REBUILDING PROGRAM - For many years Fulton Independent School has been the smallest school in the state of Kentucky that still fields a football team. The most recently released numbers by the KHSAA revealed that FIS had a year average of only 40 boys in its high school – with the next smallest at twice that number for the same four-year period.
Though the school experienced some of its best success in history in the early years of this century, the last decade has seen the program struggle to consistently field winning teams with adequate numbers to maintain competitiveness. The class of 2017 from FIS had only 5 boys total in the entire class, and this year’s team had only 2 seniors and 1 junior member – essentially forcing the Bulldogs to face varsity competition with a team full of freshmen and sophomores. Numbers of boys and participation are stronger in the 9th & 10th grade classes, but grades 5-8 currently only have 33 boys enrolled.
Complicating the rebuilding process for the Bulldogs is the expense involved in sustaining a football program and the huge travel requirements of playing in Kentucky’s 1A District 1. While the natural rivalry of Fulton County is close, other district rivals include Crittenden County and Russellville. And, in each of the last three years, the Bulldogs have had the longest first round play-off drive in the state, having to travel almost 250 miles to Campbellsville.
New rules enacted for the years 2019-2023 by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association also forced the Bulldogs to look closely at the financial obligations of trying to grow its program. Beginning in 2019, schools who were placed in district play and did not withdraw before the 4 year alignment, and who might subsequently have to withdraw from districts, would have to pay district opponents a $1500 per game forfeit fee.
All of these factors led the Superintendent Deanna Miller; R.B. Mays, principal and athletic director; and Head Coach Dain Gregory to come to the conclusion that the most prudent action for the long-term future of the program was to withdraw from district play for the four year period, to concentrate on building the little league and feeder programs where strong numbers of boys are enrolled in grades 2-4, and to use the funds spent on travel – or possibly a forfeit if numbers dropped below safe levels - to replace equipment, grow the weight program, and schedule locally with teams that will draw better crowds and provide more even competition.
The Bulldogs will complete its contractual obligations for the 2018 campaign, as this will be the second year of two-year contracts. The school will still play a full football schedule in the years following, and will still have the opportunity to play its chief rival, Fulton County - just outside of the district play weeks. The school hopes to continue its relationships with schools like Greenfield, Gleason, and West Carroll in Tennessee, while finding other schools with whom they can be more competitive, who are closer in travel, and who draw solid fan bases.
“In plain dollars and sense, our largest gate revenue for a game this year was $1,017,” Mays explained. “Officials cost per game was $425 of that. Our one trip to Campbellsville for the play-offs – once we pay for the bus, the driver, and the meals we have to provide for the kids – cost us over $1,000 – and we only received less than $150 for our share of the gate. Those numbers are just hard to make balance.”
“We have fulfilled every obligation we have had for the past few years, and we have shown up to play several games with 12-13 players,” Mays added. “There are just weeks in football, though, that injuries pile up and we might not have enough players to play some week while we are rebuilding. Possibly obligating ourselves to $1,500 forfeit fees, if that were to occur, could mean the end of our program.”
The school is also encouraged, through its discussion with KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett, that there are other options for the school in weeks where low numbers might be putting young players at risk in this period of rebuilding.
Kentucky still allows for 8- and 9-man football within its guidelines. This will allow the school to enter contracts with schools in even better faith of fulfilling its commitments, while safeguarding its players. If in a week where injuries have depleted lineman, for instance, the two teams could agree to compete in an 8- or 9-man game. This would provide schools the opportunity to still play that week, to receive whatever revenue they are expecting, and to not put players at risk in unfamiliar positions.
“We have every intention of player 11-man football, but this is a good safeguard for us, as we enter contracts with schools that want guarantee of a game,” says Mays. “There are schools that will pay us to come to their place and play if they know we will be there, and those are just more dollars that we can invest in our program.”
Mays has faith that this plan will work.
“We have a great staff in place right now, and we have kids who want to improve. Anyone who watched us play this year will tell you how much we improved. Coach Gregory and his staff are growing the program from the ground up – starting with the little league and the middle and high school weight programs. This just allows us to focus on the most important things without having to live under the financial strain of district play. We can invest in the program, become more competitive, and build interest in Bulldog football again.”