In late October, 1999, my senior year of high school, I was sitting in Mr. Balfour’s class when one of my friends came into class and told me: “Patrick, you made all-conference.”
Surprised wasn’t the right word. Confused was more like it. The only thing I could think was to wonder why my friend would play this joke on me.
It wasn’t a joke. In 1999, the four head coaches in the Class 1A-Division II Powder River Conference awarded me a spot on the all-conference football team.
I didn’t deserve that spot.
And I knew it.
Even on the worst team in one of the worst conferences in the classification made up of the the smallest schools in the smallest state in the country, I shouldn’t have been all-conference. I was (and am) 5-foot-7, maybe 150 pounds (bigger now). I made up for being slow by being weak, too.
My stats reflected that reality. I started at tight end/wide receiver and safety; I had maybe six catches all season (no touchdowns) and roughly 50 defensive points (no interceptions).
But I showed up to practice every day. I played hard. I was coachable. I didn’t cause any problems off the field. And I appreciate that my coaches deemed me worthy to nominate and other coaches agreed.
That was enough to make me a quota filler.
My all-conference selection is emblematic of all-conference football in Wyoming as a whole. Certainly, it’s not a new problem, but 2020’s selections revealed just how easy all-conference honors are to earn.
Consider the number of players who were recognized as first-team all-conference selections this year: 359. Yes, 359 different Wyoming players were named first-team all-conference selections after the 2020 season.
Of those, 76 came in Class 4A, 79 in Class 3A, 93 in Class 2A, 71 in Class 1A nine-man and 40 in Class 1A six-man.
But the number 359 barely scratches the surface.
Class 4A’s numbers game
The most absurd recognitions come in the classification with the biggest schools. In Class 4A, some level of all-conference recognition is barely above that of a participation award.
The problem in 4A is that there are three levels of all-conference recognition: first team, second team and honorable mention. The 76 players I mentioned before were first team, on which there are 92 available spots across the two all-conference teams (4A gives all-conference and all-state honors by position). There were another combined 66 second-team spots, and this year there were 93 combined honorable mention selections.
That’s 251 possible all-conference choices. In one classification. For 10 teams. Quick math: That averages out to 25 selections per team reaching some level of all-conference recognition.
Basically, all you have to do to get an all-conference selection in Class 4A, all things being equal, is start. With 11 positions on offense, 11 positions on defense, kicker, punter, returner, and there’s 25 positions to nominate for the roughly 25 positions per school available for all-conference.
This year, 174 individuals filled those 251 spots in 4A. And as you dig in, you begin to see some of the absurdities.
Thunder Basin had 40 all-conference choices — almost double the number of available starting spots on Thunder Basin’s team. In all, 25 different ‘Bolts players were named all-conference to those 40 spots. Of those Thunder Basin choices, 16 were on offense and 19 were on defense, with the remainder falling into special teams or “at-large” selections.
Now, pay attention, because this is where the absurdity starts to show: at the position breakdown. Thunder Basin had eight defensive linemen, seven defensive backs and five wide receivers make all-conference.
At least for Thunder Basin, it was easier to get all-conference recognition than it was to earn a starting position in 2020.
For as fine of a team as Thunder Basin had this year, even that is pushing it. This isn’t just a Thunder Basin problem, though.
Natrona and Sheridan had 22 individuals named all-conference — Sheridan’s players to 31 spots and Natrona’s to 28. That’s not all that far behind Thunder Basin.
Also, it’s not just an issue of the top teams soaking up all the spots: Nine of the 10 Class 4A teams had at least 11 all-conference selections on offense. Thunder Basin, as noted, had 16; Campbell County had 14; Natrona and Sheridan had 13; Central and Laramie had 12; East, Rock Springs and Kelly Walsh had 11 apiece.
Then again, when you have that quota of 251 spaces to fill, you’ve gotta get a little creative.
That’s how guys become quota fillers.
All-state is problematic, too
All-state awards are much more selective. More spots are available on all-state, though, than ever before, as well — this year, 186 players were named first-team all-state across Wyoming’s five classifications.
A look at the all-state teams of the past shows how much the teams have been expanded, with numbers creeping up bit by bit, year by year.
The 186 players named all-staters in 2020 is the highest number in Wyoming history. This year’s total breaks a record set in 2019, 2018 and 2016 of 182.
Here’s a chart that shows the incremental creep of all-state awards. (Note that the dip in 1994 is due to incomplete data; the 1A nine-man all-state team from that year still has yet to be found.)
Historically, the biggest jumps are when Wyoming adds a classification of football — from 89 selections to 110 between 1982 and 1983 with the move from three to four classes, and the jump from 109 to 140 selections between 1989 and 1990 with the move from four to five.
Even so, the 140 players on Wyoming’s first five-class all-state teams in 1990 collectively total 46 fewer players than the 186 players recognized in 2020.
(If you really want to dig deep on this, click here to see a breakdown of the number of all-state players by classification and year.)
What coaches and administrators across the state need to decide is if all-conference awards are exclusive.
Right now, they’re not.
In another 20 years, how many of the 359 first-team players across the state who were given all-conference recognition will say the same? How many of those 174 individuals across the gamut of 251 first-team, second-team and honorable mention selections in 4A? How many of those eight Thunder Basin defensive linemen?
Heck, how many will say it now?
I think one answer is to change all-conference (and all-state) teams to true team selections. By position, choose 11 players for offense, 11 for defense, three for special teams for an even 25 players per conference; adjust accordingly for nine-man (9-9-3 for 21) and six-man (6-6-2 for 14). Across Wyoming’s five classifications and 10 conferences, that’s 220 players: 50 in 4A, 3A and 2A, 42 in nine-man and 28 in 1A.
For all-state, that would be 25 for 4A, 3A and 2A, 21 for nine-man and 14 for six-man; in all, that’s 110 all-state picks.
If coaches want to recognize their players, they can continue to do so with team-specific awards. That would truly be more meaningful than a recognition so watered down that it might be mistaken for a joke.
The legacy of a quota filler
I never framed my all-conference award, and I never hung it on my wall. I’m not even sure where it is, to be honest. It’s probably buried among perfect attendance honors and report cards, but I’ve never felt compelled to go look for it.
This is totally antithetical to who I am, though. I’m a nostalgic dude. I love keeping the past alive. I think often about my experiences in high school sports. I’ve been known to watch the occasional game tape on YouTube. And I run this website. My wife has called me Uncle Rico, and sometimes I wonder if she’s not joking.
But the all-conference honor I got as a senior?
I didn’t deserve it, and I know it.
It means so little to me because it meant so little to the ones who bestowed it on me.
A few weeks ago, I broached this topic on Twitter, asking if the number of players selected for all-conference honors was too many, too few or just right. Here’s what you all said:
What do you think? Be sure to leave a comment.