Editor’s Note: When the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association started its football classification system in the fall of 1969, The Knoxville Focus’ Steve Williams was a senior at Clinton High School and covering the Clinton Dragons for his hometown newspaper, The Clinton Courier-News. This is his first of a series of columns on the first 50 years of the TSSAA playoffs.

By Steve Williams

This year marks the 50th season of the TSSAA’s football classification system and it’s amazing how much the playoffs have changed over the years.

Much of the change has been good, but in the process of trying to make the system equal and fair, one can argue the TSSAA membership has gone too far.

When the playoffs began in 1969, it was much tougher to qualify for the playoffs than it is today. There were three classes – AAA, AA and A – with four regions in each class and public schools and private schools competed against each other.

Only the region champion – determined by a point system – received a playoff berth. That meant only 12 teams in the entire state made the playoffs.

Gradually, the number of classifications grew and reached five in 1993, and then in 1997 there was the major change – when public and private schools were divided.

This season, 231 out of the state’s 342 teams received a playoff berth (Notice I didn’t say earned a playoff berth) and there will be nine state champions – six in Division I (public schools) and three in Division II (private schools) – compared to three state champions in 1969.

Last Friday’s playoffs began with 32 teams in each of the six Division I classes. That’s 192 teams. And in Division II, 39 of the state’s 46 private schools received a playoff berth. In fact, in Division II Class AAA, all 11 schools received a playoff berth.

Fifty years ago, there weren’t enough playoff berths available and many teams with excellent won-loss records were left on the outside looking in.

That’s certainly not the case today. Now, it’s too easy to get in.

In Division I, four teams in each region qualify for the playoffs. But there are three regions in the state that consist of only four teams and nine other regions that have only five teams.

It also doesn’t matter if a team has a winning record or not.

In Division I, there were 38 teams across the state this season that got in the playoffs with losing records.

In some cases, first-round matchups were extremely one-sided. Claiborne County (2-8) made the field in Class 3A and met highly regarded and unbeaten Alcoa in the opening round. How could this have been a good situation for either team?

There also was a Class 4A first-round contest that had winless Memphis East (0-9) going against undefeated Dyersburg (10-0). On the other hand, in that same bracket was Hardin County (8-2) vs. Montgomery Central (9-1). Now that’s the way it should be.

But for years, the TSSAA playoffs have been too watered down. Too many teams with losing records and .500 records have made it that way. Being in the playoffs should be a reward for a good season. That should be the No. 1 objective.

Prior to the days of the classification system and playoffs, the state’s best high school football teams were rewarded with invitations to go out in style and end their seasons in bowl games. But to be qualified for a bowl game, the TSSAA required a team to have at least seven wins.

Back then, high school teams didn’t just receive a bowl berth; they earned it with an outstanding record.

And that’s the way it should be in the playoffs today!