Since the MIAA adopted a new football playoff format in 2012, coaches, athletic directors, and administrators have been brainstorming about scheduling changes that could return significance to traditional Thanksgiving games.
There are now two proposals on the table for the MIAA’s Tournament Management Committee to consider next spring.
The first, presented in October by Milton coach Steve Dembowski on behalf of the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association, calls to shift the playoffs beyond Thanksgiving, following a model used by Connecticut since 2010 that allows for up to 10 regular-season games over a 12-week period.
The current format allows for eight regular-season games and a 16-team statewide playoff, with Thanksgiving falling the week before the Super Bowls.
Now a group of athletic directors, administrators, and coaches have generated a proposal that would tweak the calendar so that the Super Bowls would be held the Saturday before Thanksgiving, allowing state finalists to play their full roster without concern. In recent years, some Super Bowl-bound programs have elected to sit their starters on Thanksgiving in preparation for the state final.
“With Thanksgiving, there’s no easy fix,” said Duxbury coach Dave Maimaron, who tackled that issue twice when his Dragons were preparing for Super Bowls in 2016 and 2019.
“The Super Bowl means more to these kids than that game in that situation. I get the tradition of Thanksgiving, but playing for a state championship is the goal.”
Would moving the Super Bowl ahead of Thanksgiving return significance to those traditional rivalry games?
Winchester coach Wally Dembowski said he understands that logic, but also pines for the days when Thanksgiving games held even more significance because they factored into the playoff picture.
“With Woburn and Winchester, it’s one of the oldest rivalries in the state,” said Dembowski, a former star at Danvers High. “If we’re playing each other for one of the playoff spots, you want to talk about some emotion? You’re going to raise the level.”
According to Burlington AD Shaun Hart, who helped craft the proposal for an adjusted football schedule, the plan could be modified to allow for an extra bye week with eight teams qualifying per division, reducing the number of consolation games from three to two.
That would give programs the option to take their bye before Thanksgiving and spend an entire week preparing for their rivalry game. Hart asserts that might be the best way to increase intensity on Thanksgiving, since extending the playoffs multiple weeks into December is challenging.
“Football coaches think about football and that’s what I love about them,” said Hart, who has previously coached football at Winchester, Westford, and Phillips Andover.
“But ultimately for ADs, I have 29 sports that are equally important. If you want to have great playoffs, get rid of Thanksgiving, but I can’t see it impeding on every other sport.”
Hart would like to present the proposal to the Football Committee at its next meeting, which is scheduled for early December.
Shrewsbury athletic director Jay Costa has presented a proposal to move the start of winter sports back a full week, which would help with a potential conflict between the seasons.
One thing coaches and ADs seem to agree upon is the reduction of consolation games, with Steve Dembowski asking for a more complete regular season and a more condensed playoff format.
“[The coaches association has] made it pretty clear for a year that we want to have a longer regular season and less teams in the state tournament,” Dembowski said.
“If our sport is the only one that has to have consolation games and a shortened regular season, that creates an inconsistent platform.”
While the coaches association’s proposal would need to be recommended by the TMC to the MIAA Board of Directors, a scheduling change around Thanksgiving would technically only need TMC approval.
Yet a decision to hold Thanksgiving games after the postseason is not likely to be popular among coaches, players, and fans.
“Like every other sport in our state, [football] playoffs should start at the conclusion of our season,” said Boston English coach Ryan Conway, vice president of the coaches association.
“I know Massachusetts is unique, but we need to get back to some basics. And lately we’re getting away from the basics, and that’s looking forward to some Thanksgiving games that lead into the playoffs.”