An even playing field: Select schools chart their course with LHSAA

Clarion Herald editor Peter Finney Jr. spoke Tuesday with Brother Martin principal Ryan Gallagher, a board member of the newly constituted Louisiana Select Association (LSA), which has been given the authority by the Louisiana High School Athletic Association (LHSAA) to oversee “Select” school state championships in football, basketball, baseball and softball.

Gallagher is a member of the LSA’s executive committee, and he is thrilled by the prospect of the state’s 107 Select (non-public) schools having the ability to control the sites of their state championships in the four sports for the coming academic year.

The biggest benefit of the formation of the LSA, Gallagher said, is the possibility that it may prompt public school principals to rethink the vote they cast several years ago to split the LHSAA into two camps – public schools and non-public (Select) schools – for the football playoffs, creating a situation in which there can be no true “state” champion.

Public school principals extended the playoff split to the other sports in subsequent years, widening the gulf between public and private schools in the LHSAA.

In January 2020, Gallagher said, the LHSAA may offer reunification proposals to its entire membership, which the Brother Martin principal believes would have overwhelming support from Select schools. However, since public schools account for about two-thirds of the LHSAA membership, any reunification proposal, which needs a two-thirds majority to pass, is sure to have tough sledding.

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Clarion Herald: Can you explain in a nutshell what happened Monday in Lafayette and how you think it will be good for the archdiocesan schools that are involved in athletics?

Ryan Gallagher: Sure. We held a meeting for all Select schools. There are 107 Select schools, and I want to say there were 73 schools in attendance, which was a really good number. The point of the meeting was really twofold: First, we wanted to gauge the interest and ultimately vote on the LSA – the Louisiana Select Association – as an organizing body to help us get organized as Select schools when playing championships within the LHSAA. That was ratified by a vote of – I think – 66 of the 73 schools there. I think a few schools abstained, and one school voted against it.

So, I saw that as really good. What that vote did was it allowed us to have an interim executive committee that can really represent all Select schools as one voice so that we could get organized. Last January, the LHSAA voted to allow Select schools to host their state championships separate from non-Select schools. What we wanted to do was get an organized group together and organize that as a Select unit so that it’s not every school hosting a championship at their own school. The LSA gives us that opportunity. The Select schools voted, by division, to waive our right to host those games on our campuses and instead let the LSA committee find neutral sites to host championships so that that could give all of our students the best atmosphere and the best venues to play for state championships.

The biggest thing about the LSA is that it’s not a separate association from the LHSAA. It gives us a way to formally organize. We were told after the January (2019) vote that we were responsible for hosting championships in football, basketball, baseball and softball. After the meeting, we had a meeting in Lafayette in March of all the Select schools. At that time, we nominated and elected a nine-person executive committee. We tried to represent each division (there are five Select divisions) and represent every region of the state geographically. This was to allow us to get together and talk about, “OK, what are we going to do now? We have this long list of things that we are responsible for in hosting these championships. How we’re going to pull this off?” That group met a handful of times from March to now. Most of it was corresponding over email. We met a couple of times in the spring, and from those meetings, the LSA concept was born.

So this will go into effect for the coming academic year?

Yes. We didn’t have 100 percent attendance at the meeting, so we have some work we need to do now in contacting these schools. Some of them e-mailed us and said they couldn’t make it but were going to send us the paperwork waiving their right to host events and to say they were on board. We haven’t heard from some schools, and now we have some work to do. We have to contact them and find out where they stand with this. We need to ask if they are willing to forgo their right to host so we can use a neutral site. But we have established ourselves as a group, an affiliate association within the LHSAA.

We’ve had regional meetings throughout the state in order to educate every Select school about what the LSA was leading up to yesterday’s meeting. And we made it very clear in those meetings that we’re not trying to break away from the LHSAA because we don’t want to run an organization. We need to organize ourselves because we’ve been charged with finding a way to host those four state championship events. So we thought the best way to do that was to form a group of Select schools to do this the right way for our students.

Does it have any effect on regular-season scheduling in any way?

Absolutely not. Hopefully, in January (2020), there is a proposal to end the split as we know it and put everybody back together. And that would be ideal. We had our regional meeting in New Orleans two weeks ago and we took a straw poll, a hand poll. We asked who would be in favor of ending the split. Every school in attendance raised their hand. So, every school in attendance in New Orleans wants this split to end. That’s ultimately what we hope happens. But with the way it’s set up right now, where we’re splitting these four sports, at least now we have the LSA to organize ourselves.

Does this help the Select schools competitively? Is there a financial benefit in doing this?

Well, those are those are good questions. Competitively, I don’t think it helps competition in any way. With the split, I think we still have watered-down competition. Hopefully, what it does is by having different neutral sites than those used by the non-Select schools, we can have more of our school communities at the games – rather than when you’re playing nine football games on one weekend and some school has to play its game at 11 o’clock on a Thursday morning. You know you’re not going to have anybody in the Superdome. So, if we can host four of those games at another neutral site, then everybody has a marquee time. Then it’s going to help bring those communities together to watch the game and support their school. That would be the biggest thing.

You can’t talk right now about where you’re going to be playing these playoff games, but what venues would still be in play for football, since that’s first sport coming up?

In football, we’re working on it right now because we want to have something in place by the end of August. We have we have spoken with Southeastern University, Tulane University, the Superdome and Lafayette, and they are all interested in hosting football. So those sites are all in play. Three of our four Select divisions that play football – I believe – 100 percent waived their right to host the games. So we have three divisions where we can now go to these places and say, “Look, three divisions are a go and we’re working on the fourth division.” It’s the smallest division.

