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HARVARD CUP NEARS THE CROSSROADS
CITY LEAGUE MAY HAVE TO BREAK WITH TRADITION TO RAISE INTEREST

Is the City of Buffalo's Harvard Cup high school football league a treasure whose value is enhanced by tradition or a relic to be cast aside in the quest for a newer mode of competition?

It depends upon who you ask.

The league has both supporters and detractors in abundance.

Those who defend it are quick to point out the league has a rich, long history that has been passed down from generation to generation -- that the Harvard Cup experience is about more than just football.

Others say that the time has come for the city schools to leave the Harvard Cup identity behind and join the Section VI Football Federation. Buffalo Public Schools are dues-paying members who already compete in the section in every sport except football.

It's an issue which draws passionate responses from both sides.

"We should not let the tradition of the Harvard Cup go," said Art Serotte, a 1957 Bennett High graduate who coached at Grover Cleveland for 28 years before retiring in 1996. He now serves as a consultant for supervisor of physical education Dave Thomas.

"You go to a Harvard Cup championship game and there's nothing like it," Serotte said. "All-High Stadium has a certain electricity on Thanksgiving for the Harvard Cup final that can't be matched. You are the only game in town that day and it seems like everyone in the city is watching."

A crowd of about 4,500 turned out for last year's title game. During his playing days, Serotte remembers playing before 13,000 fans at All-High (located behind Bennett) one year. In 1948 and 1949, crowds of 55,000 watched the championship games at War Memorial Stadium.

"I think our league is healthy as it is now," said Thomas. "The Harvard Cup is a city tradition. You have kids who are playing in the games who had fathers who played and grandfathers who played.

"It is important to keep that link with the past, especially when it has been such a successful one."

Some of the league's own coaches, however, feel that their players are being short-changed by not being able to play against schools their own size and possibly compete for sectional championships at Rich Stadium and a state title at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse.

"For the city schools, the Harvard Cup is the end of the line, there's nothing beyond it," said South Park coach Jerry Obstein, who is retiring at the end of the season after 13 years as the Sparks head coach. "We've had some really good teams in the past and the kids are left wondering how they would have done against the other great teams from the suburbs.

"The kids I had on our really good teams in 1992 and 1993 (both went 10-0) would have given anything to be able to play on the carpet at Rich Stadium and prove just how good they were."

"Let me tell you, my kids would cut off an arm to be able to play against teams like (No. 1 ranked small school) Lackawanna and get the chance to go to Rich Stadium," said Burgard coach Ron Pugh, who has coached in the city for 30 years.

He said it is unfair for schools his size to have to tangle with the larger schools like South Park and Hutch-Tech. Based on 1997-98 enrollment figures, McKinley had 1,034 students, Bennett 926 and Hutch-Tech 895 to 443 for Burgard, 486 for Riverside and 591 for Lafayette.

"In Section VI, the leagues are aligned by enrollment and you don't have Class A schools playing Class C schools, like we do in the Harvard Cup," Pugh explained. "Sure, we beat Hutch-Tech earlier this year, but on a year-in, year-out basis, it's tough for the smaller schools to compete.

"The fact that we only play ourselves and we don't go to the playoffs makes it harder for kids to get the recognition they deserve. If it's for the kids' sakes, we can let the tradition go.

"If they had a chance to play in Section VI, I think more kids would be motivated to come out for football."

All concerned agree that the Harvard Cup football program is nearing a crossroads. Interest appears down among student-athletes across Western New York. The city's football coaches feel the pinch.

"We need to do something to generate more interest among the kids in our football program," said Obstein, who coaches a Class A team but had only 24 players in uniform two weeks ago. "The numbers are going down and, if they continue to decrease, we're going to be painted into a corner."

Obstein has proposed a plan that would combine current teams into squads that would represent regions of the city, like north, east and south. Those three teams would be stronger by having a greater player pool to work with and the increased number of players would also allow for the start of junior varsity programs for the three teams.

Current Section VI rules, however, do not allow for combining teams from different schools.

Serotte acknowledges that city football is not as healthy as it once was. He said the league would be in jeopardy if any of the 10 participating schools dropped the sport.

"If we get below that number of teams, we might have to rethink what we are trying to do," Serotte said. "There is always the possibility that a school like City Honors, which doesn't currently have football, would be able to fill an opening."

"We need to work harder to keep more of our athletes eligible to compete because we have more stringent eligibility requirements than the suburban districts (70 average to pass in core subjects as opposed to 65)," Thomas said. "We see that the numbers of kids aren't where we want them to be, but we're not reaching for the panic button yet."

Thomas also pointed to finances as a roadblock to joining the Section VI Federation.

"We have a lot of Class C and D schools, so when you look at busing teams down to the Southern Tier for games, that gets very costly and we are under tight budget restraints in the city," he said. "Our budget currently allows for only two paid coaches per school, while many of the Section VI schools have junior varsity teams and much larger coaching staffs.

"Football is a very expensive sport. We spend about $400 per student per season, which is more than all the rest of our sports combined and our coaches, who don't always have the best of tools to work with, are dedicated and do an outstanding job," Thomas said.

The district is spending money to renovate All-High Stadium and install an all-weather track.

"All in all, everybody in the football program is doing the best they can," Thomas added. "We're very proud of the Harvard Cup and want to keep it around for many years to come."

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