The Evolution of the Georgia State Championship
- By Ira Kirkpatrick for the GHSFHA
We're Number One! From the earliest days of high school football in Georgia, teams have coveted the title of state champion. Since 1947, the process for crowning winners has been sanctioned and regulated by the Georgia High School Association. In October of that year, GHSA Executive Secretary Sam Burke sat down with representatives from the state's largest conference and organized its teams into regions. The state playoff system that exists today had its origin in that meeting. When this watershed event took place, prep football had been a popular sport in Georgia for over 50 years. How were champions decided up until that point?
The first successful attempt to organize the state prep teams took place on November 4, 1904 at the Atlanta YMCA with the creation of the North Georgia Interscholastic Athletic Association. While sporadic games had been played since 1896, all previous attempts to form an association had been futile. The member schools were Boys High of Atlanta, University School of Stone Mountain, Georgia Military Academy of College Park, Gordon Institute of Barnesville, Donald Fraser Military Academy of Decatur, and Peacock School. They elected Sandy Beaver of Donald Fraser president and A.S. Bolling of Peacock secretary. The main reason for the creation of the league was to address the issue of player eligibility, not to determine a method for deciding a champion. With so few teams in existence, the champion, so it seemed, would be obvious to all at season's end. The Atlanta Constitution ran a season summary article on November 20, declaring that "Gordon Institute is entitled to the championship of the state." Using the paper to declare a champion by acclamation would be controversial, to say the least.
In the years before World War I, it was common for each season to end with the championship in dispute. Arthur Maddox, coach of Georgia Military College, wrote to the Constitution in 1915 bemoaning the fact that so many schools made title claims. "There is never a year," he wrote, "when ‘we claim the championship' is not a popular cry among the preps." One problem was the fact that the best teams did not always play each other. In 1906, Gordon and Stone Mountain were the cream of the crop, but could not agree on a game. Gordon offered 75% of the gate to Stone Mountain if they would agree to play in Barnesville. The paper mocked both teams for refusing to meet. The use of common opponents to gauge relative strength, an obviously flawed method, thus became a necessity. In 1913, Tech High of Atlanta and GMC were both undefeated, but had not played. Tech claimed the championship due to its 7-6 victory over Riverside Military, a team that GMC had tied. Tech cancelled a game with another common opponent (Gordon) in order to keep its title claim intact.
Another problem in the early years was the issue of player eligibility. While it was agreed that participants had to be under 20, adequate documentation was sometimes lacking. The issue of players moving from one school to another caused even greater difficulty. Most of the academies were boarding schools with students from all over the South. A particular concern of opposing coaches was that each team member was a bona fide student, paying his own way. In 1911, the Constitution declared Gordon "the best of the prep schools in the state which abide by the eligibility requirements." The barb was aimed at Riverside which was accused of subsidizing the tuition of a star player who had moved over from Gordon. The most outrageous controversy involved the case of Tuck Griffin. The big tackle suited up for Stone Mountain in 1904 even though he had been a starter at the University of Georgia the previous season. This led to a howl of protest and the blacklisting of Stone Mountain if Griffin was in the lineup.
A major development took place in 1920. At the behest of W.O. Cheney, principal of Tech High, seven of the largest schools in the state formed the Georgia Interscholastic Athletic Association. The original members were Lanier, Boys, Tech, Gordon, GMC, Monroe A&M, and Riverside. Once again, the conference's main task was to determine eligibility. The GIAA adopted a "one-year" rule in an attempt to limit the use of transfers. Players would have to sit out a year after changing schools within the conference. Champions were to be named by acclamation. The system worked fine for two seasons until controversy erupted again.
The 1922 GMC squad was a juggernaut. Having lost a star player who was killed in a freak accident during the summer, the team was on a mission. According to the Constitution, the team was in wanton violation of eligibility rules. Sports writer Craddock Goins wrote, "the Milledgeville institution (GMC) is not interested in the GIAA, but is out to give its students all the football amusement they want and to try to turn out winning teams." He added, "it is high time that the schools of the state get together and see just how each one stands on the matter of athletic control. If GMC is a member of GIAA, then they should observe its rules, for Georgia wants to call some team champion." Goins called for sweeping reforms and the expansion of membership.
