HARLAN: Completing fall season offers measure of vindication for PIAA boss Bob Lombardi

The (Greensburg) Tribune Review (TNS)
Bob Lombardi

There was cause to celebrate, but PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi probably didn't spike the football or exchange high-fives after the state championships finished Saturday night.

A high school football season that seemed doomed from the start, a season opposed by no less than the governor himself, made it all the way to Hershey.

In a way, this weekend was a measure of vindication for Lombardi, the PIAA staff and its board of directors, who pushed forward in August despite the obstacles and opposition. As other states canceled or delayed their seasons, Pennsylvania didn't follow their lead.

"I'm just thankful for a lot of people that worked really, really hard to do their best and made their best effort to try," said Lombardi, standing on the sideline at Hersheypark Stadium.

"I said repeatedly that the biggest mistake we could have made was not to try," he said. "And by trying, we end up here on Thanksgiving weekend done with fall sports because a whole lot of people did a whole lot of things right."

That same day, West Virginia canceled its high school football championships.

Challenging season: The season was challenging for many PIAA teams and included a number of individual shutdowns after players or coaches tested positive. Many of those who'd objected to football season were particularly concerned about virus spread between opposing teams. Lombardi noted that by all accounts, that wasn't an issue.

"We still have yet to find any transmission from an athlete on one team to another team," Lombardi said. "We have yet to see that. I'm not saying it's not out there, but we haven't had any reports, so that's a positive."

That's especially true now, as the PIAA turns its attention to winter sports. The PIAA board meets Dec. 9, two days before regular-season contests are scheduled to begin.

So far, the PIAA has supported an on-time start.

"I'm not anticipating a delay," Lombardi said. "I think right now the sentiment is to get whatever you can in a measured, systematic, step-by-step approach. Similar to what we've done in the fall."

Cause for winter concern: Basketball players, wrestlers, swimmers and all other winter-sport athletes were allowed to begin practice Nov. 20. However, rising coronavirus cases across the state are cause for concern.

"Everybody is keeping an eye on the sky with what's going on and what's being reported — and that's troublesome," Lombardi said. "But with that being said, I hope schools will at least give their winter teams the opportunity to start practice and put people in a bubble."

The PIAA has requirements that teams must complete 15 days of preseason practice before competition. Lombardi has urged schools to complete those three weeks as soon as possible.

"You're only talking about 15 or 20 (athletes), maybe 30 at the max," Lombardi said. "I think you can keep them healthy and safe. That's doesn't mean you need to go scrimmage or play right way.

"But if you postpone until later and then try to get everything in a short period of time, you have trouble. You're not going to get anything in. We've seen from the fall, that's not a good lesson."

Lombardi not in favor of delay until January: Lombardi was particularly concerned with schools that already have pushed their preseason practices to January.

"You get away from now, which isn't terrific, to the heart of flu season," Lombardi said. "I wouldn't be in favor of that, but everybody has to do what's best in their local community."

That's similar to the approach the PIAA took in August when Gov. Tom Wolf strongly recommended all interscholastic sports be postponed until January. The governor's announcement at the end of an unrelated press conference stunned teams and school administrators.

"When we got the mic drop, that caught people by surprise," Lombardi said. "And with that, everybody (on the PIAA board) took a real hard look at their local schools and asked them, 'Hey, what do they want to do?' They came back saying we want to try. ... I'm glad they did because athletic people are fixers. They're problem solvers. They're creative, how-can-we-do-things kind of folks."

Ignoring Wolf's recommendation: Football season seemed in peril when the PIAA board met Aug. 21. Instead, the group voted 25-5 to ignore Wolf's recommendation and let individual school districts decide whether to play.

Overwhelmingly, schools chose to compete.

"You know the old Chuck Noll theory: The best part of a team is teaching them we're all pulling in the same direction," Lombardi said. "I think today I can stand here and tell you collectively our schools and our sports officials and our coaches and parents and families and the kids themselves did that."