Social media and the age of technology have changed the playing field of high school football in many, many ways.
The dawn of platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram allowed universities to pitch their brand to recruits in new ways, while recruits have been able to market themselves like never before.
Team websites and social media accounts have provided not only vastly improved communication between coaches and players, but they have also given opponents a more personal and inside glimpse at who they will be facing on Friday night.
Twitter, Instagram and Snap Chat have done the same, so that now a player you line up against on a given Friday is no longer just a number in a different colored jersey but an actual person, someone you may have become “friends” with in an online community.
But nowhere has technology played a greater role than in the area of preparation. In the early 2000s MaxPreps went online, providing a national database that allows teams to enter their team and individual statistics for the world to see. Through the site teams can also upload videos of player highlights, making it easier for colleges to view a player without going through the process of requesting tapes from coaches.
Hudl, which went up in 2006, went a step further, allowing coaches to upload entire game films to share with players and opponents, and in 2018 it’s quite common to see high school players using their tablets or smart phones to watch their upcoming adversary and conduct individual film study.
That wasn’t the case in 1981, when one of the more bizarre events in the history of the Backyard Brawl, the storied rivalry between Tyrone and Bellwood-Antis, played out before the state of Pennsylvania in a controversy reminiscent of the Spygate scandal that rocked the New England Patriots in 2007.
Sometime before that season began, Tom Miller, then in his third season as the Golden Eagles’ coach, obtained a copy of the Bellwood-Antis playbook.
“We had a couple of boys come down to Tyrone who had played at Bellwood, Ed and Max Mattern,” recalled Miller. “They still had their Bellwood playbooks, and they said that Bellwood had a copy of our playbook up there.”
A hard copy of an arch-rival’s playbook would have been quite the coup without the benefit of online scouting through Hudl or MaxPreps. What Miller did with it next demonstrated just how intense the rivalry had grown at that point.
“After my first year I had developed a playbook and given each of the players a copy,” said John Hayes, who then was in his second season at Bellwood-Antis after working as an assistant at Tyrone from 1969 through 1978. “I never collected it from the players after the season, and I never gave it much thought until the summer of 1981. I got a call from Tim Launtz, who was the coach at West Branch, and he thanked me for sending him our playbook. He was just starting out in coaching and I had told him that if I could ever do anything for him to let me know. I was kind of shocked. I told him I would be glad to help him, but I hadn’t sent him our playbook. He said that he had it there, and that he had received it through the mail.”
Miller had photocopied the book and sent it out to several of B-A’s conference opponents, as Hayes soon learned.
“I got another call from Bill Clouse or Dave Baker, and it was the same message,” Hayes said. “It was towards the end of summer and two-a-days were starting, so I wanted to let it go.”
To Miller, a 1962 Tyrone grad who had led the Golden Eagles to an 8-2 season in 1961, it was no big deal. If you didn’t know what your opponent was doing already, then that was squarely on you.
“Every coach knows what plays you run,” Miller said. “They’ve seen the tapes. It was all blown out of proportion. In those days, a coach would call you up and say I’ll give you the tape on this team, you would meet, and you would get everything you wanted. Now it’s all on MaxPreps. When I was at Moshannon Valley with Murray Fetzer we used it all the time.”
If it wasn’t a big deal to Miller, and if Hayes would have rather not dwelt upon it, there was one person who took offense.
“My wife got involved,” said Hayes, referring to his wife Vickie, another Tyrone alum who spent her career teaching at her alma mater. “After (a playbook) was returned to me she saw the envelope and went to the post office. It had been postmarked from Tyrone. They said it had been sent from the high school. When she went to the school office, one of the secretaries said Tom Miller had brought in the books to be mailed from the high school.”
Once that revelation came out, the incident was not going away quietly, though at that point Hayes said he was simply “interested in getting my team ready.”
“My wife talked to a school board member named John Dollar, and it became a bigger deal than it probably was,” said Hayes. “It became an even bigger issue when it got out in the news. I kind of wanted it to just go away.”
It was initially covered locally by outlets like the Tyrone Daily Herald and the Altoona Mirror, and for Miller it wasn’t good. The school board was forced to act.
Miller had to deliver a public apology, and he was suspended for three days from September 23-25, including the Week 4 game against Bellefonte.
The coach was contrite in his apology, and he remains so to this day, saying “It was probably dumb to send it out to other schools.”
“I realize my actions … were not in the best interests of not only the football team, but the fans as well,” Miller said in a statement published in the Herald. “My mistake was further compounded by some unfortunate remarks made under pressure to the Altoona media. I offer no excuse for what I did. I apologize to all of you who have suffered some embarrassment by my action and promise that in the future all my time and energy will be devoted toward the continued success of the Tyrone Golden Eagle football program.”
The story ballooned once the incident was reported to the PIAA, which led to media coverage across the commonwealth. After reviewing the case, officials determined that Miller broke no rules in copying the playbook, though they conceded that the action wasn’t up to the ethical standards promoted by the PIAA.
“In effect, ethics were broken,” the PIAA said. “The coach was not teaching athletes to win through legitimate means.”
By then Tyrone was in the midst of a nice little season. The Eagles had beaten B-A 37-0 and were 2-1 heading into Bellefonte, a game Tyrone won 20-6. They finished the campaign 5-4.
“It kind of motivated the kids,” recalled Miller. “We beat Bellefonte pretty good that year.”
It was a different story in Bellwood. The Blue Devils started the season 0-3 and finished 4-6, one of just four seasons in Hayes’ illustrious 38-year career when B-A failed to finish above .500. It was more than a little disappointing coming off a 7-3 season in 1980.
While Hayes said he doesn’t feel the playbook distribution had anything to do with the outcome of individual games, he admitted that the controversy was “in the players’ heads.”
“Having the other team’s playbook isn’t the end of all things, but our kids were affected,” he said. “Anytime a team anticipated something we were going to do, our kids thought the other team knew what we were doing based off our playbook.”
More than 35 years later, both coaches can look back on the controversy with no hard feelings. Miller said he has tremendous respect for Hayes, who retired in May, for the way he molded a championship program.
Hayes said that over the years a lot of the harsh feelings have gone away.
“Tom and I just met up a couple weeks ago when we were both at the doctor’s office,” Hayes said. “We talked and he had some very nice words for me and my career. We hugged each other on the way out the door. My wife and his wife graduated together.”
In the end the controversy highlights a period of time in high school football, and the Backyard Brawl in particular, that can never be replicated. Shared community outlets like DelGrosso’s Park and the Northern Blair Recreational Center have made rivals much more familiar and friendly over the years, while social media has brought them closer than ever.
While players and fan bases still anticipate the Brawl like no other game on the regular season slate, the mystery and animosity are gone forever.
“When I was coaching at Tyrone, the attitude was there’s no way we are going to lose to Bellwood,” said Hayes. “When I was on the other side of it, there might have been games where we were beaten soundly, but going in we felt the same way. We weren’t going to lose. The rivalry has changed a bit. Tom and I knew each other and coached together. We played basketball together at the old YMCA. I still have no idea what motivated it, but now it’s ancient history.”