Over the past six months, the Big 33 Football Classic has undergone a number of behind-the-scenes changes, but little of that will be evident when the high school all-star football game between Maryland and Pennsylvania kicks off Saturday night.
The one obvious change will be the venue. The game has left Hersheypark Stadium for Landis Field, an 11,500-seat stadium at Central Dauphin Middle School in Harrisburg. The four-day practice schedule, the host-family experience, the Buddy Program which matches each player with a special needs youngster for the week and the Friday-night recognition program are going on as they have for years.
Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Coaches Association took over the 60th annual game after partnering with the Big 33 Scholarship Foundation for about the past 35 years. The sudden death of the executive director of the foundation in December triggered the change.
Garry Cathell, executive manager of the PSFCA, said that although there were "thousands of dollars" in the scholarship endowment, there were other financial problems and, in January, the foundation's board of directors decided to shut down the foundation. The financial issues, Cathell said, did not carry over to the PSFCA, but funding was a concern for the future of the game, which has become known as the "super bowl of high school football games."
"We had to take a look at finances and one of the big groups that stepped in was Dauphin County. They came up with $100,000 which allowed us to run the game like it had been run," Cathell said. "If we were going to run the game without that funding, we would not have been able to put it on at the scale we're putting it on right now. They helped us out and we got some sponsors and some different people on board."
Cathell also said the PSFCA has retained the foundation's staff which helped immensely with the logistics, especially after about a three-month lull before the coaches association decided to take over the game.
Pennsylvania officials were in touch with Maryland Football Coaches Association officials throughout the process. Scott Ripley, vice president of the MFCA who works closely with Cathell, said Maryland officials are pleased with the changes and hope to be part of the game for years to come.
Maryland officials have signed on to play in the Big 33 through 2022. This is the final year of the five-year contract that renewed their rivalry after a 20-year drought during which Pennsylvania played Ohio.
"We like the new venue," Ripley said. "We like that both coaches associations are running the event as opposed to a general contractor guy that promoted it. We decided that both organizations are going to do the profit sharing to help support the game. We've gotten a lot of response from sponsors like Gym Source, Under Armour, Dauphin County and some others. They think it's cool now that the coaches association has taken over the game."
Ripley said the PSFCA has cut back on commercialization and is spending more money on the players. Under Armour outfitted both teams and players will take home more gear, including their helmets, which the PSFCA purchased for the first time.
Leaving Hersheypark Stadium also cut costs. While Landis Field is smaller by about 5,000 seats, Ripley and Cathell agree the new venue is a much better fit for the game. It's small enough to promote a more exciting atmosphere, but it's still bigger than any high school stadium in the Baltimore area.
There's plenty of free parking and space for activities such as NFL PLAY 60, bounce houses and blow-up slides, food trucks, a VIP tent for coaches and exhibits from many Dauphin County government agencies, Cathell said.
Although there had been plans to play the Big 33 game on Memorial Day weekend, it appears likely to remain in June. Officials from both states, however, will consider moving it to the first week in June so some of the players who must report in early June to out-of-state Football Bowl Subdivision programs can play.
Memorial Day weekend didn't work because not enought host families were available and Ripley said Maryland officials would not have allowed players to stay in a hotel unsupervised.
A decision on moving up the game likely will come later this summer.