Despite troubles, Big 33 will go on
The show must go on.
Representatives of the Pennsylvania State Football Coaches Association haven't said that in so many words, but that's certainly been their approach since word came down that the Big 33 Football Classic was in danger of extinction.
The recent decision by the Big 33 Scholarship Foundation to dissolve and end its association with what was once the premier high school football all-star game in the country - brought on by a trend of declining donations to fund the scholarships and the death of executive director Dave Trimbur in December - appeared to place the future of the game in jeopardy.
But the PSFCA has stepped up and picked up the ball, so to speak, to keep the Big 33 Football Classic alive for a 60th year.
"With the Coaches Association, we've always been involved with the Big 33, with picking the players and coaches," said Garry Cathell, executive manager of the PSFCA. "When something like this happens there's always things you have to consider that weren't being considered before. But I can tell you that from the point that I knew the scholarship foundation was going to dissolve, it was definitely our time to step up to the plate and take over, and that's exactly what we've done. We feel that at this point right now the transition is going smoothly and in the right direction."
Lebanon High coach Gerry Yonchiuk, a District 3 representative to the PSFCA and the receivers coach and passing game coordinator for Pennsylvania and head coach Greg Botta of Franklin Regional this year, echoed Cathell's sentiments.
"I'm really thrilled that we're doing that," Yonchiuk said. "Because if the Coaches Association did not, the game would certainly fall by the wayside. It would have been really a shame to see it just evaporate. The goal of the association is to try to make it better. The guys at the top, that's that what they'd like to do.
"I don't know if it's doable, because there was a lot of people involved with the Big 33. There's a tremendous amount of leg work that will have to be done by the coaches. We'll have to step up and take a much larger role for it to be successful."
While it does have an organization to run it and Maryland is on board again as the opponent for Pennsylvania, the Big 33 game does not yet have a set site or date, although it's getting closer to both.
Cathell indicated that "written in pencil" is the hope for the game to be played on Memorial Day at Hersheypark Stadium, its traditional home. Other potential dates are June 10 or 17, but the details are still being worked out. A decision is expected soon. And Cathell is certain of one thing.
"Most importantly, we are going to keep the game in Dauphin County," he said. "It's going to stay there."
The challenge then is to keep the game relevant and interest in it high. Though it can still claim its Super Bowl streak and remains a big part of the Central Pennsylvania summer sports calendar, the Big 33 has undeniably lost some of its luster in recent years.
Some of that is due to the arrival of more prestigious high school all-star games like the U.S. Army All-America Bowl and the Under Armour All-America Game. Early enrollment of heavily recruited college players has also hurt the Big 33, taking some top-notch talent away.
But Cathell remains confident that what makes the Big 33 unique - host families for the players, the Buddy Program - will help sustain it going forward.
"The Big 33 game is what we consider to be the (granddaddy) of all games," Cathell said. "We have the honor about us, with the (Buddy Program) and the entire experience of the game itself and the fact that there's never been a Super Bowl without a Big 33 player. All of those things, all of those elements and the fact that it is in the center of the state every year are all important facts. We have always felt the Big 33 was our primary game, even though several years ago we established an East vs. West game."
The prestige of the game, and the amount of talented players that take part in it annually, is why Yonchiuk considers it an honor to be part of this year's coaching staff.
"I'm excited about it," Yonchiuk said. "Just looking at some of the receivers that have been nominated, the talent level is, you look at some of these guys and know that they'll play in the NFL someday. It's so cool to watch. I'm just really looking forward to that."
The rosters for Pennsylvania and Maryland are expected to be released on Feb. 10 at the PSFCA convention at Penn State. And the message from the organization then, as it is now, will be that the Big 33 is not going anywhere, at least for this year.
"There was no question in our mind we were gonna keep the game," Cathell said. "We want to make sure all the information that goes out tells everybody not to panic. The game is gonna happen, and it's gonna be as good as or better than we had done in the past. That's our sole intention."
"I'm not really sure," Yonchiuk said of the Big 33's long-term future. "I think it's gonna have to be a wait and see. Can our association take on the weight of it? Who's gonna go out and push for the ads for, like, the program? The things behind the scenes that people worked so hard for with the Big 33. We don't have the manpower to do that, so I'm guessing it'll be done by committee."