Football coaches all over Northeast Ohio have seen their players come back to the field this month.
As they keep their eyes toward this season, however, a major change will befall Ohio High School Athletic Association football next fall.
Beginning with the 2021 season, the OHSAA will expand from eight to 12 teams in each of its playoff regions.
The new format will have the top four teams in each region getting a bye in the first round of the playoffs, while the first round will see seeds No. 5 vs. No 12, No. 6 vs. No. 11, No. 7 vs. No. 10 and No. 8 vs. No. 9 play each other with the lower seed hosting.
This will lead to a six-week playoff system instead of the five-week system the OHSAA currently uses. The expansion will increase the number of football playoff qualifiers from 224 to 336.
The OHSAA Board of Directors voted unanimously May 10 to accept the proposal from the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association.
Among local coaches, however, there’s not much consensus over whether the expansion is a good or bad thing.
Aurora coach Bob Mihalik has the most experience with the playoffs, having led the Greenmen to the playoffs 14 of the last 15 years, including a run to the Division III state semifinals last fall.
As he enters his 20th season in charge at Aurora, Mihalik makes it clear he’s no fan of playoff expansion.
"I was against it from the start," Mihalik said. "I just think football is unique where we have to earn our way into the playoffs. It’s been about 30 percent of the teams who’ve gotten in. Now, we’re watering it down.
"The more I think about it, we’ve been having a lot of trouble scheduling teams in our nonconference schedule because no one wants to lose a big nonconference game. I’m hoping this will loosen it up a bit."
Another element to consider is that, had Aurora played last season under the proposed system, the Greenmen would have had a bye in Week 11. As the No. 4 seed in Division III, Region 9, instead of opening vs. Steubenville, Aurora would have hosted the winner of fifth-seeded Steubenville and 12th-seeded Akron East in Week 12.
"I’m not real excited about that [the bye] either. I think high school kids are creatures of habit," Mihalik said. "Sometimes, you might be taking them into a different way of doing things if you’re not playing in Week 11."
By contrast, Cuyahoga Falls head coach Shane Parker is all for the expansion. Falls earned its only state playoff berth in the 2001.
"Personally, I think it’s a great opportunity for kids," Parker said. "We’re trying to get the program back to the playoff level. I feel the more student-athletes have the opportunity to experience playoff football, the better.
"I think it makes goals a little bit more attainable for those who have been down and are trying to get back up. It’s a good opportunity for everybody."
Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy coach Dan Larlham noted that he played with Walsh Jesuit in 1998 — the final year the OHSAA allowed only four teams into the playoffs in each region.
"I’m old enough to remember playing in that era," Larlham said. "I think having eight teams in is awesome. It was a good numbers to have. I’m not sure about having 12. Obviously, it waters it down a little bit.
"Quite frankly, playoff football is awesome and you want to have as many kids have the chance to experience that."
Count Hudson football coach Jeff Gough among those who embrace the new system.
"I absolutely love it," Gough said. "I think that this is progress. Years ago, there were only four teams that made it in [a region], and before that, even less. I want every single kid in high school football to have the chance to prove themselves in the playoffs.
"In my opinion, it makes the regular season so exciting because now we can schedule anybody, anywhere. We can create these new rivalries and we don’t have to be thinking about computer points, projections and school sizes."
Hudson made the Division II playoffs last season as the fifth seed in Division II, Region 5, where it lost to Massillon Perry. Under the new system, Hudson would have hosted 12th-seeded Kent Roosevelt in the first round, with the winner facing Perry.
Nordonia is another team that would have benefited from the new system last year. The Knights finished 10th in the Division II, Region 5 standings, missing the playoffs, but they would have qualified and faced seventh-seeded Willoughby South under the new system.
Despite this, Nordonia coach Jeff Fox said he "did not have a strong opinion" on the new system.
"I can see the advantage of it," Fox said. "Football season is so meaningful because everyone doesn’t get into the playoffs. I think it’s a good compromise.
"I think they have the right mix right now. We’ll adjust. It allows teams to be willing to play a tough schedule. You can lose a game or two and still make the playoffs."
Stow-Munroe Falls also could have benefited from the new system, having finished ninth in the Division I, Region 1 rankings in 2019. However, Stow coach Tom Phillips is apprehensive about a larger playoff field.
Phillips feels expansion could lead to more injuries and lopsided scores, and it could water down the postseason.
"I am not a fan of the playoff expansion," Phillips said. "I think we are in an era right now that everyone needs a trophy. I was coaching when it was four [per region made the playoffs], then it is eight and now it will be 12. I am not a fan of that.
"... The beauty of football is that it is different than any other sport. You have got to earn a playoff spot. I think eight was plenty."
CVCA is coming off its first playoff win and first home playoff game in school history. Under the new system, the Royals would have had a bye in the first round as the No. 4 seed.
"I will say that first-round bye, I don’t love that," Larlham said. "I would almost hope to keep playing. It throws a wrench into your plan, obviously.
"How often do you practice there? Football is such a regimented schedule. It would be an adjustment. Most teams would be able to handle it just fine, but it’s extra work for sure."
Twinsburg coach Mike Bell also has been a coach for decades but notes his opinion on expansion has changed.
"I think years ago, I probably would not have been in favor of it," Bell said. "I think it’s a great opportunity to get the young men a chance to play playoff football. My stance right now is the more the merrier. I hope they move in that direction."
That said, Bell noted the bye week could put a "snag in the whole system."
"When the OHSAA sent out the survey about this, that was my biggest reservation," Bell said. "I don’t know that this helps at this level. Momentum is so important. I guess there’s more than one way to look at it."
Woodridge coach Jeff Decker also noted his opinion has shifted.
"In the beginning I had mixed feels about it. I thought that eight was a good number," Decker said. "I thought the length of the season was good and everybody joins the playoffs at the right time. I didn’t necessarily like the idea of some teams having a bye week.
"The more I thought about it, there’s a lot of teams out there that have a good seasons. They just don’t make the playoffs. I think there’s enough of those teams where expanding it to 12 will ensure none of those team don’t make the playoffs."
Tallmadge coach Mike Hay feels the 12-team system "makes the playoff goal much more attainable," but he was less positive on the concept of a bye week.
"I think there’s positives and negatives to that," Hay said. "NFL teams find a way for it to work. It allows those five to eight [seeded] teams to have a home playoff game.
"I think in some regions, when you get to 12, it starts to water down a little bit. In our region, it’s a good thing."
Walsh Jesuit coach Nick Alexander said he felt the bye week likely would hurt the biggest schools.
"I’ve been at [Lakewood] St. Edward and I’ve been at Mentor. In those big leagues, it may hurt them," Alexander said. "From my perspective in Region 5, I think it’s awesome.
"I might look at that bye as an ‘opportunity week.’ It allows you the opportunity to get healthy. It could go either way, though. If you need the week to get healthy, it’s good. If you get a team that’s hot at the right time and they get a week off, it could kill momentum."
Reporter Michael Leonard can be reached at 330-541-9442, email@example.com or @MLeonard_GAN on Twitter.