Thank God It's Friday That's HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL night in Texas, where the sport is as big as the state itself

September 28, 2003

Fred Akers doesn't take in many games at the University of
Texas, where he was coach from 1977 to 1986, and he almost never
heads to a stadium on Sunday to watch the Dallas Cowboys or the
Houston Texans. "But Friday nights is different," says Akers,
who runs an Austin-based consulting business with his son,
Danny, a former Longhorns quarterback. "We see those lights in
the distance, and I'll tell you, more 'n likely we're gonna pull
in and watch some high school football." ¶ Indeed, gazing from
space upon the Lone Star State on an autumn Friday night, one
would see the luminescence from hundreds of high school
stadiums, an almost uninterrupted gridiron grid. (Heaven help
the authorities if there's ever a statewide blackout.) A handful
of schools play on Saturday afternoons, and some, owing to
shared stadiums, play on Thursday nights. But by and large
Friday night is when you turn off Waylon and Willie, feed the
dog, grab your blanket, lock the doors and follow the arc
lights. Everyone does it: former football coaches,
hardware-store operators, hairdressers, ministers, saloon
keepers, even future Presidents (page 43). "The phenomenon's
hard to explain," says Akers, "but it's in our bones."

Last week much of the Friday-night attention in this football-mad
state was focused on a stadium, about 30 miles north of San
Antonio, where in front of 8,000 fans the undefeated Smithson
Valley Rangers played host to another powerhouse, the Westlake
Chaparrals from Austin. The programs and the football-watching
milieu were quite different from those described in Friday Night
Lights, H.G. Bissinger's classic 1990 book about high school
football in dusty West Texas. Westlake prides itself on its
sophistication, and Smithson Valley's students are mostly the
suburban sons and daughters of professionals. "Like Westlake,"
says Brad Williams, Smithson Valley's blue-jeans-wearing,
pickup-truck-driving principal, "we're basically monochromatic."

But the strength of the programs and the devotion of the fans
define the Friday-night phenomenon. From student-body populations
of around 2,200, Smithson Valley has about 260 boys in its
football program--there are two jayvee and two freshman teams
along with the varsity--and Westlake has about 220.
Percentagewise, that doesn't match the turnout at, say, Hondo
High in the 1960s, when, according to Westlake linebackers coach
Bob Abbott, "64 of our 65 boys played football, and the one who
didn't had a big ol' chunk taken out of his calf by a snake." But
for these kids, who could easily be lured away by the diversions
of middle-and upper-class life, not to mention other excellent
sports programs, the importance of football remains immutable.

The Smithson Valley-Westlake matchup was a nondistrict game but
was significant nonetheless because both teams are among the
elite that can realistically dream of advancing far in the state
playoffs, a mathematical monstrosity that concludes around
Christmas and produces 16 champions, 10 among the public schools
and six for the privates. Like an NCAA basketball champion, a
Class 5A-Division II team must win six playoff games to emerge
from a 64-team bracket as state champ. And that's after a 10-game
regular season. (Class 5A is for the biggest schools in Texas.
Three teams from each of the classification's 32 districts make
the playoffs; of those three, the school with the largest
enrollment goes into the 32-team 5A-Division I playoffs, while
the other two go to the 64-team 5A-II bracket.) Westlake won the
5A-II title in '96 (under quarterback Drew Brees, now with the
San Diego Chargers), has played in four other Texas title games
and has a streak of 67 straight victories in its district.
Smithson Valley, for its part, made it to the 5A-II finals in
2002 and the 4A-I title game in 2001 (losing both of them),
advanced to at least the third round in the four seasons before
that and came into the Westlake game ranked sixth in the state in
one poll.

"It's a long, long road, and we try to keep the end of it out of
our mind," said Smithson Valley quarterback Alan Hill, whose
father, Larry, is the Rangers' coach. "But winning that state
championship is our only goal."

Almost nothing is spared in pursuit of that goal. The
organizational intensity of Larry Hill's program could serve as a
model for many college coaches, and his hegemony is unquestioned.
It's not always that way--Derek Long got the job at Westlake
after its highly successful coach, Ron Schroeder, resigned on the
first day of practice this year because he felt unappreciated by
some members of the administration and the school board--but at
the majority of Lone Star schools head football coach could be a
synonym for king. Hill, who like many head coaches is also the
athletic director, has much say about the hiring and firing of
his assistants (he has 13) as well as the coaches at Smithson
Valley's two feeder middle schools, which perforce run the
Rangers' offense and defense. Since every assistant is also a
classroom teacher, quite a bit of academic shuffling will take
place if a head coach wants to ax a coach. That's just the way it
is. "From time to time we get complaints about how powerful the
football coach is," says principal Williams, himself a former
football coach, "but I always say, 'Look, we don't get 10,000
people showing up to watch a math teacher solve X.'"

And if a player can't live up to Hill's demands, well, the coach
will just point to the door. Smithson Valley's 2003 season in
effect started in early January, two weeks after its state final
loss on Dec. 21. ("We did get Christmas off. I think," says the
coach's son.) Then it was three weeks of what Coach Hill calls
"leadership training" but is better known to his players as "boot
camp." Then it was weightlifting and quarterback camp. Then it
was spring practice. After a week or two off at the end of
school, it was time for summer conditioning. Preseason practice
started in August. And keep in mind that throughout the school
year every football player reports to the field house for an
"athletic period," which is essentially practice, in pads if the
coaches so desire. Is it any wonder that Texas annually leads the
nation in the number and percentage of high school players who
sign Division I-A letters of intent? In February, for example,
345 did so, 15.5% of the state's players, ahead of California
(285, 12.8%) and Florida (265, 11.9%).

"Doing all the repetitive work in the winter can get tiring and
boring," says quarterback Hill. "But all you need to keep in mind
is Friday nights. Running onto the field, the lights on,
thousands of people hollering. That's why you do it. For the
Friday nights."

And so last Friday night there was young Hill--the grandson of a
high school coach, the nephew of a high school coach, the son of
his own high school coach, the brother of Smithson Valley's
promising freshman quarterback--rubbing his hands together with
14 seconds left in the game as he awaited Westlake's certain
onside kick. Everyone was standing and yelling, the sound
reverberating through the hills that surround Smithson Valley.
The Rangers, trying to improve to 4-0, were holding on to a 14-13
lead, the margin of a blocked extra point that had occurred
moments earlier, and Hill was one of the sure-handed returners
whom his father had stationed on the front line to field the
squib. Here it came, bounding and bouncing along the AstroPlay
turf that had been recently installed at a cost of about
$500,000. Hill reached for the ball and almost simultaneously was
hit high, low and in the middle. He fell to the ground but held
on, game over save for one subsequent scrimmage play, the magic
of another Friday night under the lights confirmed.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL DANCE FEVER The game at Smithson Valley had all the pageantry of a college affair. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL AUSTIN POWER Westlake tore onto the field for its showdown with the unbeaten Rangers. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL CHEERS Jamie Kern (81) and the Rangers' faithful had reason to celebrate after Hill helped knock off the Chaps from Westlake.
For more about sports in Texas and the other 49 states, go to

Football coaches rule at Texas high schools. "Look," explains one
principal, "we don't get 10,000 people showing up to watch a math
teacher solve X."

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