High school football is king, but is threat on the horizon?

The DeSoto football team warms up before a game last season. High school football has yet to feel the influx of select teams that other sports have, but some coaches are worried about how select teams may affect 7-on-7 football. “I don’t want all-star teams or traveling teams,” DeSoto coach Claude Mathis said. (Garett Fisbeck/The Dallas Morning News)

Club Sports: Part 1

The Industry

Club Sports: Part 2

The Burnout

Club Sports: Part 3

The Cost

Club Sports: Part 4

The Future

Threat on the horizon?

Allure of select teams may be enticing, but so far, glamour of high school football can’t be beat

The rise of club teams over the last three decades has changed the way high school athletes are recruited for many sports. Coaches for high school and club teams say that for sports such as basketball, soccer, baseball, softball and volleyball, it’s difficult to get a Division I scholarship without playing for a club team.

Not so in football, where the high school team is still No. 1 — the one and only, in fact.

“High school football is the destination. That’s where you graduate to,” said Steve Alic, communications director for USA Football, the youth football partner of the NFL.

“That’s the level that these youth-league football players aspire to.”

That probably won’t change anytime soon.

While other team sports offer recreational and competitive leagues for kids up to age 18, youth football leagues usually end after sixth grade. That’s because, when kids get to seventh grade, most schools have football teams.

If club programs wanted to become outlets for high school-aged players, a slew of hurdles would have to be cleared, including the cost of fielding 11-man teams, dealing with a myriad of scheduling conflicts and overcoming the hegemony that high school coaches have in the recruiting process.

But the introduction of billion-dollar shoe companies into the high school sports arena has cracked the door open. Elite invitation-only combines and televised, shoe-sponsored all-star games are now some of the premier events on a high school prospect’s calendar. From the development of sports-specific academies to the growth of “select” 7-on-7 tournaments, high school football’s command on the sport might be showing the tiniest of cracks.

“When the shoe companies and all the big money gets involved with it, that’s when it starts spiraling out of control,” Texas High School Coaches Association executive director D.W. Rutledge said. “That’s what the coaches are concerned with: losing control on some of the things that they want to develop that would be the best for their kids.”

Only game in town

High school football is a huge part of the culture in Texas, and the spotlight it provides young athletes is unlike any other sport. High school football has tradition and glamour, and with marching bands, cheerleaders, drill teams and thousands of fans, each game is an event. The high school team — public or private — is the only game in town.

It’s unlikely that a football player would give that up to play for a club football team during the fall.

“It would be hard for me to believe that club football could become a dominant force like with other sports,” Lancaster coach Chris Gilbert said. “It’s just hard to see in Texas with the fabric and culture of football.”

“It would be hard for me to believe that club football could become a dominant force like with other sports. It’s just hard to see in Texas with the fabric and culture of football.”

Chris Gilbert, Lancaster coach

And yet, in sports-crazed Florida, the progenitor of what high school club football might look like is up and running.

Florida’s IMG Academy — long a training ground of some of the nation’s best young tennis and soccer prospects — has moved full speed ahead in football. Coached by former Heisman trophy winner Chris Weinke, IMG completed its first season as a private-school football program in 2013, finishing 8-2.

Several high-profile players, some from as far away as Michigan, have left their high school teams to join the academy, trusting that the school’s sports-intensive focus will boost recruiting exposure. Prestonwood Christian will host IMG in Plano on Sept. 5.

Another hurdle for club football would be that, unlike in other sports, football players couldn’t physically hold up playing for high school and club teams concurrently. Football teams at all levels — from youth leagues to the NFL — play only one game per week because the physical nature of football requires more recovery time than most other sports.

A club football team playing in the spring would also have conflicts because many football players are part of basketball, baseball or track and field teams in high school. There’s also spring football practice for most large high schools in May.

Cost would also be a major stumbling block, because club football fees would need to be substantial to cover the steep expenses of the sport, including equipment and coaches. And where would those coaches come from? Many top club coaches in other sports are high school coaches, but Gilbert doesn’t think high school football coaches would want to be part of club teams.

