If you think complaining about how high school football teams are selected for the playoffs in New Jersey is a new pastime, think again.
It didn’t start with the advent of “multiplier” points for playing North Jersey parochial powers like Don Bosco Prep and Paramus Catholic.
It didn’t begin with a revision of the power points formula to include a strength of schedule component for losses.
It didn’t even commence with the admission of sub-.500 teams to the playoffs in the mid-2000s, nor did it start with the expansion of the playoffs from four teams per section to eight in 1998.
It’s been going on for a hundred years. Literally, and figuratively.
The NJSIAA was founded in 1918. According to the “Football Championship History” document available on its website. Its formation was the product of a desire to regulate high school football, though it later expanded to other sports.
Until then, only two state champions were crowned by the State Association: one “high school” – essentially a public school – and one prep school. In 1918, the public champ was Phillipsburg, and the prep champ was The Peddie School in Hightstown.
With the formation of the NJSIAA, public schools were divided into three regions (North, Central and South) and three classes: A, B and C. The goal was to “give the ‘little fellows’ a chance to shine,” according to a recap of the 1919 season published in the NJSIAA’s first record book.
That’s when the first “system” went into place to determine champions. It was called “The Dickinson Method.” Though little could be found of the details, it appears points were awarded to teams based on wins and losses, and other factors like whether a game was played at home or away.
As high school football grew, and more teams sprouted up across the Garden State, the next decade or so revealed the limitations of such a formula, and “The Colliton System” was adopted. It was the brainchild of a mathematics teacher at Trenton High School named J. Whitney Colliton.
According to an April 16, 1937 article in the then-Plainfield Courier-News, Colliton explained his plan by saying “teams will have to play champions to win championships. It won’t be winning that’s all important, but whom you beat.”
There were only 130 high school football teams in New Jersey in those days, and Colliton used the previous four years of records to initially group teams into one of nine classes, based on their strength.
Class A was considered the “strongest,” while Class J (they skipped “I” for some reason) was the “weakest.” A victory over a Class A team was worth 100 points; over a Class B would be worth 90, and so on. A loss would be worth half the amount of a win. Each year, the teams would be regrouped based on their scores. It would not be uncommon, for example, for a Class D team to jump up to Class B based on a good year, or drop down to Class F if they had a poor season.
The system – like those that came before it, and after it – was not without its issues. It was tweaked over the years, and one of those hit home locally in 1949.
Sayreville Co-Championship “Has Fans Seething”
Sayreville closed out its 1949 season at home against a talented Florence squad that eventually was named the South Jersey Group 1 champ. The Bombers won 21-12 behind two touchdown passes from quarterback Charlie Kolokowski to cap off an undefeated season 8-0 season. According to the game story in the November 25, 1949 edition of the New Brunswick Daily Home News, “This is the third time since 1941 that Coach Vince Abbatiello has guided the Bombers through an immaculate season, and in all probability Sayreville will get the Group 1 Central Jersey championship.”
That didn’t exactly happen. They were declared co-champions with Point Pleasant, which was just 5-1-2.
Les Shapiro wrote about the fiasco in his “Out on the Limb” column in the December 11, 1949 issue of the The Sunday Times in New Brunswick.
Sayreville had more “Colliton points” than Point Pleasant, 300 to 285, but a little-known edict at the time stated if there was less than a 5-percent difference between teams, co-champions should be declared. So, the two teams shared the title. “No amount of mathematical finagling or mumbling about 5 per cent can reconcile these facts,” wrote Shapiro.
In stating his case, Shapiro pointed out Sayreville had beaten Matawan 44-6 that year, while Point Pleasant only beat them 14-6. He also noted “the most outrageous one of the bunch,” that Sayreville had beaten Carteret that year by 14, but the Ramblers – with only one win – had 15 more Colliton points than Sayreville.
“Obviously, the Colliton rating system, upon which state football championships are based, has been bent, twisted, mangled and wrenched beyond recognition,” wrote Shapiro. “It has been reduced to a skeleton of its former self. And the sages of the N.J.S.I.A.A., gathering in closed session in Newark, are either resorting to black magic or drawing straws to determine the champions.”
North-South Differences Are Deeply Rooted
In 1962, Jack Carty of the Courier-Post in South Jersey headlined his December 14th “Area Sports” column like this: Some Real Lulus Found in NJSIAA Grid Ratings.
“There’s always been the beef, year-in and year-out, about South Jersey football teams being classified inferior to those in other parts of the state,” Carty writes, wondering how Cherry Hill (8-1-0) and Millville (8-1) were ranked lower than 11 North and Central Jersey Group 4 teams, as well as three upstate Group 3 teams. He also wanted to know how 9-0 Woodbury and 8-1 Burlington had fewer points “than every other Group 3 section champs in the state, less than two runnersup and less than one group 2 champion.”
