE

The committee also has proposed an enrollment zone between Class 2A and 1A. Any school with an adjusted enrollment between 89 and 120 would have the option of playing in either classification.

Currently, any school with an adjusted enrollment of 90 to 190 is slotted in Class 2A. The change would allow the smaller Class 2A schools, many of which are struggling to field 11-man teams, to play eight-man.

“I think a school of 90 is going to have a difficult time fielding an 11-man team,” Smith said.

Smith believes that any concerns about healthy Class 2A programs – such as reigning state champion Monroe (enrollment 115), semifinalist St. Paul (85) and quarterfinalist Heppner (93) -- taking advantage by moving to 1A are unfounded.

“I think a lot of those schools would choose to play 11-man because that’s what they’ve done in the past,” Smith said. “The majority of the schools that have passed through that enrollment zone … most of them have had very little success.”

Crowson said Monroe would not be interested in playing in Class 1A. The Dragons have been playing 11-man football for as long as anyone can remember.

“We’ve had a pretty good tradition of 11-man football and I think we’d like to stay there and do that,” Crowson said. “It would be hard to break with tradition unless it was a numbers issue.”

Likewise, Grant sees Heppner playing 11-man for at least the next four years.

“We’ll see after that,” Grant said. “If I can have 24 kids, I could still practice 11-man. I wouldn’t feel right having 32 kids and only playing eight of them.”

Grant said the enrollment zone could provide a safety net for small-school programs, which can be vulnerable to wild swings in demographics.

“When you have 100 kids in your high school, demographics can really get you,” Grant said.

-- Jerry Ulmer

julmer@oregonian.com 503-816-7323 @jerryulmer

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