Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What to do with the Pittsburgh City League?

As most of the teeming masses that read this blog know, I'm a fan of high school sports. I help moderate the PA Sportsboard on teh interwebs which deals heavily in local, statewide and national high school sports. On that board, my handle is City League Advocate. I chose that name because of my love for a particular brand of high school sports. And that is the league that includes the nine public high schools in the City of Pittsburgh that are part of the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS).

This league is commonly known as the Pittsburgh City League or PIAA District 8.

Background info: I'm a City League guy. Born and raised and still live in the City of Pittsburgh. Attended PPS schools from K-12. Contrary to popular belief, I strongly believe that a quality education can be found in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, if one is willing to put in the time, legwork and dedication necessary to make it happen. The tools are there, you just have to pick them up and use them.

The City League goes back to the turn of the 20th century. And over time it has produced many great athletes that have gone on to have outstanding pro careers. One only has to mention the legendary Westinghouse Bulldog football teams under Pete D'Imperio and George Webb that ruled not only the City League in the 50's, 60's, and '70's but also proved to hold their own against the best of the WPIAL and even statewide. The Perry Commodore teams of the early 2000's that made its mark on the local high school football scene. And who could forget the 1988 Commodores that won the City League's only state title in football. The great Schenley Spartan basketball teams that won state titles in the '60s and '70s with such headliners like Maurice Lucas, Kenny Durrett, and Robert "Jeep" Kelly, and even today with San Antonio Spurs rookie DaJuan Blair. The City League has produced great athletes as well as great human beings that excelled both in and out of the classroom as well as in life.

But these days, the City League isn't what it used to be. The reasons are many and varied. The ongoing flight to the suburbs that started in the 50's as well as the collapse of the steel industry in the 70's and '80s, among other factors caused many families to move out of the city decreasing the enrollment of Pittsburgh Public Schools from a high of over 50,000 students in the '70s to its current number of approx 26,000. That had an effect of cutting tax revenues that could be used for facility maintenance and equipment purchases as well as shrinking the talent pool for athletics.

And because the majority of the high schools were built over 80 years ago, they were landlocked in tightly confined neighborhoods with little room for expansion. To this day there are schools in the Pgh. City League that do not have an athletic field on campus. Only one high school was built in the last 35 years, Brashear, which was completed in 1975. As a result, most City high schools lag far behind their suburban counterparts in terms of facilities and athletic amenities. If you go to a typical suburban Western PA high school which was built in the last 50 years, you'd see a large wide-open campus built back in the days when land in the suburbs was cheap and plentiful and the planners accounted for the inevitable need for expansion. Many of today's biggest campuses rival some small colleges in terms of their physical plant. Having such luxurious amenities also contributes to the number of reasons many families who are coming into the Pittsburgh area and are looking for a place to buy a home often prefer the suburbs to the city. That and also the perception of a better education, a safer learning environment, better coaching and also the benefits of living in a smaller tighter knit community.

As a result of all these factors, the Pittsburgh City League lags behind the WPIAL in terms of overall success on the athletic field. Now before I go further, let's take a little time out to educate you, the reader on how high school athletics works in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

High school athletics are governed in Pennsylvania by the Pennsylvania Intercollegiate Athletic Association or PIAA. This body sponsors state-wide championships in 20 boys and girls sports. It also sets the standard rules of conduct for players, coaches, staff and fans. It also licenses referees and event officials and insures that the rules of competition laid down by national and local governing high school sports bodies are followed. All participating high schools (membership in the PIAA is not mandatory) are divided by location into 12 districts. For this essay's sake we are concerned with only two. District 7 and District 8. District 7 covers nine counties in Southwestern PA as well as all private and parochial schools in the City of Pittsburgh. District 7 is governed by the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League or WPIAL.

There are approximately 130 school districts that are members of the WPIAL. It is the largest athletic league in Pennsylvania as well as one of the largest in the country.

District 8 covers the public schools of the Pittsburgh Public School district. It is the smallest PIAA district in the state and one of only two districts in which all the schools are members of only one school district, the other being District 12 which covers Philadelphia. In terms of relationships between District 7 and District 8, please check this map. District 7 surrounds District 8 on all sides.

Now back to the essay. With very few exceptions, most City League schools do not fare well against WPIAL schools in most sports. The most glaring examples of the disparity between the two leagues are in football and the so-called "olympic" sports (tennis, swimming, golf, soccer, hockey, etc.) In football, the best City League school would most likely end up in the middle of the pack of their equivalent enrollment class in the WPIAL.

