The sleet and icy December wind blowing over Vanderbilt’s Dudley Field created a dramatic backdrop for the climax of an icy high school sports situation in Tennessee that had cooled year after year.

In the dying moments of Brentwood Academy’s convincing victory over perennial state power Murfreesboro Riverdale for the 1995 Class 5A football championship, Ronnie Carter – the executive director of the TSSAA at the time – began to march towards the lift from the press box on its way to the trophy presentation pitch. As Carter waited for the elevator doors to open, a voice from the Riverdale Coaching Lodge shouted in her direction, “Private schools are 3-0!”

“I knew this was going to happen,” Carter said, buttoning his overcoat.

Despite an entry that would have allowed Brentwood Academy to compete in 2A, its coaches opted to play three rankings to compete in what was then the highest level in the state. The Eagles have consistently dominated their path to an undefeated season among schools with larger rosters, passing 15 opponents on average by more than 30 points, including a double-digit win to dethrone Riverdale – the previous season’s champion – in Nashville. .

BA’s victory was also the third title for private schools in all five classes, each in double digits. That moment served as a catalyst for the end of a unified high school athletic membership in the state. Public school administrators saw this as the exclamation mark of an argument they had supported for decades: their teams could no longer compete with private schools for the championships.

Just four months after private schools dominated those 1995 football games, the TSSAA Legislative Council – which is responsible for statewide rule changes – voted 6-1 in favor of the establishment a separate league for schools that provide financial assistance to athletes. A year after the vote, the new rule was implemented and this fall marks the 25th anniversary of this first season of the separation of competition between Division I (public schools) and D-II (private schools) in Tennessee. Secondary School Athletic Association. .

“There was no doubt in the minds of anyone in the state office that we were totally against the split,” said current TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress, who was deputy director at the time of the split. “We felt it discriminated against a small part of our membership. Young people don’t care who they play, they just want to compete with their friends.

“At the end of the day, it was about winning and winning championships. Every rule change, be it public-private or otherwise, is always about winning championships. gold.”

(READ MORE: GHSA public-private debate intensifies again)

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Baylor soccer players tear up their banner ahead of their rivalry match against another TSSAA Division II-AAA McCallie schedule in October 2020.


Prior to the split in the fall of 1995, private schools had won 17 consecutive state championships in men’s tennis, 11 consecutive in men’s golf and nine in wrestling over a 12-year span. But because that dominance had come in so-called “minor sports” – the ones that don’t generate as much income – the real resentment has remained beneath the surface for most public schools.

Former Riverdale principal Hulon Watson, who trained as a football coach at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, began researching the differences between public and private schools in the state in the mid-1990s. learned that while private schools made up only 15% of TSSAA members, they won nearly 60% of championships in the 13 state-sanctioned sports.

“Football was what caught everyone’s attention,” Childress said. “Once the private schools started winning big in football, that was the tipping point. It created enough frustration that the coaches and administrators of the public schools came together to find a way to put the schools together. kept out of their way when it came to competing for the championships. “

As was the case with the original TSSAA rule to separate schools by enrollment, which created a classification system in 1969, football was at the heart of the decision that changed the landscape of preseason sports and made Tennessee the first state to divide all high school sports. along public and private lines.

Charges of recruiting were the basis of the public schools’ argument that a competitive imbalance was growing with their private school counterparts. Sporting success at the championship level largely requires talented athletes, and according to public school coaches, the ability of private schools to use their considerable resources to recruit in any school zone meant they could bring together the best. athletes in any field, then use these players to beat the public schools and fight for the championships.

“If another program comes along and takes out one of your best players, it will be more difficult to win games, especially against the better competition,” said Meigs County coach Jason Fitzgerald. “When training is your livelihood, you know you have to win games or you could lose your job. Many of us took it very seriously when a private school came to recruit a kid from your college. or our university. “

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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Meigs County football coach Jason Fitzgerald addresses his team after the Tigers lost 35-13 to Peabody in the TSSAA Division I Class State Title game 2A BlueCross Bowl last December in Cookeville, Tenn.


The original division 25 years ago created Division II and two classifications within it: Small and Large, which was called the “Super Seven” at the time because it was a league of only seven major schools. from across the state: Baylor, Brentwood Academy, Christian Brothers, Father Ryan, McCallie, Montgomery Bell Academy, and Memphis University School.

Since that first season of divided competition, the competitive gap has only widened between public schools and D-II programs.

“Our league has grown so much in terms of the level of competition since the split, and honestly it’s like a little college league in terms of running our programs now,” said McCallie coach Ralph Potter, the only one. current head coach. which has continued in D-II since its inception.

“College coaches know there will be four to five guys per team (in TSSAA D-II) signing with FCS programs or more each year,” Potter added.

When the Blue Tornado played at Brentwood Academy in the 2006 state title game for DII-AAA, only two of the combined 44 starters from both teams later failed to play college football at some level. .

Since the split, Baylor is 42-6 overall against the Chattanooga-area Public Schools, his last loss to Soddy-Daisy in 1999. Only twice in his 41-game winning streak against the Chattanooga Public Schools. the area have the Red The Raiders won within double digits.

Meanwhile, McCallie is 30-5 against area public schools since the split, having earned eight straight wins – all with over 35 points – with his last loss to McMinn County in 2012. Only five of those 30 wins were less than double. figures.

This disparity has led more and more public schools in the region to simply refuse to program Baylor or McCallie, leaving these two programs to seek other states to find willing opponents.

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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Malachi Powell (2) of Boyd Buchanan upsets a running back for visiting Davidson Academy on August 27 during a TSSAA Division II-AA football programs game.


Phil Massey was the Haywood County Class 4A head coach when the split was implemented and was hired to take over the Baylor program in 2006. He said when he arrived at Baylor there was a striking and immediate difference between training in a public and a private. school.

“The most important thing is the resources,” said Massey, who has won 105 games with the Red Raiders. “You don’t have to go out and fundraise like we did with a public school program, where money for even things like new equipment is usually a concern. In public school, it seemed like a marathon every season just in terms of having to train both sides of the ball, teach four classes a day, and then do things like pitch maintenance, wash uniforms, and organize details like transportation and food for road trips.

“The other noticeable difference is the size of the coaching staff. At Haywood I had myself and three assistants, but here I have nine assistants plus a full-time strength trainer. Having that many coaches. really raised the strategic level. When the split occurred, the competitiveness of private schools forced to play against each other made everyone raise their level of play to a very high level in all areas. “

Although initially the TSSAA allowed private schools that chose not to give financial assistance to continue to compete in the public school division, the enrollment of these schools increased by a factor of 1.8 to force them to play in the public school division. classification. Most small to medium-sized private schools – including the regional Boyd Buchanan, Chattanooga Christian, Grace Academy, Notre Dame, and Silverdale Baptist Academy programs – have chosen to stop providing athlete financial assistance and stay in the division. public school.

Eventually, even this concession was not enough, and by a majority vote in 2018, it was decided to move all private schools to Division II. There are now three D-II classifications for football, while public schools compete in six classes.

“In the end it worked better for everyone, but that’s because we made sure the D-II kids get everything the public school teams have in terms of tournaments and championships. State, ”Childress said. “But it’s still amazing to me that high school kids don’t even realize that there was a time when public and private schools played in the same division.”

Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected] or 423-757-6293. Follow him on twitter @StephenHargis.

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