July 26, 2014 10:26:47 PM
After waiting several months for the Mississippi High School Activities Association to change venues for its high school football state championships, the move has been met with mixed reviews from area coaches.
The MHSAA announced Tuesday a four-year commitment to move the state's six football state championship games to Mississippi State (2014 and 2016) and Ole Miss (2015 and 2017). Officials at Southern Mississippi also have said they will play host to the 2018 championship games. However, the MHSAA staff confirmed only the first four years Tuesday.
Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville will play host to this year's state championship weekend Dec. 5-6. The games will leave Jackson's Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, which had played host to the state finals since 1992.
"I really don't like the change," said Noxubee County fourth-year coach Tyrone Shorter, who led the Tigers to the Class 4A state title in Jackson in 2012. "Going to Jackson has been tradition for so long. Memorial Stadium is where the games belong. I guess the people in the big offices are seeing something we don't."
When the MHSAA created the present playoff system in the early 1980s, the games were played at Mississippi College's Robinson-Hale Stadium in Clinton. As crowds began to exceed the stadium seating capacity of roughly 8,000, the move to Jackson followed.
"Jackson had a wonderful ride, but anytime there is a change it is exciting," said Columbus High first-year coach Randal Montgomery, who led Hazlehurst to title games in 2011-13. "I think this will be a different opportunity for the kids. Really from the first practice, you have always talked about going to Jackson.
"There will be an adjustment period. All of a sudden, you now are trying to get somewhere else. However, the atmosphere should be electric. This should be a great opportunity for the players, coaches, and fans."
The Alabama High School Activities Association moved its games away from Legion Field in Birmingham for the 2009 season. What also started out as a four-year rotation between the campuses of Alabama and Auburn has since been extended through the 2020 season.
"The (AHSAA) really hit a home run," said Starkville High fifth-year coach Jamie Mitchell, who led the Yellow Jackets to the Class 5A state title in 2012. "The move over there has been extremely popular and really created unprecedented buzz for the games. I think the MHSAA wants to do the same thing. If we really follow their plan and do something similar, everyone will love this."
In recent years, the ownership of the stadium transferred from the city of Jackson to Jackson State University. This has led to more questionable field preparation. The MHSAA also added a sixth championship game in 2009. Under its present format, three games are played each day.
"You have turf at Ole Miss and you have one of the best surfaces in the (Southeastern Conference) at MSU," Mitchell said. "You are looking at two places with full-time staff members working around the clock on the fields. The playing surface in Jackson had a lot to be desired, especially as you went deeper into the weekend. You definitely will have an upgrade in facilities. You will also have people who are hosting the games for the first time. They will want to make an impact."
Montgomery said the MHSAA was fortunate the December weather has spared Memorial Stadium for the most part.
"We played some cold games down there, but we never really had that heavy rain," Montgomery said. "Heaven help them if that ever happened. I have no idea how they would play the games if there was a serious rain."
For Shorter, the weekend was about more than one game.
"The hotels in Jackson went out of their way to accommodate the teams," Shorter said. "We ate good meals, stayed in good hotels. (Jackson State) worked hard at improving the locker rooms, installing a video board, doing the extra things to make it a little nicer. In the long run, we will all get used to this, and I feel like it will be a good thing going forward. However, I talked to a lot of coaches during the offseason. A lot of them liked the idea of keeping the games in Jackson. Being so close to Starkville (about 30 miles), it may be harder to motivate the kids this season. People are used to pointing to Jackson as the destination."
Travel time was long considered one of the downfalls of the current plan. In the next four years, teams from the southern part of the state will have an extended drive to play for a state championship.
Many feel USM will be given the 2018 games to offset travel difficulties for the southern teams. USM also will play host to the Mississippi-Alabama Shrine All-Star Classic in 2015 and 2017. That game will be played in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2014 and 2016. It will be the first time the All-Star game in its 27-year history has left Alabama.
Even though he lives and coaches in the same city as this year's state championship games, Mitchell feels travel concerns won't be a big concern.
"If you are in the state championship game and the games are being played in Russia, you would go, never say a word, and be tickled you were there." Mitchell said.
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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