ROCHELLE -- As the spectators of the Georgia High School Association executive committee meeting spilled out of a large ballroom of the Macon Centreplex on Tuesday, Chad Davis and Mark Ledford shook hands and embraced.
Their faces showed both joy and relief.
Davis and Ledford -- respectively the principal and head football coach at Wilcox County -- received congratulations from some of their friends. The ones not so enamored with the Wilcox County duo stood on the other side of the concourse, their faces showing much less excitement.
Even their most ardent detractors, however, would give Davis and Ledford considerable credit for the vote that took place minutes before inside that ballroom.
After a year of asking, prodding, politicking and some say eventually threatening the GHSA, a group from Wilcox County and others from small, rural Georgia public schools celebrated the GHSA’s landmark vote to split public and private schools in the Class A state playoffs. Davis started rallying public schools to his cause in December 2010, arguing that rural public and urban private schools shouldn’t be grouped together because of an uneven playing field. His cause grew in support, and it eventually grew large enough to potentially leverage the GHSA into voting for the split.
While some state associations don’t allow public and private schools to compete against each other at all, Georgia will become the first to contest separate state championships in all sports of a classification, according to Bruce Howard of the National Federation of High School Associations.
The vote changes the landscape of high school sports in Georgia, and the effects of the GHSA’s decision could be wide-ranging, forcing changes in other GHSA classes, altering the makeup of other organizations like the Georgia Independent Schools Association, or even setting a blueprint for other states to follow.
“It’s very fair to say that (Davis and Ledford) were on the forefront of the issue the whole time,” said Wesleyan athletics director Marc Khedouri, who was against the split and more often than not seated across from them at the negotiating table during the past year.
Small-town, long-term relationship leads to trust, teamwork
Davis and Ledford worked seamlessly together during this process, and they often were the driving force and focus for their cause. Their ability to work together and lead their movement runs deeper than a normal principal-football coach relationship. Both are Wilcox County natives and have known each other since they were children.
“I think when you’ve known someone for a long time, grew up in the same community and worked together, then you have some real trust, and its helps a lot when you can trust the person you’re going down this road with,” Ledford said.
Davis is four years younger than Ledford, and he was a freshman the year after Ledford graduated. The two grew up in different parts of the county, with Ledford growing up in the area between Pitts and Rochelle in the western part of Wilcox County. Davis is from the county seat, Abbeville, in the east.
Davis, however, knew Ledford at a young age. Everyone in the county did.
Ledford was the starting quarterback for Wilcox County, leading the team during some of its glory years under head coach Donnie Clack. In a place like Wilcox County, the starting quarterback can be the most popular person in the county.
“You grow up in a place like Abbeville, you know the quarterback just like you know the mayor,” Davis said.
Both had promising prep careers, Ledford as a baseball and football standout and Davis as a team MVP second baseman on the baseball team.
The sports commonality -- both played for baseball coach Tim Harris -- helped them bond when both arrived at Wilcox County during their professional careers.
Ledford, whose uncle Herman Ledford played on the first football team at Wilcox County in 1951, was brought in by Clack to stabilize the football program in 2001.
Davis returned to Wilcox County a year after Ledford, working for two years as a teacher, six as an assistant principal and then as the lead principal beginning with the 2010-11 school year.
During his six years as the assistant principal, Davis had a number of conversations with Ledford about what he viewed as a competitive canyon growing between the small public and private schools in the state. Of the 51 private schools that compete in the GHSA, 40 are classified in the smallest class. Private schools won 13 of the 17 champions in Class A during the past calendar year -- Bremen won team and dual wrestling, Wilkinson County won boys basketball, and Gordon Lee won softball.
Services areas, populations driving force, not recruiting
Davis didn’t see anything changing anytime soon. He argues that private schools in places like Augusta, Savannah and metro Atlanta have inherent advantages. Those schools’ service areas -- or the place they can pull students from without penalty -- are the county they reside in. Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett all have populations larger than 500,000, while Wilcox County’s population is less than 9,000, Davis said.