An example. The Schenley Spartans, last season's City League championship football team in the PIAA Class AAA, go manhandled in the first round of the AAA playoffs losing by 32 points to Erie Cathedral Prep 44-12. In baseball, the AAAA City League champion, Allderdice, who had won most of their games against City League opponents by double digits, and had a number of games ended prematurely by the ten run rule was beaten by Pine-Richland of the WPIAL 9-0 in the first round of the 2009-10 state playoffs. Perry, the 2009-10 City League wrestling champion, did not score a point in an 84-0 drubbing by the #2 seed in the WPIAL, Kiski Area.

It is rare for a City League team in any sport to make it past the first round of state playoff competition, much less make the result respectable. Even the disparity between schools within the City League is just as disturbing. The larger more affluent schools like Allderdice, Brashear, and Carrick are more equipped to compete against WPIAL schools. Schools like Langley, Peabody, Oliver, and Westinghouse would be hard pressed to compete at best against the middle to lower half of WPIAL schools and often forfeit games against City teams.

Using my alma mater as an example. Allderdice is not a traditional football power in the City League and has only won a handful of games against WPIAL schools. They have fared better in basketball. But in sports like tennis, soccer, swimming, baseball and others, Allderdice can compete on a more or less equal basis against some of the better schools in the WPIAL. On the whole, in most sports, Allderdice would fare in the middle to upper half of the WPIAL. Brashear would be a solid middle of the pack contender overall as would Carrick.

Other than a lack of quality facilities and coaching, the City League also suffers from a discernable lack of community support. One advantage that schools in the WPIAL have is that they enjoy support in their communities that City League schools could only dream about. One reason for that is that with the public school districts of the WPIAL, those districts have a few elementary schools, a couple middle schools and with very few exceptions, one high school that serves a particular community or in some cases, a small number of communities. The local high school has the total support of the community that it serves. In those small towns and municipalities, the high school is the major local source of community pride and identity. Go into any suburb around Pittsburgh and you'll see much evidence of support of the local high school teams especially if that school's teams are in the playoff hunt. These communities rally around their local high schools and they know that the kids that represent that school come from that community and are "home-grown."

The City League does not have that support in abundance. There are nine high schools in the Pittsburgh City League and while the neighborhoods those schools serve may support the athletics of the local school, they do not do so to the extent of the schools in suburban districts. A lot of that can be attributed to the fact that compared to a city the size of Pittsburgh that has many other activities that compete for the scarce time and resources of high school students, smaller suburban communities tend to have fewer impediments that compete with the local high school as the center of local youth activity. The existence of booster clubs run by parents that support various sports at the high school also plays a significant part.

Also, with the ability of kids to essentially attend any school in the district regardless of that school's location, the sense that the kids are home-gr0wn and part of that local neighborhood is diluted. This happened because of the creation of the city-wide magnet schools that concentrated on a specific theme or course of study rather than a specfic location. these schools were created in order to comply with the desegregation order that was placed against the Pittsburgh Public Schools in 1989 by the PA Human Relations Commission.

It is questionable as to whether the order actually succeeded in desegregating the schools because there are still at least three high schools in the PPS that are in excess of 80% African-American population. But the creation of those magnet schools did allow kids from anywhere in the city to attend them rather than be forced to attend the local high school in their community. The magnet programs have been largely successful in the educational sense, but in the athletic sense have hurt the City League because some students may transfer out of their neighborhood schools to a magnet school primarily to play on a better football or basketball program. There were numerous accusations that Perry Traditional Academy on the North Side had used this approach to lure top athletes from other city schools to play for its football and basketball teams. And during the late'90s and early 2000's those accusations had a tinge of merit as Perry dominated both football and basketball during those times. But the effect has since worn off as Perry has not won a City football title in the last 4 years and has only won one basketball title 3 times since 2002. Although Schenley winning 4 straight basketball titles between 2004-2008 might also appear to add some truth to this premise because Schenley is a magnet school, but it must be said that the Spartans won using mostly local talent from North Oakland and the Hill.

But the magnet schools seem to have taken away the attitude that many of a schools athletes playing in the so-called marquee sports of football and basketball are representative of the neighborhood where the school is located.

Also at least in football, the centralizing of all football games at one stadium has negatively affected the level of community support for City League athletics. In most suburban districts, the students, alumni and staff of that school district go out of their way to maximize their home field advantage. Go to a game at Aliquippa's "Pit" or Woodland Hills "Wolvarena" and there is no doubt where you are and who plays at that stadium. The local community knows that stadium is their baby and they get behind their team with great passion. You'll see signs and posters in the school's colors. The myriad of traditions and pageantry that makes high school football what it is in this region.

