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Big changes for Big 33 Football Classic next season

(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
  • The Big 33 Scholarship Foundation announced Wednesday that it will dissolve after nearly 60 years.
  • The decision follows years of financial struggles and the death of its executive director.
  • The Big 33 Football Classic, however, will continue under new leadership.

Following years of financial struggles and the death of its executive director in December, the Big 33 Scholarship Foundation announced Wednesday that it will dissolve after nearly 60 years.

However, the organization's signature event, the annual Big 33 high school football all-star game, will continue under new leadership. A number of York County players have participated in the Big 33 contest over the decades.

The Big 33 Football Classic is leaving Hersheypark Stadium and will instead be played at Central Dauphin's Landis Field.

The Big 33 Scholarship Foundation, a Harrisburg-based nonprofit founded in 1958, said that declining contributions and unsustainable debt prompted the decision to shutter. The organization is working with attorneys to determine how to distribute its remaining assets, including those in its scholarship fund.

Restricted funds raised for scholarships will continue to support their recipients, the foundation said in a statement announcing its decision.

"We no longer have the capacity and resources to continue operating the Big 33 organization," Big 33 president Jeanne DeDay said.

According to its last available tax filing, Big 33 concluded the 2014 fiscal year with $514,123 in net assets.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Coaches Association will take over the all-star football game, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

"The board was very upset to have to do this, but we were between a rock and a hard place with the financial decision," said Big 33 vice president George Connor, who is executive director of the Dauphin County Office of Community & Economic Development. "We had to make a business decision."

The Big 33 organization went through two significant events the past two years. In 2015, then-attorney general Kathleen Kane said that the organization used more than $260,000 in funds marked for scholarships to pay off debt instead.

The state's investigation, which dated to 2007, prompted Big 33 to hire a new executive director and agree to place an additional $5,000 in its scholarship endowment annually to compensate for the misused funds.

Then in December, Big 33 executive director Dave Trimbur died. Trimbur, who took over as executive director in 2009, had been involved with Big 33 since 1998 and helped guide an organization that was "in a state of tremendous financial turmoil," according to the Big 33 website.

"Dave was a great, great man," Connor said. "It was a tragic loss to the organization."

The Big 33 Football Classic, considered among the nation's most historic all-star football games, will continue under the PSFCA, which has been involved in its operation for many years. The organization owns the game's trademark and logo, executive manager Garry Cathell said, and provided access to coaches and players.

Cathell said that the PSFCA is "excited" to take over the game and is considering several dates, including Memorial Day and two Saturdays in June, and perhaps an alternate site to Hersheypark Stadium.

State coaches nominated more than 400 players for this year's game, Cathell said, which will be played against an all-star team from Maryland. The PSFCA plans to announce the participating players Feb. 10.

"This is a special event and what we consider to be the grandfather of all high school all-star games," Cathell said. "It's important for the kids who will play and have played."

The Big 33 Classic has changed over the years. Initially founded as Pennsylvania vs. the U.S., the game went through a variety of formats: an in-state East-West game, Pennsylvania vs. Texas, Pennsylvania vs. Ohio, and Pennsylvania vs. Maryland.

Big 33 officials took pride in noting that every Super Bowl has featured a Big 33 alumnus, but the changing face of college football affected the game as well. Some college coaches forbade incoming freshmen from playing in the game, while some top players decided to enroll early in college, making them ineligible to play.

In addition, the rise of national all-star games prompted highly recruited players to skip the Big 33 Classic for other opportunities.

"It's been tough to secure some of the top athletes and top football players in the state of Pennsylvania," Connor said.

Cathell said that the PSFCA will continue the Big 33's cheerleading, host family and "Buddy" programs. Since 1985, the Buddy Program has paired players with special-needs youth to promote friendship and acceptance.

"We hope not to change much about the game at all," Cathell said. "We hope the integrity of the game continues and gets better and better."