Is it time for prep and CIAC football programs to meet?
John Marinelli was getting desperate. He needed a game to fill the schedule in 2017 and 2018 for his Greenwich High football team. Because of the FCIAC schedule, the powerhouse Cardinals had a bye week and nobody around the state wanted to say hello to a matchup.
Marinelli used high school services in search of possible opponents. One was St. John Bosco near Los Angeles. Another was West Monroe (La.). Another was a team in Washington D.C., another in Washington, another in Colorado … you get the picture. Finally, Marinelli got lucky. Xavier of Middletown had an opening. Andy Guyon has a good relationship with Marinelli and he was willing to play Greenwich both years. The schedule had to be juggled and the game was squeezed in before Thanksgiving.
“There were other teams in the state with byes the same week we did those years that flatout said no,” Marinelli said. “It’s really hard for us to fill games. And prep schools are dying for games.”
That’s why Marinelli, the coach of the Class LL state champion and undisputed No. 1 team in the state last season, wants to play prep school teams.
He has a man on the other side of the fence who fiercely and openly agrees with him. Joe Linta, coach of Hamden Hall Country Day and an NFL player agent, wants to play CIAC schools.
“I’d love to play those schools,” Marinelli said. “I’m all for it. No one wants to play us. It’s not just us. I think it’s bigger public schools like New Canaan and Darien and private schools like St. Joe’s (Trumbull) that are struggling to get games.
“It’s easy for me to say after 13-0 (last season), but at 4-5 my first year I said I’ll play anybody anywhere. I want to give my kids the maximum games allowed under
CIAC rules. So they’ll have film for college and can play the sport they love. Coaches that don’t fill their schedule, I have a problem with. It’s one sport you can’t play after your high school and college days. Fill my schedule. If we are left out of the state playoffs that year because of it, well, it wasn’t meant to be.”
Some prep schools like Brunswick and Hamden Hall do not have postgraduate players, but students can reclassify to gain a fifth year of high school. Under CIAC rules, barring an extenuating circumstance, a four-year clock starts when a student enters as a freshman. So CIAC teams can play them, but, importantly, no points can be gained toward the state playoffs.
“Really, what’s the difference between Notre Dame, Xavier and Hamden Hall other than they are in the CIAC and we’re not?” Linta said. “They go out and take players just like we’re accused of.
“Here’s the thing that everybody’s on us about, but the extra point is everybody who comes in and reclassifies is also eligible per CIAC rules age-wise. We’re not taking guys who are graduating at 19 and 20. In fact, our rules are more restrictive than the CIAC.”
Other prep schools like Choate-Wallingford and Suffield Academy attract top players and use postgraduate players. The strength of prep school teams varies markedly. Big public schools can have superior numbers, important in football. The prep school teams can have superior top-end talent.
“I’m willing to play the Choates and Suffields of the world,” Marinelli said. “We’re a member of the CIAC. We want our state championship. The playoffs are special the way they are. I don’t want them in the CIAC, it’s an unfair advantage they can recruit and have PGs. But I’d love to play a prep school and have them count toward the CIAC state playoff system.”
Choate, Marinelli said, would be considered an LL school and would bring points for a win and points for all the wins they have that year. At the end of the regular season, points can be extremely tight for getting into the playoffs and for home-field seeding. So when a team plays only nine games, even losing points from an opponent who has fewer wins because of that can make a difference.
“Yeah, it’s because of the playoff points,” Linta said. “And also some teams just don’t want to play. I think the CIAC should be in a situation where they are forgiving. Instead of making a team travel to Rhode Island two hours and (have it count toward the playoffs), they can travel 10 minutes and play us.
“The CIAC’s excuse, (they) say, ‘Well, don’t know what kind of team they have.’ Obviously, we won a New England championship and we have kids going to play in college. Anybody who knows anything about football in Connecticut knows the quality of our team. My team two years ago, we were 11-0. I would have played any team in the state and expected to beat them.”
Marinelli said if he was stuck with nine games he’d be willing to play a prep school not counting toward the state playoffs.
“But that’s shady,” Marinelli said. “If I get a kid hurt for a game that doesn’t count for anything beyond bragging rights, what are we really playing it for? If we were able to come to an agreement with the NEPSAC that it could count toward their system, too, I’d love it.
“Look, I can appreciate other people’s situations in the CIAC. We are one of the few programs where our numbers have grown over the years. I’m not knocking anybody for that. It’s the way of the world (with declining participation). Also, not many coaches want to schedule games against really good teams. They’d rather play against one they know they’re equal to or better than. But I’m like my dad (New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli). Let’s go play anytime, anywhere for the experience — win, lose, or draw. See what we got. If we lose, it’s a teaching moment. If we win, it’s a great story.”
The Connecticut High School Football Scheduling Alliance, an agreement between commissioners from leagues across the state to produce equitable schedules, added the CCC and FCIAC for 2019. The SCC, SWC and ECC already were involved. There will be 99 crossover games this season, an increase of 18 over 2018.
“We were left out of the Alliance, I don’t know why,” Marinelli said. “We would have loved an Alliance game. I think the Alliance is starting to solve some of the issues, but even there you hear grumblings of coaches trying to alter schedules so they can get wins.”
You wonder why a knowledgeable committee couldn’t be put together to examine certain proposed matchups between well-matched prep and CIAC teams to approve them for counting toward the playoffs. Surely, there wouldn’t be that many such games.
Asked if there had been much talking among school administrators and coaches on this subject within the CIAC, Marinelli said, “I heard it got shot down quickly.”
The biggest reason is — and let’s be honest — CIAC coaches hate the way prep schools have taken so many star players in recent years. And those numbers are growing. There’s a war going on with the familiar whispers … Prep schools are a business and they’ll bilk money from parents without any assurance that Junior will get a scholarship or a good college placement … Conversely, if the CIAC schools and coaches were doing a good job educating their kids, honing athletic skills and promoting their kids, there wouldn’t be a need for them to go to prep schools.
In the end, more of our state kids are going to prep schools, and without a larger community surrounding them, they play in front of small crowds.
“But think about it,” Marinelli said. “How many people would have loved to see Choate versus Greenwich or Hand last year? Greenwich and Brunswick, we’d get 20,000 for that game. It would be an amazing thing for the sport in Connecticut and Greenwich.”
NFL prospect and Hamden Hall grad T.J. Linta poses with his dad Joe at the school’s football field in Hamden on Thursday. Joe is a professional sports agent and the football coach at Hamden Hall.