When the NCAA approved a sweeping academic reform package in April 2004, casualties were inevitable. Those feeling the strongest impact figured to be renegade athletic departments with low graduation rates and student-athletes who viewed college as a steppingstone to professional sports rather than an avenue to an education. At the time, no one envisioned the potential for collateral damage. But innocent bystanders have indeed been hurt. The Big 33 is Exhibit A.
The organization, which holds an annual summer football all-star game while raising millions of dollars for academic scholarships and charities, could be in trouble because of a decision the NCAA made last year.
The Big 33 Classic has been staged in one form or another annually since 1958. Every Super Bowl has featured at least one Big 33 product. The list of participants is stunning, from Herb Adderly and Joe Namath in the early years, to Tony Dorsett, Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, Archie Griffin and Dan Marino in the 1970s, to LaVar Arrington, Ty Law and Ted Ginn more recently.
"There are so many great players who have come before us," said Sean Lee, a Penn State recruit who was chosen for the game this year. "We were at a press conference, and we saw Rocket Ismail speak. He was so passionate about it, so this is a great honor."
Now Mickey Minnich, the game's director and a legend in high school all-star game circles, finds himself fighting to keep the event viable. "I want to do everything in my power," Minnich said, "because we have such standards now and good traditions. I'd hate to see us lose anything."
At issue is the part of the NCAA reform package that allows major colleges — starting this year — to pay tuition for incoming freshman athletes to attend summer school. The idea is noble enough — allow the kids complete a semester of schoolwork before the crush of academics and athletics hits in the fall. But a look back at how the rule was slipped in with the package reveals different motives.
Half a decade ago, the Southeastern Conference proposed NCAA legislation to allow major-college football players to have their tuition paid the summer before their freshman seasons. The NCAA struck it down, in part over concerns that smaller programs would not be able to cover such expenses and in part because of suspicions about the rationale behind the measure. Some believed the football factories were as focused on getting the young athletes into their workout programs as they were with getting them into the classrooms.
Around the same time, however, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany convinced the NCAA to allow Division I college basketball teams to conduct a five-year "pilot" program in which schools could pay for freshman summer school. Summer school immediately became an unofficial requirement for all newcomers. The coaches wanted to get them on campus to get started on the academic load and to begin assimilation into the basketball program. No athlete had to arrive in the summer. But if he wanted to keep pace with the rest of the program, a freshman had little choice but to show up.
After much debate over who else should be allowed to receive summer tuition once the pilot program expired — basketball players, football players, academically "at-risk" athletes only — the NCAA included all Division I athletes. So the rule was written into the overall reform package that was passed last year.
And now it is reality. That's a problem for the Big 33, which typically sets aside the third weekend in July for its big game. Because if athletes are enrolled as full-time students in summer school, how can they step away from those obligations for the full week the Big 33 extravaganza covers?
Worse still, Minnich was blindsided by the news. He didn't find out about the rule until Penn State coach Joe Paterno informed him in April.
"We have a meeting every year to go over football," Minnich said. "He said. 'Mick, if I were you, next year I'd play the game in June.' I said, 'What do you mean, Coach Paterno?' He said the rule is [athletes] can come to summer school, and you know they are gonna want to come to summer school."
Since 1993, the Big 33 has matched all-star teams from Pennsylvania and Ohio. The game is played in Hershey, Pa., each July. It will be there this year, too, in its familiar spot on the third weekend (July 23). Given the extreme circumstances, the colleges of the players involved all seem willing to allow the athletes to fulfill their Big 33 obligations this summer.
But Minnich knows he can't count on that type of cooperation every year.
"So in researching this, the summer schools for a lot of colleges start in late June, around the 20th, so we had to move the game in 2006 to June 17," he said. He can't go back any more than that because high school graduations run from late May until mid-June. Earlier than that, and high school track and basketball seasons are impacted. The game can't be played in December because Pennsylvania does not have a domed stadium to protect fans and players from bad weather.
