In a world of "haves" and "have-nots" the issue of running up the score by great high school football teams on not-so-great high school football teams is present and clear in southeast Hillsborough County.
Referencing the 80-0, October 14 blowout of Armwood High School over nearby Strawberry Crest is a good place to start.
How does a team win 80-0?
What rules are in place to get the losing team off the hook?
First of all, the context has to be examined.
This is a unique year for Armwood. They are always good. They are as much of a dynasty as you can have in Florida high school football. They have made the playoffs every year, for more than a decade. They even have a 2003 undefeated season to their credit. This season, they are senior-laden and stacked with talent, deep into the roster.
"When you factor in character, grades, athleticism and passion, this is the best team I've ever coached," said Armwood head coach Sean Callahan.
On the other hand, Strawberry Crest football team is only in their third year of existence. They have nine wins in school history. One also had to consider Strawberry Crest's proximity to Armwood(5 miles) and Plant City(9 miles). This makes it very difficult to attract quality athletes.
"You can never really create parity because parents have a choice, where they want to send their kids," said Strawberry Crest head coach Gerold Dickens. "Armwood has done a great job of creating a football culture; which is something we'd like to do here."
An 80-0 blowout might incite cries of running up the score and call for more sanctions against the victor and/or a "mercy rule" for the losing team.
FHSAA by-law • 3-1-2 states:
If one team is ahead by a margin of 35 points or more at the end of the second quarter, the head coach of the team that is behind may request of the referee a running clock. If, however, the differential in the score is 35 points or more at the end of the third quarter or at any point thereafter, the running clock shall become mandatory. Once the running clock is initiated, it shall run continuously with the exception of during any timeout taken by a team or officials, injuries, unsporting conduct penalties, a score by either team, and during the period between quarters.
Basically, it provides a, "get out quick" scenario for the losing team. Football is a game of stops and starts. When the clock runs, even after an incomplete pass, the second half can evaporate very quickly; letting the losing team off the hook.
If we look at the October 14 game, we can clearly see the, "mercy rule" take effect. Armwood scored 28 points in the first quarter, 38 points in the second quarter, seven in the third quarter, and seven in the fourth.
"We didn't even score an offensive touchdown in the second half," said Callahan.
While it's easy to accuse a coach of running up the score in an 80-0 wipeout, Callahan defends his position.
"We used our #2s and our #3s, anyone we got the ball to scored," he said.
According to Callahan, he did not have his JV squad available for the Strawberry Crest game or he would have put them in, much like he did in a 68-0 blowout of Leto High School back on September 23.
What's the biggest issue with blowout games like these?
"Injuries," said Dickens. "When you're getting beat like that, you have a tendency to play tired or injured players longer than you might otherwise."
"You have to feel some sympathy for the other team," said Callahan. "I remember looking over at their sideline, seeing a couple kids on crutches. By the end of the game there were four or five kids on crutches."
Callahan knows it from both sides, citing his 1989 season where the Hawks went 0-10.
How do both coaches feel about the current FHSAA "mercy rule"?
"I'm fine with it," said Dickens. "You as the coach, get to decide if you want to keep going or not. We like having that leverage so we can avoid injury-inducing situations where our players are outmatched."
"I like it," said Callahan. "I've been on both sides of it so I understand it pretty well. You never want to see the look in those kids eyes when you're getting beat like that."
So is the current "mercy rule" enough?
In Connecticut, the high school football "mercy rule" is unofficially dubbed the, "Jack Cochran" rule.
"Cochran was a coach that had a habit of running up the score on opponents; keeping starters in and throwing the ball downfield when the game was out of reach," said retired Connecticut football coach Mike Plum.
The CIAC explains the rule on page 89 of their handbook:
In football, any head coach whose team beats an opponent by more than 50 points will be disqualified from coaching in the next contest at the same level of play. All conditions under the CIAC Disqualification / Ejection Rule will apply. The CIAC will honor appeals of coach disqualifications only (not player disqualifications) when the nature of the disqualification under the CIAC
Disqualification / Ejection Rule applies to circumstances other than game official judgments. For example, the ejection of a head coach for winning a football contest by more than 50 points when the circumstances warrant an exception.
According to Plum, the rule has yet to be enforced. However, a September game between Northwest Catholic and Weaver nearly brought the rule into play.
The question remains, is the current FHSAA "mercy rule" enough?
Coaches certainly can't ask their players to pull back.
"That would run contrary to the integrity of the game," said Callahan. "You can't ask a kid to do that."
And stopping the game, like the FHSAA does with baseball (a ten-run lead after five complete innings) is not a favorable option.
"You imagine your team as a fighter, you train all week for an opponent," said Dickens. "If you stop or forfeit the game, it's a lot like throwing in the towel."
"You never want to do that. You learn a lot about your team when you can see who is still fighting after that," he continued.
Brandon head coach John Lima has been on both sides of a blowout in just this season; dropping a 54-6 loss to Armwood and blowing out Newsome 34-0.
"You want to see who's still fighting," said Lima. "No matter what, you have to keep fighting."
Thus, it would seem as though the FHSAA has got it right, at least for now. They give fledgling teams a dignified way to escape from a punishing loss without a forfeit. Blowouts are a part of football. Great teams lining up with great seasons against not-so-great teams in rebuilding seasons are common at every level.
The Indianapolis Colts, no doubt wished there was a, "mercy rule" in place for their October 23 game against New Orleans, where they were crushed 62-7 in a game that shattered all kinds of records.
Good thing Jack Cochran isn't the head coach of the Saints ... or the Armwood Hawks for that matter.