As a result of the 1922 turmoil, the GIAA made several key decisions at their December meeting that year. The schools agreed to turn over the eligibility matter to an impartial arbiter, Georgia Tech coach W.A. Alexander. He ruled that all games involving the use of illegal players would be tossed out. Accordingly, conference president O.K. David demanded that GMC return the conference championship trophy (known then as the Princeton Alumni Cup). The members also decided to allow the arbiter to pick the champion or designate two teams to meet in a playoff. Alexander awarded the 1923 and 1924 titles by acclamation, and then set up the first GIAA "state championship" game in 1925, a North/South playoff between Riverside and Lanier.
For the next twenty-five years, the GIAA continued to have disputes concerning eligibility and the selection of champions. In 1931, Tech High beat GMA 10-7 in a Northern Division playoff to see who would face Lanier in the title game. The GIAA officials reversed the outcome upon learning that several Tech players did not have birth certificates on file. Tech thumbed its nose at the GIAA by arranging a game instead with Gaffney, South Carolina for what was billed to be the "Championship of the South." Also, the 1936 season was mired in conflict from the very beginning. Riverside was head and shoulders better than any team in the state. The Cadets manhandled previously undefeated Lanier 31-0 on October 16. Three of the best players were rumored to be in violation of the "four-year" rule, having enrolled in the school in 1932. After an extended period of haggling, the GIAA Executive Committee ordered Riverside to forfeit two victories, paving the way for Lanier to win the conference crown.
Another dispute arose over the necessity of having a playoff between the Northern and Southern Divisions. By 1934, the playoff game in December had become a tradition, having been used to award the Dartmouth Trophy each of the last ten years. Coach Shorty Doyal of Boys was miffed at having to face twice-beaten Savannah, a team his squad had beaten by three touchdowns earlier, in the 1934 state final. Before the start of the next campaign, Doyal lobbied for a rule change that would waive the playoff if one team proved to be outstanding during the course of the regular season. With Boys and Tech dominating the league, playoff games soon became a rarity and the annual Boys/Tech affair became the de facto state championship game.
The reorganization of the Atlanta schools in 1947 had a huge impact on the GIAA. With many more schools in the association, it became apparent that the old way of choosing a champion would not work. A playoff system was necessary. Therefore, GHSA Secretary Sam Burke put together a Georgia State Championship Playoff Committee in September consisting of himself, Sidney Scarborough of the Atlanta City Schools, Marvin Jones of Lanier High, and Weddington Kelley of North Fulton. They drew up four regions and devised a two-tiered playoff scenario for the coming December. The GIAA became known as the GHSA Class AA in 1947 while the smaller schools filled in Classes A, B, and C in 1948.
Schools not large enough for the GIAA also wanted to compete for a state championship in the early years. Undoubtedly, several teams would go undefeated and then challenge each other for bragging rights. Perhaps as a reaction to the creation of the GIAA, the 1920's saw a flurry of such championship claims. At season's end, the claimants would plead their cases in the Atlanta Constitution and throw down the gauntlet to any and all comers. On occasion, the teams would be able to work out a postseason game. LaGrange beat Moultrie on Thanksgiving Day of 1924 in a game billed as the state championship. More times than not, the schools could not reach an agreement and the issue festered. Sportswriter Julian Griffin caused quite a stir in November of 1925 when he wrote a glowing account of Gainesville's success. The LaGrange boosters felt slighted and wrote several open letters to the editor demanding satisfaction.
A system for naming a small school (Class B) championship was finally adopted in 1937. Various conferences in South Georgia had been naming conference champions since the end of World War I. Likewise, the North Georgia Interscholastic Conference had been in operation since 1930. The SGFA and NGIC champions met for the first time in 1937 for the Class B title with Spalding edging Moultrie 6-0 in Albany. The Class B series lasted from 1937-1947 with the game called off in 1938 due to controversy.
One of the problems with the Class B series involved the membership of the NGIC. Several large schools in metro Atlanta belonged to the league and, although they frequently finished in first place, were not eligible to play for the state title. For that reason, the North Georgia Football Association was formed in 1939 which would include only smaller schools.
The road to the state championship was long and arduous. The playoff system that we take for granted today took years to evolve.