Word association time. • Here's the phrase: "Fall weekends in America." • What's your first thought? • For most of us, the word that comes to mind is "football." • Saturdays are for colleges. Sundays are for the pros. • And let's not forget Friday nights. Fridays are for high school football. • Friday Night Lights, right? • "Even that phrase is iconic," said Plant High football coach Robert Weiner. • Tonight, Weiner's Panthers head over to Lakeland for one of many local state playoff games. • But high school is not the only football in town. Over at Raymond James Stadium, the bowl-bound USF Bulls host Cincinnati in a key conference game. Should be fun. • So why does it feel like we shouldn't be watching? • Because it's Friday, darn it, and Friday is high school football.
"High school football on Friday nights is kind of like that last pure thing in football," Weiner said. "It has always been that special thing."
Not as much as it used to be since college football started invading high school's night.
Back in 2003, USF football was in its seventh season. For the first time, the Bulls played a pair of Friday night home football games.
"It was a big deal," said longtime Armwood High football coach Sean Callahan, whose Hawks take on Brandon tonight. "And they asked our opinion of it. And all the high school coaches were okay with it because we thought it was going to be a one-time deal."
So what does Callahan think now?
"I don't like it," he said. "Now it seems like it's becoming more and more common."
It is and you can guess why: money and exposure.
"I hate it," said Clearwater Central Catholic coach John Davis, whose Marauders host Fort Pierce John Carroll in the playoffs. "I think it's terrible, but you know why they do it."
Networks can offer conferences such as USF's American Athletic Conference money to air Friday night games. It's perfect programing for sports networks such as ESPN and CBS Sports Network. In addition, smaller conferences can get the type of featured exposure on a Friday night as opposed to getting lost among the dozens of Saturday games.
Tonight, for example, there are three televised games. All are from smaller conferences. Aside from Cincinnati-USF, there's Brown vs. Columbia and Air Force taking on Boise State. For those schools, it's a chance to get away from Saturday's big boys such as Notre Dame, Alabama and Ohio State.
But bigger schools occasionally play on Fridays, too. This season, Baylor, Michigan State, Miami and Stanford have all played on Friday nights. This is USF's second home Friday night game. Florida State has done it, too.
"It's already getting harder and harder to get more people to come to our games," Callahan said. "There are a lot of things going on on Friday nights besides high school football and now you throw college football in there."
Even a couple of games can put a dent into some high schools' attendance.
"For the most part, we won't win that," Callahan said about high schools going up against colleges. "Our numbers are down ever since college football has been going to Friday nights. How much? How significant? I don't have exact numbers, but I know our numbers don't really pick up until late in the playoffs when college football slows down."
The thing is, many college coaches, especially from the bigger schools, aren't crazy about Friday nights.
"I'm a Saturday guy, period," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher told reporters earlier this season. "I think Friday nights are for high school football. I think that's one of our great things we have in this country."
The Mid-American Conference plays games on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. That's fine. The ACC and others play on Thursday. That's fine.
"They're not moving in on us on those nights," Weiner said.
But Fridays? Fridays should be reserved for high schools.
"It's getting hard enough now to keep high school sports afloat and now you're going to throw college games at us that we have to compete against?" Davis said. "You're going to eventually kill your own sport by doing that."
Davis said his team has been invited to watch USF play in person.
"We can't do that this week," Davis said. "Why? Because we're playing."
Weiner tells the story about his Plant team that traveled to Abilene, Texas, to play in 2010. The game was supposed to be played on national television on a Friday night.
"We ended up doing it on another night (Thursday) so that it didn't interfere with people going out to the other stadiums and watching their schools in person," Weiner said. "In Texas, just like Florida and California and Ohio, high school football is like religion, so they didn't want to interfere with that."
College football doesn't care about that. Okay, so maybe you can understand little fish such as Columbia playing on an occasional Friday. But do schools such as FSU and even USF need the money and exposure of a Friday night?
"Really, there can't be that much of a financial downfall by not using a Friday night, if you're a college," Weiner said. "There have to be other slots that are every bit as feasible and not have to delve into that time.
"It just takes away a piece of Americana, which is high school Friday night football. And that's Big City, USA, and Small Town, USA. And that's the way it should stay."