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Nassau's football sportsmanship rule is working

Nassau County high school football officials are lauding a rule that has stopped coaches from running up scores.

District Athletic Director, Matt McLess at the Nassau

District Athletic Director, Matt McLess at the Nassau High School Conference III football game between Floral Park and Valley Stream North at Floral Park High School in Floral Park, New York on Sept. 22, 2018. Photo Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

Nassau County high school football officials are lauding a rule that has stopped coaches from running up scores.

The sportsmanship rule puts football coaches at risk of being suspended for one game if they win by more than 42 points. If that happens, the coach must explain why to a committee of school adminstrators, who then must determine if the coach is suspended or not.

The rule was put into effect last season with the margin of victory being 40 or more points. It was raised to 42 this season to make it a multiple of seven and thus more in line with football scores.

Matt McLees, football coordinator for Section VIII, the governing body for Nassau high school athletics, said the rule “sent shockwaves” through the Nassau football coaching community last season.

The rule resulted in only five varsity games being decided by 40 or more points last year. The previous three-year average was 22.

“Without question, this policy worked,” said McLees, the athletic director at Sewanhaka District, which comprises Carey, Elmont, Floral Park, New Hyde Park and Sewanhaka high schools. “Without question this made coaches aware.”

McLees said none of the winning coaches in those five games were suspended because each convinced Nassau’s “lopsided score committee” that they did everything to keep the margin of victory reasonable.

He said the committee made a junior varsity coach sit a game because his team kept blitzing the quarterback during a blowout. He declined to identify that school or coach.

Nassau’s sportsmanship rule came after a decade of lobbying by superintendents who felt there were too many blowouts, according to Jericho superintendent Henry Grishman.

“What is the point of a 57-3 football game,” he said. “Does that make any sense?”

McLees said coaches asked to remove the rule for the playoffs; he declined.

Some coaches weren’t thrilled by the rule because they say managing a game when the final result has already been decided isn’t as easy as people think.

“It has to be a two-way street,” Farmingdale coach Buddy Krumenacker said. “The guy who is being blown out has to know how to behave, too. That’s where it gets complicated.”

Krumenacker said just because teams with significant leads start running the ball in an effort to kill the clock doesn’t give the losing team a free ticket to score.

“You’ve got to know how to surrender,” he said. “Seriously, that’s what you’ve got to do. And if the other guy doesn’t know how to surrender, then you’re subject to a real mess.”

There is little precedent for such a rule in which coaches are penalized for winning in a blowout.

Todd Nelson, who is on the sportsmanship committee of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, the governing body of high school sports in New York, said he doesn’t believe any sport in the state has ever had a rule that penalizes a coach for a blowout before this one.

McLees said he got the idea for the rule after hearing that Connecticut’s high school football rulebook once had something similar in place. Beginning in 2006, Connecticut high school football coaches faced a potential suspension if they won by more than 50 points.

Joel Cookson, spokesman for Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, said they believe fewer than five coaches were suspended until the rule was abolished in 2016. Now when a team is winning by 35 points he said the officials use a running clock— and the coach is no longer in jeopardy of a suspension.

Suffolk football coordinator Tim Horan said Section XI, the governing body, leaves it up to each school to regulate.

“If there’s a lopsided score, the athletic directors address it with their coaches,” said Horan, the athletic director at West Islip. “For the most part the ADs have been able to control it and make sure that proper sportsmanship is demonstrated and scores aren’t getting excessively lopsided.”

While Nassau had five games decided by 40 or more points last season, Suffolk had 23.

McLees said the rule has been effective in Nassau because coaches don’t want to have to defend their actions before a committee.

“Nobody wants to sit in front of their peers and be questioned about their character and why they ran up the score,” said Manhasset athletic director James Amen, who is on the committee. “Because that’s what this comes down to — a coach’s character.”

This season, there were two Week I games in which the margin of victory factored into the play-calling in the second half. Garden City beat Herricks, 44-0, on Sept. 8. Coach Dave Ettinger had to submit a form the next day to McLees explaining why his team eclipsed the 42-point victory margin.

Ettinger said he started subbing his players in the second quarter and, after leading 34-0 at the half, played all of his backups on his nearly 60-player roster in the second half.

McLees cleared Ettinger because coaches won’t be penalized if they were using substitutes.

“The guys over there did the right thing,” Herricks coach Mike Yoo said. “The score was what it was. Sometimes you can’t help it.”

In another Sept. 8 game, Massapequa beat Long Beach, 39-0.

Massapequa coach Kevin Shippos said he played his entire roster in the second half, stuck to running plays and instructed his players not to return punts.

In Suffolk County, one game each would have been subject to Nassau’s 42-point rule, the largest margin coming Saturday in Floyd’s 48-0 win over Commack.

“Last year when this rule got put in, I think coaches got scared,” Shippos said. “You’d get to around the 5-yard line and think about taking three knees. Matt clarified that, told us as long as we’re doing everything in your power to control the game.”

He said he explained to his players the reason behind his conservative play calling in the second half. But being that these were second and third string players in the game, he also told them that if they had an opportunity to score, don’t pass it up.

“You want to give your backups their chance to shine,” he said, “without completely embarrassing the other team.”

McLees said that scenario is fine; what he doesn’t want is coaches running up the score as a show of strength, a common practice in big-time college football.

“This is not college football, and it doesn’t matter how many touchdowns you win by, as long as you win the game,” said Pat Pizzarelli, Section VIII executive director. “We’re trying to get that across to our coaches.”

“It has to be a two-way street. “The guy who is being blown out has to know how to behave, too. That’s where it gets complicated.” — Farmingdale coach Buddy Krumenacker

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