Utah powerhouse kept in playoffs at cost of head coach, then banned from postseason in span of 24 hours

Cameron Smith

The cycle that engulfed the Salt Lake (Utah) East High football program in the past week has had more hairpin turns than San Francisco's Lombard Street. At first the program had a scandal, then it was a non-issue. A day later, it was handed a rather bizarre penalty and allowed to remain in the playoffs. Now, finally, of Utah's top football team's will miss out on the playoffs altogether, all because it used a quartet of ineligible players.

The East football team, picture in white, will get to retain its undefeated record despite ineligible players — Salt Lake Tribune

In a sudden decision, the Utah High School Activities Association ruled on Thursday that East High would be ineligible for the 2012 postseason because it used four different ineligible players during the course of its undefeated romp through its district schedule.

The school self-reported three of four violations which were found to have occurred within the program, and five of six principals which sit on the Region 6 board then decided that the appropriate penalties for East's violations included a $1,500 fine, a year probation and, most uniquely, a two-game suspension for East head coach Brandon Matich just in time for the postseason, which opens on Friday.

"You never want to be away from your kids -- I think that hurts your kids as well," Matich told the Salt Lake Tribune. "But if it's gonna help my kids and allow them to play, I'm going to accept responsibility. It's been really emotional for me, and I'm happy for right now that they can play."

Yet, as it turns out, Matich's relief was short-lived. On Thursday, the UHSAA delivered its own ruling which in effect overrode the local decision to allow East to participate in the playoffs. Citing statewide regulations, the UHSAA issued a decision that forced East to forfeit all but one of its games from the regular season in which it finished 8-1, instantly transforming the team from a playoff top seed to a squad which had played its last game.

In the case of Matich and East High, the Utah decision makers were apparently swayed that a general lack of understanding about the state's eligibility regulations was behind the failure to submit proper paperwork for the three players in question. That led to leniency in penalties assessed against the program, though the three players themselves will remain ineligible (only one of the three was a varsity starter, according to the Tribune).

Allowing East to continue into the postseason despite self-acknowledged breaches of state regulations could have opened a Pandora's box for complaints from opposing coaches should East continue on the run it has built and roll all the way to a state title.

While that's a risk that regional officials were willing to take, it wasn't one that the UHSAA was willing to sanction, even in a current environment characterized by a bevy of schools whose chartering falls outside the traditional realms of high school associations.

"I don't think it's just East, I think it becomes more complicated as there's more options out there for kids," Woods Cross principal John Haning said. "There's charter schools, online charter schools. … There's a million things that can affect [eligibility] now. It's way bigger than it ever was."

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