At least not in Texas.

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“In Texas, the coaches’ association is really strong,” Gilbert said, “and the coaches’ voice in high school football has a lot to do with it.”

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for high school club football getting off the ground is recruiting.

In sports other than football, club teams can attract players with the selling point of added recruiting exposure. But high school football in Texas, with its national prestige and game video that is easy to access, is a recruiting staple for college coaches. Regional and national recruiting combines have become more common, but college recruiters still do much of their recruiting through high school coaches.

“I think recruiting is what drives some of these AAU sports and club sports and select sports,” said Argyle coach Todd Rodgers, “and I don’t see college football coaches driving that, [in] any form or fashion.”

In fact, college football coaches are trying to rein themselves in, according to Scout.com national recruiting analyst Scott Kennedy. Within recent years, the NCAA has instituted new prohibitions on college coaches from attending nonscholastic competitions — like 7-on-7 tournaments — even though there’s little doubt that recruiters are watching from afar.

“A lot of the restrictions are self-imposed by the coaches themselves,” Kennedy wrote in an e-mail. “There are so many demands on their time that they made the rule that they can no longer attend these camps, because they were burning themselves out.”

Allen’s Will Rossy (15) runs past Manvel defender Collin Scott during their 7-on-7 football game in College Station on July 12. Some high school coaches fear select teams could threaten the success of 7-on-7 teams, taking away a chance for quarterbacks and receivers to work on their timing. (Michael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News)

Allen’s Will Rossy (15) runs past Manvel defender Collin Scott during their 7-on-7 football game in College Station on July 12. Some high school coaches fear select teams could threaten the success of 7-on-7 teams, taking away a chance for quarterbacks and receivers to work on their timing. (Michael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News)

All-star football

The rise of 7-on-7 football — an activity where the coach’s influence is limited — remains a concern, however.

Since 7-on-7 football competition began in the late 1990s, it has grown rapidly in Texas. It’s mostly played by high school teams, which compete in qualifying tournaments for spots in the state tournament in July, but “select” 7-on-7 teams are becoming more common in football hotbeds like California and Florida. Those teams, made up of players from different high schools, can travel around the country to compete in national tournaments and get recruiting exposure.

Select teams could be a threat to a school’s 7-on-7 success, and perhaps take away a chance for high school quarterbacks and receivers to work on their timing. But the threat to a school’s tackle football team, from any kind of football club, is miniscule.

While DeSoto coach Claude Mathis sees the development of 11-man club football teams highly unlikely, he worries about the 7-on-7 climate.

“I don’t want all-star teams or traveling teams,” he said.

They are still a rarity in Texas. But in the spring of 2013, a handful of the area’s top talent — including LSU signee Ed Paris and Stanford signee Brandon Simmons — played on a traveling select 7-on-7 team started by New Level Athletics co-founders Kashann Simmons (Brandon’s father) and Baron Flenory.

Flenory was investigated by the NCAA in 2011 for his role in selling a recruiting service to then-Oregon coach Chip Kelly. Flenory was a mentor for Skyline linebacker Anthony Wallace, who signed with the Ducks in 2011.

It’s these types of entanglements that Rutledge said he’s concerned about. “Street agents” can start teams and leagues, and then serve as go-betweens between recruits and college coaches, he said.

“You get people who aren’t involved in the school working with the kids,” Rutledge said. “And sometimes, that’s not as healthy as you’d like it to be.”

High school 11-man football participation

Over the last five seasons, participation in 11-man high school football is down nationally but up in the state of Texas, based on a survery conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations. Click bars to see totals and percentage change:

Texas National

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Most high school coaches don’t like those teams. In a SportsDay survey of Dallas-area football coaches last year, almost one third of the 47 coaches who responded said their main worry with 7-on-7 is select teams. To prevent their proliferation in Texas, the state’s 7-on-7 board — composed of high school football coaches — have placed restrictions on teams competing in their events, requiring that all the players be from the same school.

