SUBHEAD: Recent NCAA rule changes threaten the long-term viability of a Pennsylvania football institution
BYLINE: Mark Brennan
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Tom Loughran, coach of the 2007 Pennsylvania Big 33 team, met with his squad for the first time at the Lasch Football Complex on the Penn State campus May 6. In the room with him were 34 of the best senior players in the state, young men who had beaten incredible odds to land a coveted spot in the annual all-star classic.
But Loughran, the coach at South Park High near Pittsburgh, wanted the Big 33 athletes to realize that the game was not a destination, but rather a segue to even greater things. The vast majority of Big 33 players earn Division I scholarships.
Look around this room, he said before the squad's first practice. Because one day, somebody from this team will be playing in the Super Bowl.
Indeed, every Super Bowl has featured at least one Big 33 alumnus, making the all-star tilt, which now features teams from Pennsylvania and Ohio, perhaps the most tradition-rich game of its kind. So strong is the history that this year, for the first time, the NFL Network will bring the game to a national audience.
The increased exposure is especially fitting (and welcome) because this is the 50th anniversary of the Big 33.
It should be a time for unbridled celebration and high hopes for even better things in the future. And to that end, a number of special events are slated for the week leading up to this year's game, which is scheduled for June 16 in Hershey, Pa.
Yet with everything the Big 33 has going for it — top athletes, an incredible list of alumni, $3.6 million in scholarships handed out over the years, a buddy program in which players spend time with mentally challenged people, all-star cheerleading teams — enthusiasm for its future has been mitigated by trepidation.
The game itself and everything around it are still outstanding and great, explained Mickey Minnich, executive director of the Big 33. But all of the stuff that worries you is the stuff you can't control.
The Big 33, you see, has slowly but surely been pushed into a corner by the NCAA and Division I college football programs. The Southeastern Conference years ago proposed NCAA legislation that would allow major college football players to have their tuition paid the summer before their first fall semester.
The proposal was initially rebuffed, but after continued pressure from BCS conferences — including the Big Ten, which convinced the NCAA to allow a five-year early-enrollment pilot program for Division I college basketball — the NCAA reversed course and in 2005 approved the early tuition payments for all Division I athletes.
The days of major college football players enjoying their final summers before enrolling in the fall were over. Summer enrollment became an unofficial requirement for any freshman not wanting to be left behind his classmates. With summer semesters starting in late June or early July, the Big 33 found itself in a bind.
Since 1993, it had played its game on the third weekend of July. Because the Big 33 received news of the change so late, in 2005 the vast majority of college coaches allowed their recruits who had been selected to the game to take a week off from summer school to practice for and then play in the Big 33.
But in 2006, the game had to be moved. And that's where things have gotten difficult.
The second weekend of June is a popular date for high school graduations in Pennsylvania. And the fourth weekend in June is a popular time for universities to start summer semesters.
This year, we have seven Pennsylvania players who have to go and graduate [the week of practice], Minnich said. Ohio has three or four kids who can't come in until two days after they are supposed to arrive.
And that is only the start of the problems with the third weekend in June.
A lot of coaches have camps that weekend, Minnich said. Coach [Jim] Tressel can't come in because they'll have 1,800 kids on campus at Ohio State. A lot of pro coaches, that's their mini-camp weekend. And it's Father's Day weekend. That's why Jim Kelly and Joe Montana can't come back as celebrities this year.
Pennsylvania is not the only state feeling the crunch. Since 1993, the Keystone Staters have played Ohio in the Big 33. It has been a great series, with each state winning seven games. But Ohio's ability to continue in the Big 33 is at issue, too.
For years, Ohio held its annual North-South All-Star Game in June and then sent a team to Pennsylvania for the Big 33 in July. The new enrollment rules now force Ohio to play both games on the same day, effectively halving its talent pool for each contest.
It showed in 2006, as Pennsylvania scored six consecutive second-half touchdowns in a sloppy 61-42 win. The series had previously been covered by long-term contracts. But now the two states are operating on a tenuous year-to-year basis. Minnich hopes to have Ohio back in 2008, but he probably won't know for sure until August.
The Big 33 has also been hurt by the rising number of top prospects who graduate high school early and enroll at their respective colleges in January. Penn State true freshmen Jon Ditto and Nick Sukay were among the four projected members of the 2007 Pennsylvania Big 33 squad who fell into that category. Ohio lost five potential team members to early enrollment.
The most logical solution would be to move the Big 33 game to another date, one more accommodating to everyone. Unfortunately, as Minnich notes, there is no such date.
Any week in which high schools are in session is off limits because Minnich and company don't want to ask the athletes to miss classes in order to participate in practice. Asking an out-of-state team to do so would be an even greater imposition.
If we had a domed stadium, we could do it in December, Minnich said. For one week, that would be a big draw.
But the only logical spots for a dome would be in one of the two major metropolitan areas in the state — Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. And both have recently completed new non-domed stadium projects.
I really have to assess it, Minnich said. It's our 50th anniversary, so we really have to look at everything.
The deal with the NFL Network, which Minnich says now reaches 50 million homes, could help the game. Minnich believes that national exposure can't do anything but bolster the Big 33's long-range viability.
Provided, of course, that said exposure is positive. Because people are still adjusting to the game being in June, Minnich said he and his staff were busting our humps to pack that stadium — we're representing Pennsylvania here.
Minnich just doesn't talk about the Big 33. In many ways, he is the Big 33. He coached in the game three times (1969, '79 and '80). He was the director from 1979-85. Since then, he has held his current post, but he intends to retire later this year.
I've been around for more than half of them, he said. It's amazing, when you look at all the trials and tribulations. I'm just so happy it has so much tradition. The kids today are just dying to play in it. The scholarships are running $3.6 million. We're trying to do things with nursing. We have the buddy program and cheerleaders. It's more than a game. It's a spirit of giving and all these good things.
And we'll continue to do it if we can work on this one-week deal, he added. That has us a little worried.