Ohio high school football championships move back to Canton
CANTON — The Ohio High School Athletic Association is bringing its state football championship games back to the shadows of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
OHSAA Executive Director Doug Ute and members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Board formally announced a three-year contract, beginning this year, to play all seven state title games at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
“We couldn’t be happier about being here and the relationship with the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Visit Canton,” Ute said during a 25-minute media conference. “We wanted to be somewhere that wanted us.”
The schedule of games will follow the same as it has been since the OHSAA expanded to seven divisions in 2013. There will be a single game played on Thursday night and then a trio of games to be staged on both Friday and Saturday.
“The No. 1 thing we want is a wow factor for our student-athletes,” Ute said. “(Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium) and the hall of fame provides that. We want the 14 communities that come here in December to have a great experience.”
The state title games are certainly no stranger to Stark County. Actually, they were held just minutes away from Canton — in Massillon — last December after originally being slated for Fortress Obetz in Columbus. The late switch was necessitated because of the now defunct state-wide COVID map declaring Franklin County as purple.
“Beau Rugg, our football administrator came into my office on Wednesday (of state finals week) and said, ‘we may have a problem,'” Ute said.
Having just more than 24 hours to work, the OHSAA reached out to Massillon City Schools, which had prior experience of hosting title games, obviously. Paul Brown Tiger Stadium was open and willing. Thus, all 14 schools shifted their travel plans and the games went off without a major glitch.
“I can’t express our appreciation enough to the folks at Massillon for what they did at the 11th hour,” Ute said.
According to Ute, Massillon and several other venues were considered before the OHSAA signed the contract with Canton.
“Massillon was nothing less than professional to make it happen, but they also understood why we are sitting here (in Canton),” Ute said.
Many believed the state championships would return to Central Ohio or the greater Columbus area, but more factors than just geography played a role.
The OHSAA, which hasn’t hidden the fact that it’s going through a financial crisis, admitted that the costs involved at Canton compared to other possible venues played a factor.
“We’re high school athletics and (the site) has to be affordable for us to be somewhere,” Ute said. “We looked at all of the venues and decided (Canton) is where we should be. If we can afford it, this is where we should be.”
Canton is home to the OHSAA’s State Swimming and Diving Championships and just up the road in Akron, the state softball and baseball tournaments were held each of the last two weekends.
“If you look at all 26 of our sports and where the championships are, they don’t all have to be in Columbus,” Ute said. “It’s nice to be able to spread these (championship) events around the state a little bit.”
Though the title games in Canton is familiar , the early rounds of the OHSAA football postseason will still look different than in years past.
The OHSAA had planned to expand to a tournament that included the top 12 teams in each region, but that was altered earlier this year when the Board of Directors approved the top 16 teams in each region qualifying, meaning a 16-game season for the seven state finalists.
“I think we made a lot of kids in Ohio happy when we went from 12 (teams) to 16 and I have to believe we’re making a lot of folks happy with this announcement (about returning to Canton),” Ute said.
Divisions I, II, III and IV will play their tournaments on Friday, and Divisions V, VI and VII will be held on Saturday throughout the tournament.