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CIF Basketball: Private Schools Dominate As Public School Budgets Sink

Nick Edmonds |
April 27, 2011 | 6:45 p.m. PDT


CIF basketball player. (Creative Commons)
CIF basketball player. (Creative Commons)

Every high school athlete dreams of winning a state championship. 

To eternally etch their name in their state’s history. To have all their hard work culminate in one ultimate victory. But though the desire to win is equal among all teams, the same cannot be said for the opportunity to do so.  And the differences between some teams go far beyond the name on the jersey.  
“When you see other teams pulling up in private vans and you’re waiting on your yellow bus, you understand that there is somewhat of a difference,” Muir High School Basketball Coach Gamal Smalley says with a chuckle.

Smalley is just one of hundreds of coaches who are witnessing firsthand the results of state budget cuts on the athletic programs of public high schools. Growing disparities between public and private high schools are no laughing matter.  

Public high schools are crying foul after all ten of this year’s men’s state basketball championship titles went to private schools for the first time in California’s history.  Though at first this may seem like just a cruel coincidence, most of the teams in the tournament finals were from private schools; just three public schools made it this year.  Some say that recent budget cuts are directly responsible for this sudden lack of public high schools in later rounds of the state playoffs.  

“I think there’s definitely a correlation between the two,” says Smalley, “and the lack of support might have something to do with it.”

Smalley’s opinions do not come without personal experience.  Just this last year, Smalley led his team to the playoffs for the first time in six years.  Their first round matchup brought them to Oaks Christian High School, and a team that boasted the sons of such celebrities as Will Smith and Joe Montana.  With such prestigious parental support, public schools cannot help but seem like eternal underdogs.  And without outside funding, Smalley often finds himself cutting corners where no coach should have to.  

“So you have to wait to get new uniforms, or the coach has to hustle to raise funds," Smalley said. "We even have to carpool to preseason games.”  

Without outside funding from parents and alumni, public high school teams lack the necessities to put together a winning program— everything from team shoes to money to participate in tournaments.  

ut does this affect students’ school selection?  Smalley says it does “drastically.”  One example Smalley gave is Bishop Alemany High School.  As a coach in Pasadena, Smalley said that it hurts to see the increase of Pasadena residents go from a Pasadena middle school straight to a school out of the city. 

Smalley says that Pasadena parents have grown to think that private schools like Alemany High are the easy choice over the public schools of the Pasadena Unified School District, so much so that they would drive all the way to the San Fernando Valley to go there.

“Regardless of whether you’re public or private,” said Quwan Spears, the spokesman for the California Interscholastic Federation, the state's governing body for high school athletics, “the consistency to winning programs is coaching.”  
Coaches do not exactly grow on trees.  Without proper funding, public high schools are sometimes unable to hire quality coaches.  And on the rare occasion that they do, a lack of stipends keeps coaches from staying at one school long enough to sufficiently build up a solid program.  

“Private schools build programs,” said Nancy Blaser, Commissioner of Athletics for the CIF’s Central Coast Section.  “Because of this they are able to hire good coaches and support these coaches which keeps them at their school longer.”  

In 1976, when Smalley was a player for Muir, the school had five different men’s basketball teams.  Last year, Muir only had one.  A lack of funding forced the school to cut the junior varsity program, where young athletes are meant to develop their skills in preparation for varsity competition. The school has been able to restore the team, but it is a tragic testament to the crippling effects budget cuts can have on public schools. Even through all of this hardship, Smalley does not want a change to be made in the longstanding traditions of the CIF.

“I’d kind of hate for it to go that way,” Smalley said.  “Because traditionally, we’ve all been able to compete against one another and have proud champions that way.”

After such a historic sweep of public schools in the CIF Men’s Basketball State Finals, several schools as well as CIF representatives are petitioning for a change in the format of the state tournament.  Such a change could potentially split the tournament in two: one bracket for public schools and one for private schools.  But not everyone in the CIF sees the need for two brackets, and believe this call for change looks familiar.  

“I personally do not believe that a format be written to separate public and private schools,” said Gil Lemmon, Commissioner of Athletics for the CIF’s North Coast Section.  “We are all CIF members and must find ways to promote equitable competition. This is not the first time this issue has surfaced.”

Spears agrees, calling this recent call for a playoff format change a “knee-jerk reaction,” and one that has come up more than once before.  But Spears says that if you look at the tournament in its totality, it has been the public schools who have held control of the state titles for the most part.  Since 1981, the year the CIF reinstated the modern day championship, private high schools have won state championships a mere nine times.  

One major roadblock standing in the way of a possible playoff format change literally cuts the state in half: Southern California sections of the CIF recently switched to placing teams into divisions based on competitive equity, while Northern California sections still place teams depending on the amount of students enrolled.  

So it seems that the only thing keeping schools from making a playoff change a reality, are the schools themselves.  Since the CIF works under a federation model, each of the CIF’s 10 sections are allowed to make their own rules.  This means that it is ultimately up to the 10 CIF sections to come together and agree on one sole policy on how to divide their teams into different divisions.  Once this is done, it will be that much easier to have a fair and balanced state playoff.  

But in this case, talk is cheap— especially when the legislative process for a rule change is as rigorous as that of the CIF.  First, a topic must gather enough state attention that California’s statewide basketball advisory committee makes a recommendation for a change.  If this stage is successful, the recommendation will reach the federated council.  If the council is for the change,  according to Spears, the council still must develop the necessary language for the official proposal to “make sure that it is something proper for that particular sport.”  

“The CIF always hears complaints, but until we [receive] anything formal from an advisory committee,” explains Spears, “it’s all just speculation.”

Another possible option that the CIF has been considering, according to Spears, is an open-division championship.  This would mean that, regardless of division, whether public or private, tournament selection would be based solely on wins, losses, and strength of schedule.  But as beneficial as this could be, the timeline for such a change is far from set in stone.  

“To say how soon that will come to fruition, I just don’t know,” said Spears.  “But we’re always taking considerations to try to make tweaks and changes to make our state championships the best quality program that we have.  And right now, the current system is the best at this time.”

Private high school basketball coaches like Eric Cooper, of La Verne Lutheran High School, say that it does not matter whether there will be a change in next year’s playoff format because the end goal will be the same.  

“If you have a private school section and a public school section,” Cooper argues, “they are still going to have to meet in a state championship.”

But isn’t that why people want this change in the first place?  To make it easier for public schools to win a championship?  To have their name’s etched in state history and all of those great things?  A playoff format change very well could fix all of that. Whether or not it should happen, is another story entirely.

Reach contributor Nick Edmonds here.



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