Gridiron greats Pennsylvania, Ohio face off

Originally Published: September 18, 2008
By Doug Huff | ESPN

The final first-round matchup in the Great State Debate pits two neighbors against each other: No. 4 seed Pennsylvania versus No. 5 seed Ohio. Each state boasts a long tradition of high school football and has produced some of the greatest players to play the game.

[+] Enlarge Fawcett Stadium
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesFawcett Stadium plays host to the Ohio high school football championships.

If you need a first-hand, independent analysis of the matchup, you've come to the right place. Having lived in the Ohio River Valley area for more than five decades, I have had an up-close-and-personal view of the best football these states have to offer.

What makes this border war even more interesting is that allegiances aren't always decided by state lines. Many residents of the Northern Panhandle, for example, relate more to eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania than they do to southern West Virginia. It's a regional thing.

After spending the past 41 years covering the tri-state area of Ohio, Pennsylvania and my native West Virginia, I feel comfortable presenting the comparative cases for Ohio and Pennsylvania in the ESPN RISE Great State Debate.


Ohio: From the local high school level all the way to Canton, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame (which includes 22 homegrown inductees), football is king in the Buckeye State. Of the 10 Ohio-based Heisman Trophy winners, five stayed home to play for Ohio State, including the only two-time honoree in the history of the award, Archie Griffin.

[+] EnlargeJoe Montana
Ron Vesely/Getty ImagesJoe Montana was a legend in Pittsburgh before taking on a starring role on his college and pro teams.

One of the state's top football programs, Canton McKinley High School, plays its home games at Fawcett Stadium, which holds 22,400 people and is adjacent to the pro football shrine. Fawcett Stadium and nearby Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in famed Massillon are used for the state high school championship games.

Pennsylvania: You don't have to go any farther than the quarterback position to make a strong argument for the Keystone State. What other state has produced as many brand-name signal-callers as Pennsylvania in general and western Pennsylvania in particular? Pittsburgh's native sons include Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas, Jim Kelly, George Blanda, Johnny Lujack and Babe Parilli. Who would start in that all-star lineup?

On the other side of the ball, the Keystone State is noted for producing linebackers. Penn State, in fact, has been labeled "Linebacker U" for sending numerous defenders into the pro ranks. Homegrown linebackers include Chuck Bednarik, Bill George, Jack Ham and Joe Schmidt. The state's high schools also have produced 23 inductees into the Pro Football Hall. And then there's the legendary Jim Thorpe, who isn't a native Pennsylvanian but played collegiately at the Carlisle Indian School and has a town named in his honor: Jim Thorpe, Pa.

Summing Up: Ohio has a stronger fan base at all three levels (high school, college and pro), but Pennsylvania presents a strong case with its numerous star products, especially at the high-profile quarterback position.


[+] EnlargeLou Holtz
Al Messerschmidt/WireImageOhio native Lou Holtz coached Notre Dame to its last championship.
Ohio: The Buckeye State has produced numerous elite mentors, including Paul Brown, Don Shula, Chuck Noll, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Lou Holtz, Don Coryell, Ara Parseghian and Don Nehlen. One ultra-successful high school coach, Gerry Faust from Moeller (Cincinnati) High, famously parlayed his 178-23-2 record into a head coaching job at Notre Dame in 1981. One Mid-America Conference member, Miami (Ohio), also is labeled the "Cradle of Coaches" because it is where many nationally known football strategists -- including Dick Crum, Woody Hayes and Ron Zook -- got their starts.

Pennsylvania: The Keystone State doesn't boast as many high-profile coaches, but it is home to several high school coaches who have distinguished themselves. That list includes Mike Pettine, who built a top-notch program at Central Bucks West in Doylestown; current Wyoming Valley West coach George Curry, who earned fame at Berwick; current Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render; and former western Pennsylvania coaching legends Chuck Klausing and Pete Dimperio.

Summing Up: Overall, Ohio holds the edge. Pennsylvania, however, stacks up well on the high school platform.


Ohio: In looking at numerous state playoff formats across the land, I've always felt that the Buckeye State had one of the best, if not the best, postseason championship systems. More than 700 football-playing schools compete in a six-division format. A five-week playoff starts with 32 teams -- the top four from eight regions, as determined by a computer format -- and most games are played at neutral sites.

State Your Case

Great State Debate

The Great State Debate poses a simple question: Which state has the best high school football? We've edited the field down to eight. On Monday, No. 4 seed Ohio and No. 5 seed Pennsylvania face off. Which state will advance? That's up to you. Join the conversation, blog about your state and starting Monday, vote for your favorite.

The winner of this week's matchup will be announced Wednesday, Sept. 24.

