The crunch of football pads colliding on a plain-like grass field in South Jordan let passersby know it was almost fall.
The Bingham High School field was being renovated, so the boys in blue made due with a slot at Elk Ridge Middle School for football camp two weeks ago.
They ran drills through painted-on lines that were impossible to see from the edge of the field. Their routes avoided the two chain-link backstops on either end of the grass.
The defending state champions would be back on their new turf field the next week, but the preparation to maintain their tradition of dominance in Utah already had started.
“We try to emphasize some respect for the past,” Miners coach John Lambourne said. “But ‘This is your year, this is your team,’ to the current kids. ‘You guys didn’t accomplish what the team last year did.’”
Bingham has won six state football championships in the past 11 years and 10 in program history. It’s one of two schools that has won three-plus UHSAA titles in the past five seasons.
The other? Timpview.
The Thunderbirds went on streaks of four and three consecutive state titles in 2006-2009 and 2012-2014, respectively. They edge out the Miners with 11 state championships all-time.
Over the past few years, however, a new power in the second-largest classification (formerly 4A, now 5A) has emerged.
East High won back-to-back 4A titles in the past two seasons, finally reclaiming the success it had in the 1950s. The Leopards will face a new challenge this year with their bump up to 6A.
“We petitioned to do it,” East coach Brandon Matich said. “I figured that if we’re going to play these teams from out of state and try to compete with the Pulaskis (Ark.) and De La Salles (Calif.) and IMG [Academies] (Fla.) and Saguaros (Ariz.) of the world, then we should probably compete with the highest level of teams in our own state.”
The dominance of a few top-tier teams in Utah doesn’t mean that other schools haven’t found success. West High’s football program holds a state-best 21 titles. Skyline won five consecutive state championships between 1995 and 1999. Beaver won back-to-back 2A titles in 2015 and 2016. Alta, Jordan and Lone Peak consistently have earned high state rankings in recent years.
There are few high school football programs, however, that have risen to the level of prominence of Bingham and Timpview then been able to sustain that success against some of the best competition in the state.
If East continues the trajectory it established in the past two years, the Leopards will join their ranks soon.
“A lot of the time success breeds success, I think,” Lambourne said about Bingham’s ability to maintain its stature in the state. “More than anything, there’s an expectation. Kids love to be involved with the program, and there’s an expectation of success.”
State law doesn’t get in the way of that snowball effect, either. Utah football programs have been able to thrive under regulations that states like Texas, Alabama and California don’t have: mandatory inter-district open enrollment.
Free to choose
“It swings both ways,” Timpview coach Cary Whittingham said. “I’ve lost some talented kids, and I’ve picked up some talented kids. And so with open enrollment, it can be a double-edged sword.”
Open enrollment became state law in 1993, but Utah state legislation has passed several amendments over the years to shape it into the system it is today.
“We actually opened it up and said, ‘You can attend any school you want as long as there’s availability in that school,’ ” State Rep. Paul Ray said.
Under Utah law, school districts must allow nonresident students to enroll in schools that are at or below the open enrollment threshold.
An out-of-area student’s acceptance applies until he or she graduates, unless the student moves out of state, is suspended or expelled, or the district determines that his or her enrollment pushes the school past the open enrollment threshold.
“My kids go to elementary school right over here,” Matich said, gesturing toward one of the neighborhoods that surrounds East. “… I live in Bountiful. It’s better for my family to have the kids go [nearby] because I work here.”
The same open enrollment regulations apply to athletes, but the UHSAA has added rules of its own regarding eligibility.
Utah high school athletes are eligible to play sports at whatever school they choose on first entry. For transfers, the UHSAA ratified a new rule this year that will go into effect for the 2017-18 school year.
“It’s more black and white,” UHSAA Executive Director Rob Cuff said. “It’s more objective than it is subjective, and that’s what the state legislature and the state school board wanted.”
When a student transfers schools, he or she must sit out for a year of varsity athletics unless the circumstances of the transfer meet the criteria laid out in the UHSAA transfer rule.
Students will be granted varsity eligibility for things like moving because of a death or divorce in the family, moving out of the old school’s boundaries and into the new one’s, or being the victim of bullying.
Students who do not fit the criteria for post-transfer varsity eligibility are able to compete at the subvarsity level if they meet all other eligibility requirements.
“You have to have a transfer rule to have structure,” Cuff said. “If not, you may as well not have any rules at all.”
Cuff said the UHSAA fought against open enrollment to begin with because of the negative effects it expected the policy to have on parity in athletics and the sense of community surrounding high school teams.
“We knew that it would involve athletics,” he said, “and our schools want kids to play where they live. And so this goes totally against playing where you live. This is playing where you want.”
