EVERYBODY LOVES A winner. Except me, apparently.
Give Byrnes High credit for establishing a superpower football program in the Upstate, one that has gained national recognition and travels coast to coast to promote how the game is played in South Carolina.
But count me among those who believe that what is happening at Byrnes is not what high school football is supposed to be about. Maybe I am old school. I always thought guarantee games, nationally televised contests, Nike contracts and missing class to take airplane trips were the frills and traps of college football.
Byrnes is scheduled to line up and smash Spartanburg into smithereens tonight, and, if all goes as planned, coach Chris Miller's club will roll up a score of about 65-9, which is the average score of Byrnes' wins over instate teams this season. Replays of touchdown runs by the nation's top high school running back, Marcus Lattimore, will be displayed on the school's $328,000 scoreboard, and the few thousand or so fans will delight when Byrnes starters are yanked shortly after halftime.
By evening's end, Byrnes not only will have won its 58th consecutive home game, it also will have taken one more stride toward capturing a seventh state championship in eight seasons.
How Byrnes got to the point where it operates on another planet from nearly every other program in the state is really a story of the haves vs. the have-nots. It is a story not dissimilar to the state of education in the state, where those in well-to-do communities have access to better supplies and more support than those from downtrodden areas.
Thanks to community support, local business backing and a 500-strong booster club, Byrnes has more money than any other football program in the state. So, while most schools in the Midlands are trimming athletic budgets to the bare bones because of a depressed economy - some as low as $10,000 per year - Byrnes' budget exceeds $100,000 ... for football alone.
One Midlands football program last summer eliminated 7-on-7 camp trips to North Carolina for budgetary reasons. At the same time, Nike was flying the entire Byrnes team to Oregon for an all-expenses paid 7-on-7 camp.
For several years now, Byrnes has worked a deal with Nike that pays the athletics department $10,000 annually. That money covers the cost of uniforms and some equipment. Billy Young, Byrnes' athletics director, said he is not aware of any other program in South Carolina with such a deal.
Sometimes success has its drawbacks. Nobody within the state wants to play Byrnes. What is to gain in getting your brains bashed in, unless there is some money attached to it? This season, Byrnes paid Myrtle Beach $8,500 to get beat 65-14, and it paid Woodland $7,500 to be humiliated 85-8.
Byrnes attempts to schedule home-and-home games with opponents and has worked those out with Myrtle Beach beginning next season. It also worked a two-year deal last season and this season with Gwinnett County schools in Georgia that netted Byrnes $21,000 in guarantees.
In addition to playing at Gwinnett Central to open this season, Byrnes traveled last week to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to play perennial power St. Thomas Aquinas. Byrnes departed on Wednesday for the Friday night game, school officials citing the once-in-a-lifetime experience as worthy of missing a couple of days of class.
Byrnes is fortunate to sit within the shadows of a regional BMW plant, which over the years has been generous in its support of the Spartanburg District 5 system. Other big-business supporters include SEW-Eurodrive and the Founders Federal Credit Union, which helped subsidize the snazzy videoboard.
The Byrnes booster club also raises money through donations, advertising around the stadium and various other fundraisers. While all money generated for the athletics department stays within the athletics department, it is not as if Byrnes has its priorities out of whack.
The school district, through taxpayer funding, provided Byrnes with a $3 million, state-of-the-art field house and weight room for football. On the way is a multi-million dollar fine arts facility for the school.
Beyond all the financial support, it helps that Byrnes also has the best players. The college football recruiting experts list anywhere from 10 to 12 Byrnes seniors as FBS prospects. You might wonder how a school with an enrollment of 2,200 has so many top prospects when no other school in the state, according to recruiting analyst Phil Kornblut, has more than two.
It is not what you think. Byrnes does not recruit players, dispelling the joke that former coach Bobby Bentley returned to Byrnes because he "could not recruit as well at Presbyterian College." Bentley gets much of the credit for Byrnes churning out football prospects like a Little Debbie plant produces Swiss cake rolls.
Bentley coached Byrnes from 1995 to 2006. When first hired, Bentley established a feeder system like no other in the state. First-graders through middle school run the same offensive and defensive plays as the Byrnes High team. Bentley even screened the coaches at every level when the system was established.
Byrnes also accepts transfers, and those numbers are likely to grow thanks to a 2006 case involving Xavier Dye, who now plays wide receiver at Clemson. Dye lived in Greenwood and wanted to play at Byrnes. The South Carolina High School League denied Dye's transfer because it was primarily for "athletic reasons."
Dye eventually moved to the Byrnes school district and was allowed to play there. Unwilling to fight that battle any more, the high school league has since dropped the "athletic reasons" clause from its transfer rules.
Byrnes counts two transfers among its 22 starters this season, including senior defensive lineman Roland Johnson, who moved across the state from Camden. Johnson, like others, wanted to play for a winner and gain the exposure that comes with being associated with the Byrnes program.
Transfers, guarantee games, national TV audiences, Nike contracts. It is all part of what appears to be small-college operation at Byrnes. What is next? Lodging in hotels the night before home football games? Calling for the head coach to be fired if Byrnes ever again loses to an instate team?
Maybe that is where we are headed with high school football, much to my chagrin.