Playing high school football games on Thanksgiving morning in Massachusetts is as assured as overindulging on turkey, stuffing, and pie in the afternoon.
But a proposal from football coaches to rearrange the schedule in part to make those Thanksgiving games more meaningful by putting playoff spots on the line is ruffling a lot of feathers.
The proposal would result in Thanksgiving being the final game of the regular season, followed by three rounds of playoffs in an 11-day window for 64 teams (eight per division). It would push back the start to both the winter and spring sports seasons, but it would not eliminate the overlap that prevents some football players from trying out and practicing for a winter sport such as basketball because the football season is still in progress.
“Look, I don’t want to be the Grinch that stole the Thanksgiving turkey, OK?” said Bo Ruggiero, the boys’ basketball coach at Cohasset and a member of the Massachusetts Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. “We’re not against Thanksgiving, we’re not against the football playoffs, we’re not against the Super Bowls. What we’re against is the overlap.”
Ruggiero agrees that Thanksgiving games are “very, very important” to all the schools, and he thinks they should be the final games of the entire football season.
“Kids will think of it as ‘that’s my last game as a high school kid, and it’s against my archrival’ — that will draw big-time,” said Ruggiero.
Milton football coach Steve Dembowski, representing the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association, presented a proposal in September to the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s football committee, which will discuss it in January.
Under the current system — introduced in 2013 — Thanksgiving games fall between the state playoff semifinals and the Super Bowls, meaning 16 teams must decide whether to risk playing their starters on Thanksgiving or preserve them for the championship game. Thanksgiving games not involving Super Bowl teams have only pride at stake.
“The motivation behind this is we’re not doing the right thing for high school football players with their experience and we’ve minimized the experience for the 275 schools,” said Dembowski.
“There are coaches on Twitter and people who say, ‘You know what, a game is a game,’ but when your student body doesn’t care about the game, and it’s not a league rivalry, the media doesn’t cover your consolation game, and the only people there are your parents, it’s a glorified scrimmage.”
The football coaches’ proposal would turn the eight-game regular season that ends in October into a 10-game regular season that wraps up on Thanksgiving.
The buildup to Thanksgiving will be considerable, said Dembowski, because playoff spots will be up for grabs.
“You’ll be playing your league games towards the end of your schedule, so the excitement builds as you get into your traditional league rivalries and your season finishes on Thanksgiving,” said Dembowski.
“Before, if I’m Milton at 9-0 and Braintree’s there at 6-3, they’re playing to knock them back in the tournament. There will be more motivation and more interest in the game and you won’t have teams sitting players on Thanksgiving because they’re already in the state championship.
“Every game counts again.”
Shawsheen athletic director and football coach Al Costabile sees some value in the proposal.
“As an AD, I understand the needs of everybody,” he said. “We take our sports seriously and they’re anxious to get going, but as long as they know on the back end they’re being taken care of at the other end.
“If you push everything back a week and no sport or season loses any time, I think that’s the way it can work. Otherwise you’re going to have the winter season say, ‘You’re taking a week from me.’ ”
Dembowski understands that changing the start to the winter sports season will “be the major hang-up.” But with fewer teams in the playoffs, fewer athletes will be caught in the overlap.
“We don’t want to interfere with their season, we just want to move the calendar,” said Dembowski. “It’s a simple change, which could then help to put this plan in alignment with the written policies of the MIAA. You know, I think it’s something that if you went to court, we would win.”
The cross-examination would be robust.
“I struggle with it because of the length of the schedule and the potential for football moving into time periods that really should be for winter sports,” said John Brown, athletic director at Wellesley High and a member of the MIAA’s tournament management committee. “I think that the seasons are long enough as they are.”
Keegan Sullivan, who graduated from Scituate this spring, starred on the Division 4 state champion football team and missed the start of the basketball season with the flu.
“Personally, the adjustment was always hard at the start; it took me a while to get my wind back for basketball,” said Sullivan. ”I feel like it would almost put those kids that play football at risk of injury just because of the difference in style and not letting bodies recover fully. I feel like it wouldn’t be the greatest decision.”
Rick Grady, Dover-Sherborn basketball coach, echoed Ruggiero.
“The proposal of a new playoff system is one thing, but ruining the calendar is a completely different matter,” said Grady. “There’s frustration with the current model and its interference with winter sports, so to see anything that would further disrupt the winter sports season is really unacceptable in the eyes of many of our coaches.”
The proposal is being vetted by the MIAA football committee and for now is only an agenda item; it is not scheduled for a vote for the January meeting, said Richard Pearson, MIAA liaison on both the football and hockey committees.
If the proposal, which could still be modified, passes the football committee, it would have to then move through the tournament management committee. That would not necessarily be the final hurdle; there are other factors in play, including the MIAA looking into rule changes that could impact the calendar of all sports.
Scheduling football games on Thanksgiving is not going to change.
“As for football history in Massachusetts, Thanksgiving Day competition has been important in the minds of many coaches, players, and school communities,” said Pearson. “The detailed discussion about football for all MIAA member schools has engaged many constituents over the years.”
Get more high school football stories
- The high school football Super Bowl schedule is set. See when teams will play at Gillette Stadium.
- What’s your school’s Thanksgiving Day record? Search for it here.
- See the 2022 Thanksgiving Day football schedule.