When Wyoming’s high schools moved toward a statewide playoff football system in 1948, they did so with caution.
After all, by then, they had already broken the system once.
A decade earlier, infighting within districts and disagreements among districts had relegated qualifying for the playoff system established by the Wyoming High School Athletic Association (as it was known back then) to a messy system of appeals, challenges and tiebreakers.
But that was 1938. By 1948, the WHSAA and the schools had 10 years of thought behind a new postseason plan. But neither the group nor the schools could have foreseen the troubles that would come along with the new system.
The playoff system worked in theory, but its failure helped prove the system didn’t fit into the needs or desires of the schools participating in it.
Faced with an intense set of circumstances, schools opted to save their regions at the expense of their state. And because of that, one of the most interesting periods in the development of high school football in the state ended 14 years after it was started — and it ended with a thud.
By 1948, that resentment that had come with the problems of the 1938 playoff dissolution had faded. By 1948, a stronger classification structure had emerged, and six-man football had developed into a viable option for small schools. And, by 1948, a culture of postwar optimism encompassed everything “American,” including high school football.
In that setting, the WHSAA formed three football classifications with two playoff structures. Class AA, the big schools, didn’t have a postseason, but Class A and the six-man football schools in Class B had an option they had never had before — a four-school playoff bracket, complete with a championship game.
The Class A and six-man brackets were similarly simple: two semifinal games between the East (or North) district champions and the West (or South) district champions, with the winners meeting in the title game.
For seven years, the system worked. The lone exception to the smoothness came in 1950, when the Northeast six-man district decided not to send a representative into the playoffs; eventual state champion Cowley avoided playing a semifinal game that year. Otherwise, though, filling the bracket was never a problem.
Then, over the course of two years, the Class B playoff structure fell apart. And it fell apart for two big reasons — the introduction of a new classification and, subsequently, the schools’ adherence to regional loyalties.
Hints of dissatisfaction with the system first popped up in 1955, when the Southeast District six-man champion, Lingle, elected to stay out of the playoffs. The two Southwest District co-champions, Big Piney and Pinedale, played each other in one semifinal game instead to make up the difference.
Right about this time, the small schools in the Southeast District became more self-contained and dropped out of the state playoffs; these schools also made a shift to eight-man football, which did not have a sanctioned playoff bracket at that time.
By far, though, the most seismic shift occurred in 1956, when the state introduced a Class B 11-man playoff bracket.
With that change, every Class B school in the Northwest District made the move from six-man to 11-man, leaving a hole in the six-man playoff bracket that was never filled. In fact, the 1956 six-man playoff “bracket” was simply one game, as the champions of the Northeast (Tongue River) and Southwest (Cokeville) six-man conferences played each other for the title; the Northwest teams had all moved to 11-man, while all the Southeast teams were playing eight-man.
In part due to the troubles surrounding the playoff brackets, the 1956 season was the last for the six-man bracket. In 1957, the WHSAA made the switch to eight-man. Again, it ran into troubles.
In 1957, as in 1956, the small-school playoff “bracket” was only the championship game; this time around, the Northeast (Tongue River) and Southeast (Glendo) district champs played for the eight-man title. All the Northwest schools were still playing 11-man, while the Southwest schools held out of the playoff bracket. (Whether this was because those schools held onto one more year of six-man or simply didn’t want to send a representative to the eight-man playoff bracket, I’m not sure.)
But it’s not like the Class B 11-man was siphoning off a bunch of six- and eight-man schools; in fact, the Class B 11-man bracket was in may ways struggling to survive, as well.
At this time, the Southeast Class B 11-man district had no teams (remember, they were all making the shift to eight-man). So the Northeast and Northwest district champs played the lone semifinal game for the right to host the Southwest champ for the title.
In 1958, the Class B schools shifted again — this time in a way that crippled the makeup of the brackets forever.
The biggest shift came in the 11-man conferences. Every Southwest Class B school vacated the conference, in part due to some circumstances out of their control. Reliance closed its school, Superior and Saratoga moved to the eight-man game and Kemmerer and Jackson, alone in the class, both jumped to Class A. The Southwest exodus left the 11-man bracket without any representatives from the southern half of the state.
With the infusion of new schools, the Southwest district sent a representative to the eight-man playoffs for the first time in 1958. But that bracket still lacked a Northwest representative as those schools held fast to 11-man.
The same problems existed in 1959 — no southern representatives at all in the 11-man Class B bracket, no Northwest reps in the eight-man bracket.
By 1960, the brackets were all but dead.
The final year for the statewide eight-man bracket was 1960, and in many ways the final year represented all the problems that had reduced the playoff system to a shell of its former self. The Southwest did not send a representative into the bracket (even though Superior at 7-0 was the undisputed conference champion), and Glenrock (Southeast) played Hulett (Northeast) for the final eight-man title in Wyoming.
Meanwhile, in the Class B 11-man bracket, without southern representation, Northwest champ Byron beat Northeast champ Upton in the title game. And Upton was the conference “champ” in a most tentative fashion; by 1960, only two schools, Upton and Midwest, were left in the 11-man Class B Northeast conference.
