No Separation for Public and Private High School Football and Wrestling

By Briana Vannozzi

In his nearly 30 seasons as a head coach and athletic director for St. Peter’s Prep, Rich Hansen has never seen this issue die.

“I think if it had been solved in the Big North then it probably would not have come to this,” he said.

The competitive imbalance between public school teams and so called “elite programs” that are found mainly in non-public schools came to a head after a widespread vote approved separating the two in their own conferences for football and wrestling. State Education Commissioner David Hespe overturned that split, leaving many to continue the argument that the problem is less about public versus non as it is North versus South.

“I think that the south has dealt with it more appropriately and spread the schools out much more effectively than the north, especially the big north,” Hansen said. “They’ve kept the problem suppressed where its really become an issue in the north. The five or six elite schools have gotten better, the public schools have not, so the gap has widened.”

Those programs include schools like Don Bosco, Bergen and Paramus Catholic along with St. Peter’s. In his veto Commissioner Hespe wrote that a separation proposal, “clearly violates the state’s well-established policy of athletic opportunity.”

“I personally expected both decisions on both the football and the wrestling,” Bud Kowal, President of the West Jersey Football League and Athletic Director for Ewing High School, said.

The West Jersey Football League, which encompasses most of South Jersey, is one example of a conference that is working. It will expand from 65 to 95 members next year. The league president says only seven or eight voted to separate because they’ve been able to provide an evenly matched schedule.

“I think you have to look at the situation in different areas, number one,” Kowal said, “because I think to change the entire state because of what’s going on in one area of the state is a difficult sell.”

“There’s too many different variables and talents. Group three and group four doesn’t mean you’re going to have a bang up football team. It depends on what you get. A lot of people move to the high point area just to wrestle, and they do have a bang up wresting squad, but they’re not necessarily football players,” Jeff Braun, Vice President of North Jersey Youth Football League, said.

“We’re looking for competitive games, and removing the burden, as we’ve been called, from the publics to the smaller non-publics, to me is not a fair solution,” Jack McGovern from Bergen Catholic High School said.

Bergen Catholic’s athletic director is referring to the North Jersey Super Conference. Starting in 2016 it will funnel 115 high school teams into different divisions, separated by public and non-public, under one conference. But that may no longer be a viable fix either.

In response, the state’s interscholastic governing sports body wrote: “The games must go on […] The NJSIAA will continue seeking a recipe for fair play among member schools.”

Some say this vote indicates that there’s a real problem with no right solution. This ruling will stand for another two years, at which time coaches say they’ll be right back where they started.