By: Scott Emigh, Editor-in-Chief
Oklahoma high school football experienced a dramatic and controversial change in the fall of 2013 when the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association (OSSAA) announced a split in Class 6A. The 16 highest-enrollment schools would be separated from the lower 16 and each division would play for their own State Title.
The reason for the decision was simple. Population. The current enrollment of Broken Arrow High School is 4,872. The enrollment of Booker T Washington? 1,317. The difference between the top of 6A and the bottom of 6A is greater than the top of 5A and the smallest schools in the State. Schools like BA, Union, Jenks, and Owasso have four times the talent pool to draw from. While the majority of the Hornet starters play both sides of the ball and never get a break, the Redskins have a roster larger than some colleges and have backups for their backups.
Class 6A was created in 1992 and the inaugural Championship was won by Norman. Jenks won it in ’93, Midwest City went back-to-back from ’94-95, and nobody but Jenks or Union has won it since. More often than not, the State Championship game has simply been a rematch between the Backyard Bowl rivals. Since the inception of 6A, Jenks leads the series with 14 titles to Union’s 7, and only 2 other teams have ever won.
Clearly population isn’t the only deciding factor, otherwise Broken Arrow would have won it every year. But there’s no denying the significance it plays. 6A teams were judged by their ability to turn a winning record, not by their ability to win State Titles. That was irrelevant. Nobody won State Titles but Jenks and Union.
In the 22 seasons that Sand Springs played the 6A division, they earned a total record of 98-131 and only managed 7 winning seasons with 7 playoff appearances. In five of those years they were eliminated by top-four-enrollment schools. The other years it was by top-ten schools. Since the 6A split, the Sandites have gone 15-11, made the playoffs both years, and actually won playoff games for the first time since 1997. In 2015, the Sandites made their first State Final appearance since 1966.
While the problems with the 6A split were clear—increased travel, “easier” brackets—the solution has proved to be a game-changer for the 16 schools who now feel like they actually have a legitimate chance. The culture around Sand Springs football has changed, and it’s not an isolated event.
The Class 6A-II conversation begins with two-time reigning State Champions, the Bixby Spartans. Bixby was an annual contender in Class 5A without fail. They weren’t part of the inaugural class of 6A. They didn’t move over until 2010. Prior to that, they had six-straight winning seasons with ten-straight playoff appearances. In their first year of 6A they finished the regular season 5-5, their worst record since 2003, and were eliminated in round one by Jenks. For the next two years they posted losing records and didn’t make the playoffs again till the 6A split. In a single year, the 6A powerhouses had killed the football culture at Bixby. They were lucky that they only had to live through it for four years before the split. In 2014, the Spartans were once again playing teams at their size, and they went 12-1 for their first ever State Title. Their only loss? A season-opening non-conference game against Jenks. Jenks won that one 66-20. The Spartans defended their title in 2015 and are currently ranked number one in 2016. After two straight winning seasons and State Titles, the Spartans challenged Jenks in their season opener and nearly won it, 38-34.
Booker T Washington has always had a culture of winning, with eight State Championships including two recently in 2008 and 2010 at the 5A level. The Hornets only had to play two seasons of 6A football, both ending in first round devastating playoff defeats at the hands of the Big Four. As soon as 6A split, they were back in it with a 7-game winning streak and a 10-2 season in 2014. Last year they went undefeated in the regular season and earned the number one rank before Sand Springs defeated them in the semi-finals. This year the Hornets are laying the foundation to take their program to the next level with College Hall of Fame member Brad Calip taking over as Head Coach and former University of Tulsa Head Coach Bill Blankenship volunteering with the quarterbacks and offensive coaching. The Hornets have stepped up their pre-conference scheduling with 6A No. 5 Edmond Santa Fe and Florida-based private school IMG Academy which is currently ranked No. 2 in the nation with an entire roster of division-I commits.
Bartlesville was part of the first class of 6A, and went 0-10 in the first two years. They didn’t post a winning record till 2002, when they were doubled down on by Union 54-27 in the first round of the playoffs. Their next winning record wouldn’t come till 2008, and that was only due to a forfeiture by Jenks due to OSSAA sanctions. In 2009 they gave it a real run and even defeated Owasso, but still couldn’t fend off Jenks, BA, and Southmoore. In 2010 they had another winning record at 7-4. Their losses were to the Big Four. Since the 6A split they’ve made the playoffs both years and finished last season with only two losses. They held the No. 1 rank briefly after defeating Bixby, before falling to BTW two weeks later.
The success stories continue from there. The evidence is undeniable, the 6A split has saved 6A football. While critics of the sixteen-team bracket call it a JV division, the reality is that the top teams in 6A-II never could compete with the Big Four when they were in 6A, but now they could. Bixby nearly defeated 6A No. 1 Jenks in a pre-conference battle. BTW almost defeated 6A No. 5 Edmond Santa Fe. Sand Springs has begun scheduling real opponents like Arkansas State Champion Pulaski Academy, instead of their past habit of lighting up Nathan Hale, who has lost 37-straight games. Muskogee has brought in 5A State Championship coach Rafe Watkins from Guthrie and is now a real contender for the first time in years. Putnam City West is confidently rebuilding their program after a decade of losing seasons. Sapulpa brought on former Sand Springs Defensive Coordinator Robert Borgstadt as head coach to rebuild their ailing program.
Success breeds success. Is the 16-team bracket the best way to go? Who knows? Maybe one day there will be a full 32 schools the size of BA and we can re-institute the 32-team standard. Maybe we should split all the other classes into 16-team divisions as well. Or maybe we should call Bixby and Jenks Division Champions instead of State Champions and have them play each other for the true 6A State Championship. There’s many things we could try; some could work, and some won’t. But the fact is, 6A football is more competitive than it has ever been, and almost every school in the Class is now vying to be the next big deal. The Big Four monopoly hasn’t been broken, but at least 16 teams now feel like they have a real shot.