“I’m not a proponent of them at all,” Gilbert said of select teams. “I like our guys to be together. I want it to be about the high schools.”

THSCA has lobbied the UIL to allow football coaches more access to their players over the summer. Coaches now have a six-week period where they can work with players in a strength-and-conditioning role, and Rutledge said that THSCA is in favor of expanded access with 7-on-7.

For its part, the UIL has created two ad hoc committees in the last five years to address concerns about nonschool sports, but there’s no consensus about how to move forward.

“I think we all agree that coaches should have more control of [7-on-7],” UIL deputy director Jamey Harrison said. “But the devil is in the details. How do you define more control? How do you limit it; what do you allow and not allow?”

‘All first-class’

Rutledge, who led Converse Judson to four 5A championships and seven title games in 17 seasons, and has served as THSCA’s executive director since 2004, said 11-man club teams aren’t outside of realm of possibility, albeit in the distant future.

“It isn’t impossible [to imagine], unfortunately,” he said.

If a shoe company decided to throw its money behind the creation of an elite 11-man club league, the financial hurdles that right now seem so insurmountable could be cleared, Rutledge said.

And the amount of money that some companies already spend on high school athletes is staggering.

Cedar Hill wide receiver DaMarkus Lodge heads out on a pass pattern during Nike Football’s ‘The Opening,’ an invitation-only skills and training event at the company’s Beaverton, Ore. headquarters. (Steve Dykes/USA Today)

Cedar Hill wide receiver DaMarkus Lodge heads out on a pass pattern during Nike Football’s “The Opening,” an invitation-only skills and training event at the company’s Beaverton, Ore., headquarters. (Steve Dykes/USA Today)

In early July, Plano West running back Soso Jamabo was one of 162 soon-to-be seniors given royal treatment by Nike at “The Opening,” a skills and training event at the company’s Beaverton, Ore., headquarters.

The invitation-only football camp, given to top performers at various regional combines, was a “Who’s Who” of the nation’s best. Attendees from the Dallas-Fort Worth area included Malik Jefferson (linebacker, Mesquite Poteet), Damarkus Lodge (wide receiver, Cedar Hill), Kyler Murray (quarterback, Allen) and Maea Teuhema (offensive lineman, Keller) — all Top 100 recruits, nationally.

Nike covered the airfare, lodging and food for the four-day event. Not prohibited by UIL restrictions, Jamabo left the camp laden with some of the company’s latest products: up to 10 different types of compression gear, three pairs of cleats, shorts, sweats, gloves, casual wear and jackets.

“We got the best gear; stayed at nice hotels … it’s all first-class,” Jamabo said. “It was perfect.”

A star recruit in football and basketball, Jamabo has seen both sides of recruiting. In basketball, coaches are allowed much more contact and interest flows more readily through his AAU team, the Texas Titans, and his AAU coach, Scott Pospichal. In football, recruiting is nearly all through his high school.

If an elite-level club football scene was created, it’s conceivable that some of the area’s best would want to participate to boost their recruiting profile, Jamabo said. Maybe not at the expense of Friday-night glory, though.

“You’d get to play the best players in the country right away, as opposed to waiting if you go to college,” Jamabo said. “It would definitely be a different experience and that would definitely be good, in a way.

“But Texas high school football has everything that you want.”

Staff writer Greg Riddle contributed to this report.

Follow Matt Wixon and Corbett Smith on Twitter at @mattwixon and @corbettsmithDMN

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Club Sports: Part 1

Parents placing kids in specialized sports do so at a high cost in time and money.

Intensity of specialization can lead to burnout

Club Sports: Part 2

Years of plaing for high-level club teams can change how an athlete feels about a sport.

Club sports offer exposure — but at a steep price

Club Sports: Part 3

Families gamble select team expenses will result in exposure to colleges and a scholarship

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