And that snaking path was, in part, how Wyoming ended up with the 1961 Upton team, which, at 3-4-1, is the only team to win a state championship in a season in which it had a losing record.
The 1961 Upton Bobcats only had to win one game to assure itself of a berth in the state title game — the one against its only conference opponent, Midwest. Upton won that one easily, 34-13, manhandling a Midwest squad that was on its way to a winless season. But otherwise, Upton struggled, losing to Class A schools Gillette and Buffalo, tying Newcastle and dropping games to Edgemont, S.D., and the Rapid City, S.D., JV squad. The only other game the Bobcats won in 1961 came against Rapid City (S.D.) Cathedral, an opponent Upton beat 13-0.
Nevertheless, the Bobcats, who entered the title game with a record of 2-4-1, had earned the right to host the title game and the champions of the Northwest District. In 1961, the Northwest champ was 8-0 St. Stephens. The Eagles came to Upton on a 13-game winning streak and had fairly easily dispatched of Cowley, 33-20, the week before the title game to win the Northwest title; the 13-point margin of victory was St. Stephens’ closest game of the season to that point.
But the Bobcats weren’t impressed, and easily beat the Eagles 18-6 to win the 1961 Class B 11-man title — the last such title earned in a championship game in Wyoming until 1975.
The brackets’ demise came at a complicated time in Wyoming’s high school football history.
Between 1950 and 1962, 13 schools (Manville, Rozet, Albin, Encampment, Farson, Chugwater, Reliance, Snake River, LaGrange, Superior, Worland Institute, Arvada and Clearmont) cut their programs for an extended period of time or for good. Other schools fell victim to consolidation (Dayton and Ranchester to make Tongue River; Guernsey and Sunrise to make Guernsey-Sunrise). And while numerous schools started programs in this time to somewhat offset the march of consolidation, it wasn’t enough.
With the threat of closure or consolidation looming, numerous districts turned to self-preservation — in part, that’s why the small schools in the Northwest District went strictly 11-man in 1956, why their counterparts in the Southeast went strictly eight-man the same year, and why Southwest B schools abandoned 11-man for either eight-man or Class A in 1958. Only the Northeast district maintained a presence in both Class B brackets every year, and that was only accomplished by maintaining a two-school 11-man conference with only Upton and Midwest.
The introduction of a second Class B bracket, too, may have been too much for an already stressed Class B system to handle.
In the six-year existence of the Class B 11-man playoff bracket, a full four teams never competed. The Southeast District never sent a team to participate in the B 11-man bracket; the Southwest, after sending Kemmerer as its representative in 1956 and 1957, did not send a representative into the playoffs for the bracket’s final four years.
The stress on the playoff system was evident, and by 1961, the WHSAA wanted out. And even though the Class A part of the playoffs had been successful despite concerns about cost and competitiveness, the Class A playoffs, too, were eliminated after the ’61 season.
So why does this matter now?
In part, it’s interesting to note that, despite having about the same number of schools playing football as it did in the mid-1950s, Wyoming now has five football classifications, all with eight-team playoff brackets. The class-jumping and regionalization problems present 50-plus years ago are no longer a worry, in part because of the greater control the WHSAA now exercises on culminating events, scheduling and classifications.
Classification is much less flexible than it was in 1958; simply opting up to keep regional rivalries in tact is no longer possible. Many times, schools sacrifice longstanding regional games to fit within a WHSAA conference and classification — more so now than ever before as the WHSAA does all the scheduling for Wyoming’s varsity football teams. Schools opt up or down only with severe repercussions, repercussions purposely built into the system to discourage such actions. These repercussions were exacerbated in 2009, when the WHSAA chose to further restrict conference and nonconference play by instituting eight-team conferences in both Class 2A and Class 1A 11-man and installing a round-robin nine-week/10-school schedule for Class 4A.
Each step along the way was approved by the schools involved, in part to preserve competitive statewide playoff brackets.
The system in place now is why a school like Burns has 12 similarly sized schools within 130 miles but only plays one of them — Wheatland — during the football season. It’s why Midwest and Kaycee, 33 miles apart, are in separate six-man conferences, even though Kaycee’s closest conference opponent is 110 miles and a mountain range away and Midwest’s closest conference foe is 150 miles down the road. It’s why Evanston can’t play Star Valley or Green River, why Wheatland can’t play Torrington, why Greybull can’t play Riverside or Burlington. It’s why the words “power ratings” still frustrate fans. It’s why schools that ask to play in one classification are put in another. It’s why the Trona Bowl and the SEWAC, traditional pieces of Wyoming high school football, are both dead.
We can debate all day about whether the control exercised by the WHSAA here is for better or worse. But one thing is clear: to make a football playoff system work, the schools have to cede some control. When regional loyalty trumps preservation of a system, the system crumbles, no matter how well designed; the schools strain the system until the system breaks. We’ve seen that twice already, once in the 1930s and again in the 1950s and early 1960s.
But with the absolute control the WHSAA maintains on football in 2012, the question facing us now is if the system strains the schools — and if the system may eventually strain the schools until they break.