“We can’t pick and select our students,” said Clack, who is still the athletics director at Wilcox County. “Not all of our students are eligible. A lot of these big private schools don’t have the problems we see, from parental involvement to socio-economic issues.”
Students who attend private schools in large metro areas have access to clinics, better training, individual coaches and travel sports, Ledford said.
“People always think this is about recruiting ... it was never about that,” Ledford said. “It is about all of advantages they have that we don’t.”
Davis said he felt powerless to do much on the issue as an assistant principal. When he took over as the principal at Wilcox County and felt he had the backing of his superintendent and school board, Davis thought it was time to act. He sent out e-mails to most public schools in December 2010 to gauge interest.
“I was worried at first that no one would respond,” Davis said. “I’d spoken to (Lincoln County head football coach) Larry Campbell on the phone, and he’d worked on this issue for a while. It was time for us to take over and run with it.”
Davis received significant response, so he set up a meeting at the Wilcox County Agriculture Center in January 2011. That became the first of many meetings during the next 12 months. Davis and his followers decided they would ask the GHSA to split public and private schools in Class A. They got the chance in February, and they believed at the time that the GHSA’s reclassification subcommittee could pass a controversial reclassification plan -- called the 4/8 plan -- that had the potential framework for a Class A split. That plan failed, however, and the Class A schools’ best hope for resolution became through the work of an ad-hoc committee that studied solutions to the public/private issue.
“We thought we had some progressive conversations, that we were working on some things,” Davis said. “They have a side, and we have a side. There wasn’t a lot of convincing.”
The group did eventually decide on a rural-urban split -- essentially public/private -- in seven sports, although the reclassification committee decided on four sports. A vote to split Class A schools in four sports passed through the executive committee in October, but minutes later some claimed they didn’t know what they voted for, and another vote was taken and the proposal failed. Davis said his supporters were particularly peeved that they jumped through every hoop the GHSA asked, and they put considerable time and effort into plans and the ad-hoc committee.
“It was like they didn’t respect our work, or they just thought we’d go away,” Davis said.
Either the 4/8 split or the four-sport split likely would have ended the objections of the Class A public schools. Instead, the flip-flop October vote further galvanized the group. They no longer were pressed for a compromise. The only way they would consider staying in the GHSA was in the event of a complete separation between Class A public and private schools.
Davis and Turner County superintendent Ray Jordan, who joined the group early in the process and became one of its most valued leaders, set up another meeting in Wilcox County, this time on Dec. 13. They took a vote at that meeting and found that around 30 schools might be willing to start a new organization, which would eventually be called the Georgia Public Schools Association. The GPSA schools elected a leadership council, and those men worked on a draft of bylaws. Davis said the Class A public schools were never bluffing, that at least 20 were “fully prepared” to leave the GHSA after feeling they exhausted their options for a public/private solution. One school board (Seminole County) already voted to leave the GHSA if there wasn’t a public/private split.
Georgia High School Association reverses its field
After the GPSA meetings in December, the GHSA revised its agenda for the January meeting to reconsider options for Class A. The threat of the public schools’ departure leveraged the GHSA, Khedouri believes, into voting Tuesday for a public/private split.
“I just wonder what would have happened if 30 private schools would have threatened to leave,” Khedouri said. ”We are clearly guests at the party. We love the GHSA, too ... we want to feel like we are full members.”
The vote will likely keep the GPSA members from withdrawing from the GHSA. Davis said there is very little interest in secession since Tuesday’s vote.
Ledford said he hoped the GHSA executive committee members voted for the split “because it was the right thing to do,” rather than because the association might lose 30 schools.
Neither Davis nor Ledford believed they would ever get what they wanted when they proposed a Class A public/private split a year ago. Both said their stubbornness and refusal to go away helped keep the issue alive for so long and eventually result in their satisfactory result.
“We’re just two hard-headed boys from Wilcox County who didn’t know how to take no for an answer,” Ledford said. “Chad Davis did a ton of work, and really got this all rolling. There is no way we could have done this without a lot of help. As for our role in it all, we really wanted to start the conversation and make sure it kept going.”