< Some of the top-flight Division IV and V teams also fare well against much larger foes. For example, Cardinal Mooney of Youngstown, in Division IV, was nationally ranked most of last season and handed Pennsylvania Class 4A power Gateway of Monroeville its lone regular-season loss. This year, Division V Ursuline of Youngstown defeated famed Division I contender Massillon.

Pennsylvania: The Keystone State playoff system isn't as old as Ohio's, which started in 1972 -- 16 years before Pennsylvania's -- but the four-class format has a natural East versus West regional rivalry, something that's missing in many other states.

The Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League also is the ruling body in the Pittsburgh area with the four-class finals contested at Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers and University of Pittsburgh. The winners then advance to tackle the best of the East, which includes the Harrisburg and Philadelphia areas.

Summing up: The depth of quality high school teams currently is better in Ohio, but Pennsylvania's postseason playoff format is about as good as it gets.

State vs. State

All-star teams from both states have competed 21 times in summertime contests held in mid-Pennsylvania.

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
Steve Ickes/Icon SMIJeanette (Pa.) star recruit Terrelle Pryor crossed state lines to play for Ohio State.

The Big 33 Football Classic began in 1958, and the event has been held in recent years at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Pa. Ohio and Pennsylvania teams have met every year in that event since 1993 and that also was the case from 1972-76. In other years of the Big 33, Pennsylvania has faced teams from Maryland and Texas, and in some years the game has pitted in-state all-star teams, East versus West.

The host Keystone State squad has won the past three Big 33 games and leads 9-7 since 1993. Pennsylvania also enjoyed a 3-2 edge over Ohio in the five contests from 1972 to 1976.

Ohio has expanded its lead in past years over Pennsylvania in the number of major college recruits. But the Keystone State remains on the radar for many colleges, including neighboring state colleges like Ohio State (which landed the nation's top 2008 recruit, Terrelle Pryor of Jeannette). Pennsylvania probably has been hit harder in recent years by the declining population in the area, with primary industries like coal and steel suffering from economic downturns. Fewer people usually means fewer quality choices in a lot of areas, including athletics.

Ohio remains a fertile recruiting area for many Division I programs and is the primary target for Ohio State; the Buckeyes roster contains 73 in-state athletes. The nation's top non-Division I program, Mount Union, is stocked with in-state talent as well.

Summing up: Both Ohio and Pennsylvania have something to brag about. In individual team showdowns in recent years, Ohio holds the edge over Keystone State challengers. In all-state team matchups, Pennsylvania has a slight upper hand, full-strength rosters notwithstanding.

I would grade Ohio's competition factor, especially in the postseason playoffs, stronger than Pennsylvania's.

Both states have produced numerous players who have excelled at the collegiate and/or professional levels. But the edge goes to Ohio in the Great State Debate.

The Stuff

Coach of the Week: At Providence Catholic (New Lenox, Ill.), taking over as football coach for Matt Senffner is comparable to taking over for John Wooden. That's what Mark Coglianese did three years ago, and last weekend his team posted perhaps its biggest victory since Senffner retired: a 6-3 win over state No. 1 and ESPN RISE FAB 50-ranked Mt. Carmel (Chicago). Two Pat Wright field goals were the difference in a game played in a downpour. Coglianese was a longtime assistant coach under Senffner and made a name for himself on the defensive side of the ball when the Celtics were winning state titles in the 1990s.

Long Beach Poly's NFL list cut down: With seven former players on NFL rosters last year, you'd expect that California's Long Beach Poly High would still have more players in the league than any other high school in the nation. Even though another former Jackrabbit, rookie wide receiver DeSean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles, is now in the league, Long Beach may have lost its crown. Four of the players from last year -- including wide receiver Samie Parker and defensive tackle Manuel Wright -- were training camp cuts this year, and as of this week none of those four were currently listed on any NFL roster.

Who's No. 1 for NFL alums now? The new national leader just might be another California school, De La Salle of Concord. The Spartans had their total reduced to five in August when quarterback Matt Gutierrez lost out in the battle to be No. 3 on the depth chart of the New England Patriots. But Gutierrez was just added back onto the Patriots' roster in the aftermath of Tom Brady's season-ending knee injury. De La Salle's five other current graduates in the NFL are linebacker D.J. Williams (Broncos), running back Maurice Jones-Drew (Jaguars), wide receiver Amani Toomer (Giants), tackle Derek Landri (Jaguars) and wide receiver Demetrious Williams (Ravens). Two other former Spartans -- wide receiver Cameron Colvin from the University of Oregon and defensive back Damon Jenkins from Fresno State -- almost made NFL rosters in August but were late cuts. All of those players, except Toomer, are part of the school's national-record 151-game winning streak.

Doug Huff is a senior editor of ESPN RISE and is a member of the National Federation Hall of Fame. He has been compiling national and regional rankings in multiple sports since 1987 and is credited as the founder of the national record book. Mark Tennis also contributed to this column.