The City League, by having all their games played at one location eliminates that "home field advantage." To be sure, the reason for the move was a practical and necessary one. Only 5 of the current city high schools have on-campus or near-campus athletic fields, and in most of those cases, the fields were well short of the state and national requirements for safe play and a decent viewing atmosphere. Some of those fields didn't even get grass on them until the late '80s. Also in the era of games played on campus fields, only the home team's fans could go to the games due to incidents involving fights between opposing school's fans. And each field had its own security issues and plans of ingress and egress in case of emergency, so in the early 90's it was decided to have all football games played at Cupples Stadium on the South Side. The advantages were that Cupples was the best maintained stadium in the city having been the second stadium in the Pittsburgh area to receive artificial turf back in the mid 70's. Cupples was also centrally located, had easy to control ingress and egress and was able to accommodate fans from both schools with a minimum of incidents. And because the field was artificial turf, maintenance costs were lower.

But the negatives are that there is no true "home field" advantage. The only advantage that the home team gets at Cupples is that their fans get to sit on the side of the field with the press box and their band performs at halftime. The midfield decoration is a generic 'Pittsburgh Public Schools' logo. The cheerleaders will hang signs on their side of the field in the colors of the school urging theor team on, but the effect is not the same. Crowds at City League football games can range from less than a hundred in the case of two bottom place teams playing to over a thousand if two good teams are playing or if it's the championship game. If Perry and Brashear are playing for the overall lead in the league and both teams are good, Cupples jumps as much as any high school stadium in the region. But put two teams like Langley and Westinghouse who are winless and no chance at the playoffs and just playing out the string, you might see more people on the field than in the stands.

You go to most City League football games and there's no life and little excitement. The crowds are sparse, in some cases, it seems like even the players don't want to be there. The stadium is largely empty, I've been to games where not even the home team's band bothered to show up much less played at halftime. Someone described the typical City League football game as like watching two prison teams playing. There are those who call for returning the City League games back to the neighborhoods, but that won't happen unless the PPS is willing to invest millions of dollars that it doesn't have in renovating the current campus fields to the point where they could be comparable to even a modest stadium in the WPIAL.

Because all nine teams have to share the stadium, that makes for games being played at non traditional times. Currently, the City League plays games at 7pm on Thursdays, 3:30pm and 7:30pm on Fridays and either 11:00am, 1:00pm, 3:oopm, or 5:00pm on Saturdays depending on the schedule. In most WPIAL schools and also in the majority of the state, high school football is played at 7:30pm on Friday nights, except for those few stadiums that don't have lights and their games are played on Saturday afternoons. In the WPIAL, there are a few Thursday night games mostly to accommodate local cable television, but in Pennsylvania, 7:30pm Friday night is the traditional time for high school football.

The effect of having multiple times for playing games tends to play havoc with City League teams and fans. Most parents can't always make the 3:30pm Friday games and the students are just getting out of school an hour before and can't or won't travel the distance to the South Side to take in the game. The 7:30 Friday night games get the best crowds, but even that depends on the two teams playing, and often the schedule makers will put the two worst teams in that prime spot. The numerous different playing times also cause headaches for the coaching staffs in preparing for the upcoming games. In the WPIAL, teams know that, by and large they will be playing at 7:30 on Friday night. The coaching staffs have their practice and game preparation routines laid out to that time. In the City League, teams can have anywhere between five and nine days between games to prepare and practice. It is not uncommon for a team that played on noon Saturday to turn around and be ready to play again the following Thursday. Conversely, a team that played Thursday can be scheduled to play again the following Saturday week. And because there are an odd number of teams playing in the league, the bye week adds an extra seven days leaving some teams with up to 16 days between games, if they didn't schedule a non league opponent. City League coaches and players take it all in stride because they know that is the way it is in this league.

I could go into a lot more stuff that causes those from outside the City to wonder how this crazy quilt system works in spite of every logical conclusion that it shouldn't, but I have to close this piece as it's getting very long.

The question is now, what is the future of the City League? The answer is...who knows? The PPS school board and superintendent are working on reforming the high schools of the district to maximize efficiency and to cut down on the excess capacity that exists in the district's buildings. Schenley High School will be no more at the end of the 2010-11 school year. There is talk of closing Peabody and merging their students with Westinghouse, which should be interesting given the long time rivalry between the two schools. There is also talk of possibly closing Langley and/or Oliver.

There are to be more magnet and specialty high schools coming on line. Too many to cover in this piece. I'd suggest going to the Pittsburgh Public Schools website and rooting around there for the details. But it seems to me that while the board is restructuring the schools for educational purposes primarily, the question is, how will this affect the City League? Does the board even care? I'm of the opinion that the PPS board tends to put athletics on the back burner in terms of priorities. They're more interested in doing what it is they do and leaving the athletics to the Athletic Director. There are many questions to be asked. How will the upcoming specialty high schools be dealt with in terms of athletics? Will they sponsor their own teams or have co-op arrangements with existing high schools? What high schools are next on the chopping block? It's not a question of when, but what. How many high schools will the new PPS and City League have left? And can the result continue to be a viable PIAA district and if not, will the PIAA say something?