You’d like to play all four Select football championships at the same site?

For football, that would be the idea. So we would all play at the same place. Football is easy. You’re only playing the state championship game, so it’s only four games.  It could get a little trickier with basketball, baseball and softball. Those are some of the discussions we have to have now. Do we want to play the semifinals and the finals at the neutral site? If so, it’s going to be difficult to play all those games at one place. We’d have to get a couple places. But we now have the opportunity to say we can do what we want – if we want to play the semifinal and final at a neutral site or we only want to play the state championship at a neutral site in basketball, baseball or softball. We have to start talking about that.

What’s the current contract status of the Superdome with the LHSAA?

I know that the non-Select schools are playing in the Superdome. That is under contract for this coming school year. That would be five games.

You said there’s a feeling that you would love to get back together. Do you think something like this might tip the scales and prompt public school principals to think a little bit more about reunification?

It’s tough to say, but I hope it’s a step in the right direction. I think there’s more momentum for that now than there has been since we split. I know the LHSAA’s executive committee has charged (commissioner) Eddie Bonine with putting together a proposal to end the split this coming January. So, he has sent out a survey to all schools trying to get our pulse of where are we with this. Hopefully, the conversation starts now and we can resolve whatever issues we have, and then when we get to the annual meeting in January, hopefully we’ve got some ideas that can end the split that make both sides happy. I just want to play everybody, and I want to play the best teams. Let’s end the split and play for our kids – the way it’s supposed to be done.

 Do you get any inkling from your public school counterparts that they might even be willing to rethink?

I think so. When we had our regional meeting in New Orleans, Adam MacDowell, the assistant executive director of the LHSAA, came to our meeting. He told us in the meeting that they’ve had conversations with a number of non-Select principals who, six years later, now regret the split. These are people who apparently voted for it the first time around and would vote to bring us back together in January. Those are some of  the conversations that are going on right now. It would have to be a two-thirds vote. I don’t know the exact number of non-Select schools, but they make up about two-thirds of the association. But the good thing is now, with the LSA organized, when we go in to vote on ending the split, we’ll walk in with 107 yes votes. Ideally, we’ll be a united front.

Have you been keeping the Archdiocese of New Orleans officials in the loop?

I’ve been in contact with (Catholic schools associate superintendent) Martha Mundine and kept her abreast throughout this. She has been very supportive when I’ve talked with her. She’s happy that there’s some movement from the Select schools in organizing ourselves.

All of the Select schools are still paying their LHSAA dues. Are there any other dues or financial responsibilities for the LSA?

We’ve talked about that. The idea is that if this is going to be a long-term thing – long-term – then we have to come up with some sort of financial plan. But we’re really not there yet.

The LHSAA is still responsible for assigning officials for the playoffs?

Yes. They would still assign the officials, they would bring the state championship trophies there and they would hang sponsorship signs. We can’t go out and we don’t want to go out and get a conflicting sponsor because we’re still part of that (LHSAA) brand. But we’re responsible for basically hosting the events in those four sports.

If you do well in football, does that revenue go to the LSA or to the LHSAA?

In football, the LHSAA gets 10% of the gross profit. We have to send that to them. That’s part of the constitution and the bylaws. But, after expenses, everything else would go to the participating schools. Right now, it would be the ones who are actually playing in that game – the teams in that state championship or in the tournament – if we played a semifinal and a final. But we’ve talked about the idea of – and this will be way down the road – but potentially having some revenue sharing, if this is the future of the LHSAA. Hopefully, it’s not, but if it is, we’ve talked about having a concept like the SEC does where if LSU is playing in the national championship, well, Vanderbilt gets some money, because someone in their conference is representing the conference. But that would be way down the road.

Do you think the bottom line is everyone is disappointed Louisiana is not crowning a true state champion?

Exactly. It’s not the best situation. The best situation would be – in my opinion, and I know and I understand both sides of the discussion – the best deal would be ending the split. But I do think that the LSA is the best possibility with the situation we’re in right now.

Is nailing down the particulars with the football playoffs your most pressing concern right now?

Correct. We’ve had good conversations with Southeastern, Tulane, the Superdome, the Alario Center. We’re close in football. I think we’ll have it done within a month.

If you played your football championships in the Superdome, would the Selects and the non-Selects have to play on different weekends?

Yes. Select school football weekend is Dec. 6 and 7. We are already one weekend before the non-Select schools, regardless of where we play.

And then the next thing to nail down would be basketball?

Yes. We have 10 people on the executive committee, and someone is in charge of each sport. J.P. Kelly, the athletics director at Catholic High in Baton Rouge, is the CEO of the LSA for this coming year. There’s a subcommittee for each sport. There’s a football subcommittee (Pat Neck, St. Louis Catholic); a basketball subcommittee (Mike McGuire, Country Day); a baseball subcommittee (Mike Boyer, Tuerlings Catholic); and a softball subcommittee (April Hagadone, Mount Carmel). They’re going to have to put their heads together and ask, do we want to play a final four? Do we want to just play the state championship? Are we going to play in a couple of different venues or are we going to do this all at one place? So that’s the nice thing about this. There’s a lot of trust that had to go into play with these Select schools. We’ve got to trust this committee to try to make the best decisions for all of those Select schools.

In the meantime, school’s getting ready to start, right?

Yeah, we still have our day jobs. You know, we had a meeting at Brother Martin in the region a couple of weeks ago, and I told everybody that I’d volunteer to do this. And over the summer I caught myself saying, “Why in the world did I get myself into this?” But the answer is the same reason: we all got into this vocation in the first place because it’s about the kids. We’re trying to make the best of the situation that we are in for our students.

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