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Fall FUN, the Harbin football playoff ratings system

October 30, 2010 - Michael Palmer
The computer ratings system used to determine high school football playoff qualifiers hasn't changed since 1972, and it is a system that we all can thank the late Jack Harbin for creating.

Harbin was a newspaper man, working with the News-Herald out of Willoughby, Ohio during his career. He was a true fan of high school football and mathematics. Thus, it is appropriate that he would come to devise a formula to determine a fair and impartial playoff system for high school football. It was a system that awarded schools with points for games won, plus secondary points for games won by their opponents and third-level points for strength of schedule. The tougher the schedule, the better the point value. Points varied by the size of the school.

Harbin was serving as a volunteer coach for a local high school in the Cleveland area and shared the frustration with the other coaches on that team when their program was overlooked by the press and coach’s polls. There was no playoff system in Ohio back then and a small school with a 10-0 record simply could not get a second look from a system which amounted to little more than a popularity contest. With the state’s top sport’s writers and coaches (Namely the Associated Press writers' poll and the United Press International coaches' poll) controlling the voting, a new team or a one season wonder had little or no chance of receiving the state crown.

While there were big-school and small-school polls, there was a need for change and there was a movement among the state high school coaches to formulate a playoff system.

Enter Harbin, who formulated the system and then perfected it over the next few seasons. The ratings were formulated after painstaking hours of tracking down statewide results and calculating the results by hand with simple pen and paper. With friends and family members, including his faithful wife Rose, it took the better part of two days to compile and formulate the rankings back then.

Eventually coaches from across the state took notice of his rankings. It was with their support that Harbin made the drive to Columbus and presented the playoff system to the Ohio High School Athletic Association in 1970.

The OHSAA agreed to use Harbin's formula on a trial basis in 1971. The next year, it was officially implemented, and one can only imagine the pride Harbin must have felt when the first edition of the Ohio high school football playoffs became a reality in the fall of 1972.

Then the system used just three divisions, AAA, AA and A. The field consisted of four teams each which made up the first playoff brackets.

Since them, the field has ballooned to 192 teams -- 32 in each of six divisions, or eight per region. The current format, in place since 1999, is what we use today to determine a state champion, although the points are compiled by computer and almost instantly calculated on Friday and Saturday nights as scores come in.

The system is not perfect, and perhaps a fail-proof formula to determine who qualifies for the postseason will never be found. No system will make everyone happy, even one in which every team makes the postseason like other high school sports.

Most sports writers and coaches will agree that the Ohio High School Athletic Association has the high school football playoffs right. However, ever year there seem to be one or two noticeable exceptions. Sometimes the system will exclude 9-1 or 10-0 teams from the playoff based on the team’s strength of schedule. For teams locked into a league, this can be an issue every season. Newcomerstown had such a season where they went 10-0 and were left out of the playoffs then one season later made the playoffs with an 8-2 record.

I even recently noticed some posting on the internet complaining that Steubenville is hosting a playoff game. The Big Red (8-2) clinched a home game in the D-III, Region 11 field without beating a single football team from Ohio. While the Big Red have defeated three OVAC opponents from West Virginia, two teams from New York and teams from Michigan, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., they lost to Massillon and Youngstown Cardinal Mooney. Admittedly, two high quality football teams, however, many still argue the point.

At the same time, there are many supporters who support the system and it’s ability to weed out undefeated teams that do not play any quality opponents. Harbin’s system of football scores and rankings has now been adopted by Joe Eitel and he has in turn developed a network of score reporters that surpasses the wire service. On his web site you can watch as the Week 10 drama unfolds on the last Friday night of the high school regular season. His computer is humming with the thousands of calculations after wins and losses, and for the teams on the bubble in their respective region, it provides a chance to get an early taste of the playoff atmosphere with the opportunity to win and advance hanging in the balance.

The season doesn’t officially end until tonight, Saturday, when some teams finish their schedules, so the waiting continues another day. If Newark catholic wins their game in Region 23 of Division VI they can possibly bump Bridgeport into third place. Currently Shadyside has the lock on the number one spot and the Bulldogs are guaranteed a home game, but their opponent will not be known until the final tabulations and will be officially announced Sunday.

If they remain in the number two spot they will host Salineville. The Indians will bring a good crowd with them as they have qualified for post-season play for the first time in school history.

Shadyside knows they will host the Trimble Tomcats from Athens County next Friday night.

Monroe Central will most likely get an opportunity to avenge last year’s loss to Wheelersburg.

Ohio Division 4, Region 13 is still a mess come Saturday morning nothing is set for St. Clairsville and Martins Ferry. Cleveland Central Catholic can bump up from 11 to replace Perry in the 8 spot if the can pull off the upset win over Mentor Lake Catholic (8-1). St. Clairsville is awaiting the outcome of the Indian Creek and Edison game tonight to get their final points total and insure they are hosting next week. Rest assured there will be more than a few local residents hitting their refresh buttons on Joe Eitel’s site tonight to see if LaBrae (4-5) will defeat Cleveland Catholic Central (1-8) and then watch the points to see how the region will finally finish.

If indeed the Purple Riders jump to number 3 and St. C falls to number four, they would host the Lakeview Bulldogs from Cortland. This scenario would set up an interesting game in St. Clairville next Friday night when the Campbell Memorial Red Devils would come calling, thus giving the announcer for the home Red Devils a challenging night for relaying information to the crowd. “Now, here come the Red Devils! Or is it the Red Devils?”

While some argue that Harbin’s system isn’t completely fair or perfect, it definitely makes the final week of football a lot of fun for fans, coaches, players and of course sports writers. I can already see the headline, “Red Devils Go Down in Flames” …. so which team was that again?

We will know for sure tomorrow.


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