And that's not the only problem. Ohio typically holds its annual All-Star Classic the third weekend of June. The contest pits teams from the northern and southern halves of the state and is the longest running all-star football game in the nation, having been contested for 60 years. The event is staged by the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association, which must decide whether to move its game from its traditional date (but they too are being squeezed by the new summer school rule) or pull out of the Big 33.
Like Minnich, the Ohio coaches did not learn about the NCAA's summer school rule change until April.
"We are going to come back here for our June meeting, and at that time we will look at some of the ideas and make a decision to address this," said Bob Brigati, coordinator of the Ohio All-Star Classic. "We discussed it briefly in April and we really want to give it some thought. If you act in haste, you repent in leisure."
But Minnich can't afford to act in leisure, either, or he might find himself repenting in haste. His initial reaction to the news was to appeal to the NCAA for relief.
"They get back to us and say you don't have any right for an appeal, it's only for member schools," he said. "…We said we'll fly out, we want to present our case. Then allow parents to say, 'I lost my son.' They graduate from high school then a week later they're in college."
Minnich has heard college coaches are not thrilled with the new summer school rule, either, because it is too expensive and because once freshmen are on campus, coaching staffs have limited access to them before preseason practice starts. He is hoping the coaches appeal the summer school rule.
But he should not hold his breath, not when power conference schools like Penn State are tacitly encouraging players to graduate early from high school so they can enter the college football machine an entire semester early. And not when proponents of the new summer school rule, whatever their actual motive, can portray an attack on their view as an attack on education.
Just in case the coaches do rally around his cause, Minnich has reserved the site of the Big 33 Classic, HersheyPark Stadium, for the third week of June and July in each of the next two years. He is also double-scheduling facilities for practice, banquets and everything else that goes on in the months and weeks leading up to the game.
"We have things planned until 2010," Minnich said. "And these facilities say we'll work with you for maybe a year, but you're holding us up."
Which is where the Big 33 finds itself now, caught between a rock that is the NCAA and a hard place of the win-at-all-costs attitude in college sports. Somewhere along the way, the Big 33 Classic was lost in the shuffle.
"This is not just a football game," said Bob Palko, the head coach at West Allegheny High near Pittsburgh who is leading the Keystone State squad this year. "It's not just two teams. It's the tradition of football in Pennsylvania and Ohio. ... There's so much more to it. The thing that's neat it is to see the character come out in these kids, because they represent their own hometowns and families, and now they're coming together to represent the state. It's a special day."
If you are thinking one of the nation's greatest high school football institutions deserves a better fate, you are not alone.
"The game is so good and it's growing," Minnich said. "We touch the special-needs community, our scholarships are now big in nursing. The future is so bright for this and it's just a great tradition for a game.
"I'd hate to see it go by the wayside."
In regards to Ohio, no decisions have been made. Brigati said board members from the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association would meet again on June 17, the day before the Ohio all-star game in Columbus.
"It all came as quite a surprise to us, the NCAA rule change about when you can bring in the incoming freshmen," Brigati said. "That is why the Big 33 is apparently moving their game up to June.
"The Ohio North-South game is the oldest running high school football all-star game in the nation. This will be our 60th year."
The Ohio coaches association is left with two choices -- move its game to a different week or pull out of the Big 33. Ohio and Pennsylvania have played in the Big 33 every year since 1993.
When it was noted that it would be a shame to see these NCAA rules changes force the Ohio All-Star Classic go by the wayside, Brigati said, "Not on my watch, I hope."
Brigati noted that moving the Ohio game into the school year would only interfere with other sports. Plus, there is no suitable indoor facility that could host the game during the winter months.
"If we play in the wintertime, kids could not play other sports like basketball or baseball. The uniqueness of the game is what sets it apart. Ohio is football country," Brigati said.
Bucknuts.com managing editor Steve Helwagen contributed to this story.