Carty smartly acknowledged, “We are not foolish enough to think a system can be invented whereby every school in the state is going to walk off happily with the results.” He noted “the current system is a polished up version of the old Colliton system” where rankings from the previous year were carried over, much like what was done this year when the Born Power Index was used as 60-percent of a team’s United Power Ranking, used to qualify and seed teams in the 2018 playoffs.
Much of this likely added enough fuel to the fire that led to the power points system being developed.
Playoffs were introduced in 1974, but in the beginning, they were solely meant as a way to break ties. No one liked having so many “co-champions.”
In the first few years of the playoffs, several teams were declared champions. Those were simply the sections where there were no ties. Where there were ties, teams would participate in a “playoff” to determine a champion.
In some sections, no teams qualified, mainly because New Jersey kept its sections unbalanced. That happened in 1982 in Non-Public South B and in 1974 in Non-Public South C.
Eventually, the playoffs were expanded, and up to four teams could qualify in each section.
Additionally, if one part of the state had only a handful of Group 2 teams, sometimes there were not enough teams to have a playoff. Such a situation occurred as recently as 1987, where Ridge was declared the Central Jersey Group 2 champion. The requirement for the playoffs was a minimum of 6 wins.
Compare that with 2018, when 17 public schools made the playoffs with three or fewer wins: 10 with 3 wins, 6 with 2 wins, and one with 1 win.
New Issues Arise
New problems have cropped up in the last 20 years, the second half of the life of the New Jersey High School Football Playoffs. These have been well-documented.
At the turn of the century, the playoffs were a few years into the 8-team field, and well into the use of “power points.” With that expanded bracket, the requirement was that teams had to be at least .500 to get into the playoffs, regardless of their standing in the power points.
But a few years later, that requirement was eliminated. That led to the occasional 3-win team making the playoffs over a 4-win team.
As the North Jersey parochial powers achieved greater and greater success and national recognition, schools like Don Bosco Prep and Bergen Catholic found it more difficult to schedule New Jersey opponents to meet the in-state requirement necessary to qualify for the playoffs. (At least 80% of a team’s opponents must be from New Jersey.)
This eventually led to the addition of “multiplier” points in 2015. Teams who played the biggest of the designated North Jersey powers would get double the power points they would normally get, regardless of whether they won or lost.
This garnered some schools mammoth amounts of power points, and in 2016 led to Columbia of Maplewood qualifying for the playoffs with a 1-8 record at the cutoff, edging out by one power point a Linden team that was 4-4 at the cutoff.
Columbia had garnered major power points just for showing up for a 42-6 loss to Seton Hall Prep. While the multipliers were meant to encourage scheduling teams like Seton Hall Prep, Columbia needed no such cajoling. Those teams met every year from 2011 through 2017.
BPI and UPR
This year, the you-know-what hit the proverbial fan. A major overhaul still used power points, but with a team’s ranking in those standings worth just 40% of their United Power Ranking, with the other 60% coming from a team’s rank in the Born Power Index, a mathematical formula used to determine a team’s strength.
While the formula itself appears to be a good indicator of strength, its emphasis on point differential in games resulted in a situation where teams had to win by larger margins to improve their ranking in the Born Power Index, and thus improve their playoff standings. When New Jersey high school football coaches learned this, after the “code” was cracked by this WCTC reporter, many were upset to find out that scoring margins in games mattered, no matter to what extent. They vow to see the discontinuation of that system.
Another old issue cropped up, too. Past data was being used to help seed the current tournament. Carty carped about this in 1962, yet here we are in 2018 complaining about the same thing. This – and the multipliers being expanded to more schools than just the North Jersey parochial power – are what led to numbers like we described above: 17 public schools in the playoffs with three or fewer wins. Of them, 10 schools had only 3 wins, 6 of them had 2 wins, and one of them had just 1 win.
That last one was Middletown North, which was just 1-6 at the cutoff. And the Lions didn’t just sneak in. They were 13th out of the 16 teams that qualified in the South Jerey Group 4 supersection. They were ahead of Hammonton, Ocean City and Winslow Township, all with three wins apiece. They helped conspire to keep two teams with better than .500 records out of the playoffs: Pennsauken (4-4 at the cutoff) and Hamilton West (5-2).
As the margin of victory part of the equation was revealed, the fingerpointing and backpedaling began. The United Committee that created the hybrid and chose the Born Power Index said its hand was forced by the NJSIAA, despite an expressed desire to further study the Born Power Index more closely for a year before implementing it. Members blamed the West Jersey Football League and Shore Conference, which had already formed their schedules based on using the BPI.
Whether it be 1918, 1949, 1962, or 2018, whether the gripe is big or small, there seems to be one constant: someone in New Jersey High School Football always feels slighted, snubbed, or otherwise left out.
Maybe the NJSIAA and the high school football power brokers in the state should learn the history of playoff problems in the Garden State.
If not, they might as well go back to the Dickinson Method, for they will be doomed to repeat the same old mistakes.