On a Friday August evening in the mid-1990s, while most high school football teams were participating in jamborees in a final tuneup for the season openers the next week, Friendship Christian was playing host to Columbia Academy in a four-quarter game that counted.
This night bore no resemblance to crisp, cool fall evenings associated with the sport. Instead, it was like mid-August with temperatures in the 90s and the humidity to match.
The Pirtle Field sideline along the Commanders’ bench resembled a triage unit with players sprawled on the ground with IVs hooked up to their arms.
Because it was so hot, the officials extended breaks in the action, such as during possession changes. Referee Howard Galyean stood in front of the Friendship bench with his arms folded while managers did their best to keep the resting players hydrated and cooled off.
About a decade later, starting the season a week earlier than what the TSSAA calendar said was more commonplace. So was the heat. Wilson Central played host to Hendersonville in a game in which the kickoff temperature was 96 degrees.
For decades, high school football teams played 10 consecutive weeks. But when the TSSAA instituted a regional playoff format in the early 1990s, teams sometimes had trouble filling out their schedules. The state association granted teams waivers to play a week early, in what became known as Week 0, in exchange for an open date later in the season.
Some coaches, including one in Wilson County who is no longer coaching here, vowed never to play in Week 0 because he didn’t want to lose a week of preseason practice time. But some 85 percent of the state’s teams opened their seasons a week early Friday night.
In the meantime, a string of deaths involving football players at all levels – from junior pro to the NFL – raised an outcry about practicing in extreme heat. TSSAA responded with a heat policy in which water breaks are required every so often based on a sliding scale of the heat index, with teams even required to go inside if the heat index breaks 104 degrees. Wilson County Schools took the TSSAA guidelines and established a policy for its middle schools to follow.
After a relatively cool preseason, typical August weather arrived with a vengeance just in time for the start of the season.
In the old days and in other states, the season didn’t start until September. College and NFL seasons started around the third week of September. In David Maraniss’ biography of legendary coach Vince Lombardi in “When Pride Still Mattered”, he devotes a chapter to Lombardi’s career as a New Jersey high school coach in the 1940s. Lombardi got married on the last day of August, spent a week on his honeymoon and then started practice.
“I think the season starts too early,” said Sam Harp, Lebanon’s second-year coach who spent three decades in Kentucky, a state which also has a Week 0, but teams have to give up a preseason scrimmage, a restriction not found in the Volunteer State. “I think it starts too early all over the country, not just in Tennessee. It was in Kentucky. I don’t think we should be playing before Labor Day weekend.
“We say we’re concerned about the heat. We need to get out of the summer. I’m old school. I can remember the first game being the first Friday in September. Now, we may have played three games by then.”
Harp’s Friday night opponent, Mt. Juliet’s Trey Perry, is young. But he grew up around the sport as his father, Roger Perry, has been coaching at the high school level as long as Harp.
“I grew up in a football home,” Trey Perry said. “[But] I would like to see it go back to after Labor Day.
Of course, there is the matter of logistics. To get in a full season of regular-season play, plus five rounds of playoffs to settle the state championships the first weekend of December necessitates starting in the heat of August. Then, there is the start of basketball season.
New Mt. Juliet Christian coach Dan Davis grew up in Milwaukee, where the season started just before Labor Day.
“The issue is a culture thing as well,” said Davis, who came to the South to play for Tennessee State and has been coaching in the Nashville area most of the years since. “Football in the South is a whole different beast. There is no way to compare it. Around here…it’s an industry in and of itself compared to Wisconsin.
“If you started later, all it would do is give 7-on-7 camps more time, give more time to individual camps. If you moved football back, the TSSAA would have to deal with basketball. What would you do, lose games?
“It’s become more of a money maker… It’s become profitable and people are looking for ways to make money.”
Of course, not every year is a heat wave. The year after the Commanders and Bulldogs sweltered at Pirtle, the teams played the return match at Columbia Academy in much cooler, and much more pleasant, conditions.
And after decades of being locked in to 10 straight weeks of playing, some coaches like the scheduling flexibility Week 0 offers. Especially since the TSSAA has moved the start of practice in full pads from Aug. 1 to the preceding Monday. Teams can also practice more in helmets and shoulder pads the previous week. And there are two weeks following dead period in which teams participate in the 7-on-7 passing camps in which teams can get their passing game installed.
“It gives you a week somewhere in the schedule where if you need it to recover from injuries and help during the season,” Watertown coach Gavin Webster said. “With the way we got practice set up now, we get an extra week of practice. I feel we’re as ready as we would be if we started next week.”
Another change in recent years is the introduction of fall breaks in October, the heart of the season. A game during fall break often means a smaller gate. District 9-AAA teams have taken their Week 8 games and moved them to Week 0 to create the opening when classes are not in session. Other districts have done the same thing.
“A lot of people are out of town,” Wilson Central coach Brad Dedman said of fall break. “You lose people, you financially from the gate.”
Friendship’s John McNeal, who was playing Week 0 games when playing Week 0 games wasn’t cool, is a staunch traditionalist in another area – kickoff times. For years, every team in the state started at 7:30 p.m. Now, there are just a handful of holdouts as the majority have moved their games to 7.
“I still don’t understand why TSSAA doesn’t mandate 7:30 games,” McNeal said. “We play our home games at 7:30 until October. From Oct. 1 on, we’ll go to 7. But there’s a huge difference in that 30 minutes. The sun goes down from 7 to 7:30. When the game starts at 7:30, the sun’s gone. At 7, it’s still out and you’ve gone out an hour earlier to warm up.
“I don’t understand it. They’re all about heat and problems with it. We used to play at 7:30 all the time.”
McNeal, who is also the school’s baseball coach and hasn’t held spring football practice for years because his Commanders are usually making a run to the state tournament [his teams have won two championships in each sport], is bucking the trend in yet another way, not starting practice as soon as he could.
“We start like we used to,” McNeal said. “We feel that’s plenty. We have kids on vacation and they’re trying to finish up baseball. There’s a lot of things and we feel like we can get in what we need in that time.”
McNeal said he wouldn’t mind a later start to the season, but the playoffs would have to be cut back. That might also bring back another football tradition which has been crushed by the playoff monster – bowl games.
“I did like the bowl games,” McNeal said. “For a lot of teams, the bowl game was a great way to get in another week of practice and go out on a winning note. There were years I didn’t feel we deserved to be in a playoff, but we were good enough to be in a bowl game.
“I liked how they were set up. It was a great time for our kids. The week was fun.”
And bowl games weren’t played in an outdoor oven.