One premise that has been floated on occasion, but has never received much traction is the merging of the City League into the WPIAL. There has been talk going back at least 10 years about the City League and the WPIAL coming together and so far it has just been that...talk.
The road to a merger would take several steps. First the City League would have to come to a consensus that it wants and needs a merger. Then they'd have to approach the WPIAL and petition them for membership. The WPIAL would then have to vote on accepting the City League and then petition the PIAA to allow the merger. If all of that is approved, the City League and all its traditions would then be swallowed up by the WPIAL akin to a minnow being swallowed up by a whale. It is also possible that the PIAA might tell the City League that an eight school district is too small to be viable under the PIAA district structure and might put pressure on the league to merge with the WPIAL. At this point, there isn't much interest on either side to engage in serious merger talks. In fact the Executive Director of the WPIAL, Tim O'Malley told the City League Athletic Director, Michael Gavlik that he should fight any attempt by the PIAA to phase out the City League and merge them into the WPIAL. In this article in the Post-Gazette, He maintains that with few exceptions, the City League would not be able to compete equitably with the WPIAL in most sports. In the current climate, he would be right. But as the PPS continues with its plan to close and consolidate high schools, the choice of whether to merge may not be made by the City League or the WPIAL, but by the PIAA.

Initially, any merger between the City League and WPIAL would be to the WPIAL's benefit. They would have the entire Southwestern Pennsylvania region including the City of Pittsburgh under their thumb. The disparity between the City and WPIAL schools would pretty much give WPIAL schools more or less easy wins in most sports until the City schools catch up. And they will be forced to catch up, otherwise they will be an even bigger embarrassment than they already are. The disparity between the City League and the WPIAL in most high school sports has never been wider. On the City side, a City-WPIAL merger would benefit the larger schools like Allderdice, Brashear and Carrick because they are the most "WPIAL-like" schools in the City in terms of the number of sports sponsored, and the level of success those schools have had against WPIAL competition. They would stand the best chance of having immediate success in the "olympic" sports as well as basketball. Football, however is a very different story because the disparity between the WPIAL and the City League is greatest there. It would take at least five years before the best of the City League would be able to hold its own against the best of the WPIAL on the gridiron. Schools like Allderdice, Brashear, and Carrick already schedule numerous WPIAL teams in the sports they are strong in because the compeition in the City League is just not up to standard. So it stands to reason that those schools would be able to have immediate success. The smaller City schools probably would have a tougher road to hoe.

For the record, I happen to support the merger of the City League into the WPIAL. While there will a period of adjustment when City League schools will face a very difficult learning curve in adapting to the higher level of competition as well as playing in front of audiences that are much more used to the concept of "home field" advantage, as the old saying goes, "Competition improves the breed." Or as Ric Flair says it "To be the man, you've got to beat the man. Woooo!!" It has to be done either way, better to get it out of the way now.

I feel that the PPS board will have to face this matter sooner than later because the pressure to merge could very much come from the PIAA who feels that an eight school district is too small to maintain. I would like to see the City League remain in some kind of tipoff or holiday tournament structure especially in basketball, because even though they would be part of the WPIAL, they are city schools at heart and those rivalries and traditions don't deserve to be flushed away. I don't know how it can be done, but I want to see something that allows the City schools to retain their common identity and traditions. There's too much history that would be lost and I don't trust the WPIAL to respect those traditions and memories that have been forged over the years in the City League.

But I do not want to see the City League ghettoized into some kind of City Conference that is part of the WPIAL but consists of City League schools, because all that does is repeat the problems the City League is presently facing but instead of being part of its own playoffs as it is now, they'd be part of the WPIAL playoffs. It's much better for the City schools post-merger if they were placed in their respective enrollment class and in geographically based conferences with other WPIAL schools in their location. Now that does produce some scary situations. For example, in football Allderdice, who is classified in the PIAA as a Class AAAA school, if it were merged into the WPIAL and placed into a conference that is geographically based would be in the same conferences as such traditional powerhouses as: Penn Hills; Central Catholic; and Woodland Hills.

Most of those games would be painful to watch, but if Allderdice wants to get better and compete, they will have to do what is necessary in terms of coaching, training and getting quality players out for football in order to be respectable. Brashear would be placed in a conference with Mt. Lebanon, Upper St. Clair, and Canon McMillan. No doubt that the first years would be very tough to stomach, but I think that most City League teams would be up for the challenge and would make the upgrades needed to compete respectably in the WPIAL. The exposure to real home field advantages would compel the student bodies of City League schools to raise their game to avoid embarrassment.

So what is the future of the City League? I think that the question of a merger is not whether it will happen but when. If you put a gun to my head and made me predict when a merger will go down, I'd say within the next five to seven years, the City League will merge with the WPIAL not necessarily because it wants to, but because it cannot afford not to.
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