What if Chip Coldiron began his September 1 conversation with Whitko athletic director Barry Singery with, “Barry, let’s talk about eight-man football…” before discussing his more immediate concerns?

I wasn’t in the room to hear the conversation in full context, so I’ll solely focus on the “numbers” topic Coldiron broached with his AD and wonder if the outcome of the meeting would have fared differently by proposing the 8-man gridiron game to Whitko.

The IHSAA is supporting four schools this season -  Tri-State King’s Crusaders (Harlan, IN), Rock Creek Academy, Fort Wayne Blackhawk Christian, and Dugger Union - to compete in 8-man football with inter-state warmup games followed by full-scale competition among programs from the neighboring states, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio.

Here is some background before I discuss the merits of transitioning Whitko from 11-man football to 8-man football.

Coldiron faced a challenge other football programs with small enrollments face, already-low numbers in a sport with inherent natural attrition. He addressed them in his September 1 meeting when he discussed considering cancellation of the September 2 game versus Three Rivers Conference foe, Rochester, a game they still played losing 70-0 to the Zebras.

The following excerpt from the September 7 issue of the Times-Union discussed Coldiron’s headcount challenges:

According to Coldiron, just 21 players dressed Friday (Sep 2) and 18 of them were freshmen and sophomores.

“There’s only seven upperclassmen (juniors and seniors) on the entire roster, and going into that game, five of them were not playing,” Coldiron said.

Further, according to Coldiron, there was a safety factor involved in his desire to cancel the game. He says more than a dozen of the available players were individuals he didn’t feel were ready for regular varsity football.

The greatest exposure for attrition and optimal performance when participation numbers are already low (even for a small-enrollment school) is among the nine or ten starting interior linemen positions on both sides of the football. If linemen are on crutches or on ice, your backfield position players on both sides of the ball are also in for a painfully (literally and figuratively) long season.

Most teams with rosters less than 30 athletes tend to have disproportionately greater backfield position players than they have interior linemen.

8-man football is the answer to a gridiron program in Whitko’s lot.

What are the metrics and optics of the Wildcats’ football “state of the program” to promise a near-term turnaround? What’s coming out of the bullpen from the middle school’s football program?

It’s painful, but necessary to note the Wildcats are 2-38 in four of the five most recent completed gridiron seasons (the exception, a 4-6 squad in 2020 in the latter of Phil Jensen’s two-season tenure).

Staffing 8-man football requires three starting offensive linemen instead of the minimum five, basically the removal of two tackles along with removing a receiver and a back. Most 8-man teams carry three defensive linemen (removing one lineman from the 11-man format), one or two linebackers, and one or zero defensive backs. The choices for paring down the conventional “back seven” are based on pass coverage needs.

Reducing nine or ten full-time interior line positions to six (for the 8-man game) certainly alleviates the perils of natural attrition among the limited availability of linemen while backs and receivers can showcase their athleticism and skill in greater open space.

If Whitko were an 8-man football program would their lot likely be something better than the tone of “we’re not going to quit” from the September 7 Times-Union article?

It’s time to tell the community the best way to preserve Whitko football, who had some great 11-man football teams among years past, is to move to 8-man football. Whitko’s transition would be testimony to the district’s, and the athletic department’s self-awareness regardless of its success among prior decades.

The Whitko football program is certainly not the only program in Indiana who needs to consider preserving itself in the same manner.

Whether additional schools transition from their current 11-man programs to the 8-man game, or schools currently not playing football (Argos, Hamilton, Westview to name a few) experience the contagion, expansion of the smaller format in the Hoosier State would be an evolution, not a consolation.

Those of us who passionately support our favorite prep grid teams also feel great joy when the game improves favorably for all of Indiana’s participants. I’m excited about 8-man football’s addition to the sport currently holding the nation’s greatest participation numbers.

I recommend listening to the IFCA podcast (hosted by Dave Baumgartner and Ted Huber) archive from June 25. It features Snider’s top-flite coach Kurt Tippman, a gentleman who supports state-wide success as passionately as the success of his own program. Tippman is devoting time and energy into the 8-man launch. The podcast also features Colon (MI) coach Robbie Hatton.