A catalyst to success?
Success may breed success, but when a struggling program’s local athletes can go to practically any school they want, what happens?
“My first year coaching here,” third-year Cyprus coach Jed Smith said, “we were going and playing these teams and it seemed like some of the best players on the teams we were playing were kids that lived in Magna and played in the Cyprus Little League.”
That kept happening.
The Pirates just had finished a winless 2014 season, and Smith had taken the coaching job along with the challenge of finding a way to turn around the program.
He has fought over the past two seasons to retain the players on his roster, and according to Smith he only has lost one to transfer.
Cyprus has won three games so far during Smith’s tenure.
It’s not like just one school has been poaching Cyprus’ potential talent. Smith said he has seen players from Magna spread throughout the area, which explains why the coaches from Bingham, Timpview and East say they don’t get any more out-of-area players than the next guy.
Lamborne also is aware, however, of how lucky he is to coach a team that local athletes want to play for in an area where parents want to live.
“I will acknowledge this,” he said, “I know that there are a few places where they’re having more of an exodus than we would have. And I don’t think it’s so much the additions as it is that you don’t have those people leaving, so you have a better foundation.”
Provo coach Tony McGeary fought a battle similar to Smith’s. He took a team that won one game in 2012 and 2013 combined and made it into to an eight-win team by his second season.
With that turnaround he also has been able to eliminate transfers so far, he said.
“I’m OK with open enrollment academically,” McGeary said. “If a kid can’t get academically what he wants at one school, by all means go to another school and get his academic requirements. But so many of them go for sports, and I am against that.”
Such concerns also made Ray wary of voting for laws that moved Utah to what he calls “true” open enrollment.
“I saw this as a junior high coach,” he said, “is you just had the bigger schools that had a better program, they would recruit and hand-pick kids from all the junior highs and try to get them to come over to their school so that they could build these super teams.”
Several teams have been caught recruiting and received sanctions from the UHSAA over the past decade, including the Bountiful boys’ basketball team in 2008 and Summit Academy last year.
Even within legal bounds, however, open enrollment changes the makeup of teams.
“There are students without any influence from coaches who want to be successful and want to play for teams that have traditionally been successful,” Cuff said. “So those teams continue to, ‘reload.’ … But I think that you’ve been able to see other schools rise up, too.”
After putting transfer stipulations in place and establishing a collaborative relationship with the UHSAA Executive Committee, Ray felt comfortable casting his vote in favor of open enrollment.
Putting Utah on the map
In 2014, Bingham was invited to play in the inaugural State Champions Bowl Series — the national championship event put on by the Paragon Marketing Group.
The UHSAA 5A champions accepted. Bingham took on undefeated No. 3 Booker T. Washington (Fla.) and lost 34-28 in overtime.
The Miners were featured in the SCBS again last season. This time they battled back from a 23-0 halftime deficit to lose 33-25 to No. 5 St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.). The game was broadcast on ESPNU.
“We just happened to be in a situation at that time to get to go,” said Lambourne, who was coach for one SCBS and an assistant to renowned coach Dave Peck for the other. “We weren’t the No. 1-ranked team in the country, but we happened to be high enough in our state, and our state allowed postseason things like that to happen.”
Either way, Bingham’s appearances in the SCBS and other interstate competitions has helped bring national attention to Utah football.
As for its dominance back home in Utah?
“Certainly there are programs where it’s not even close when it comes to competition and talent,” Smith said. “If they’re following all the rules, props to that coach, props to that program, and that’s just, ‘Hey you’ve created something exceptional. You’ve created a dynasty.’ And that’s where a legacy occurs.”
Smith said he believes Bingham is one of those programs that found success while following the rules. He holds Peck in the highest regard.
As does Matich.
East followed the precedent Peck set of taking on nationally ranked teams from outside of Utah. It’s helped the Leopards win two 4A state titles.
“We always wanted to build a team that would be state-recognized as a power, and we would do that through hard work,” Matich said. “We used Bingham, not as a blue print, but kind of as a respected resource that we looked to.”
The benefits of national recognition and the downsides of decreased parity will continue to swing the scales back and forth throughout the season.
Lambourne disagreed with the notion that Bingham was head-and-shoulders above its competition as he gazed out on his team preparing for yet another season as defending state champions.
“I would say that in the 6A right off the top of my head,” Lambourne said, “I’d say that there’s probably upwards of eight to 10 teams that could legitimately win the state title. I really believe that could happen.”
Still, they’re all gunning for Bingham. Even on a middle school grass field, the Miners wear that target proudly.
“Just keep grinding,” Lambourne said about how to deal with being the team to beat. “We don’t really worry about what other people are thinking.”