PROVIDENCE — The tradition of the East Providence High School-LaSalle Academy Thanksgiving Day, though still intact, will for the time being, at least, be fundamentally altered.
The expected became official Thursday, Jan. 30, when the Rhode Island Interscholastic League issued a press release from the most recent Principals Committee on Athletics meeting held the previous day where the governing body formally approved changes proposed by the football coaches association to the structure of high school football playoffs.
As written in the minutes of the meeting, “Beginning in the fall 2014 season all League games that were played on Thanksgiving Day must be played during the regular season. As a result, all semifinals football games will be played on the Friday before Thanksgiving. The traditional Thanksgiving Day games will be played as non-league games and the division (I, II, III and IV) championship games will be played a minimum of seven (7) days after Thanksgiving.”
The move specifically affects just eight of the near 50 football playing schools in the league — East Providence and LaSalle, Cranston West and Cranston East, Smithfield and North Smithfield, Scituate and North Providence — whose Thanksgiving Day games are played on Thanksgiving. Only representatives from East Providence and LaSalle, however, voted in opposition to the coaches’ proposal. The Townies and the Rams, who have played on the holiday 85 times since 1929, have the longest standing Thanksgiving Day rivalry between schools from within the state.
“The way I feel is there was no recourse. It was going to be done regardless,” said East Providence Athletic Director Bob Duarte, who attended the January 29 Principals meeting. “It wouldn’t be such a big deal if the game wasn’t such a huge tradition, but it is. East Providence and LaSalle have been playing on Thanksgiving Day for 80, 90 years. It is a big deal, but it won’t be anymore, and I hate for the game to be relegated to just another game, but with this decision it has.”
The news came as no shock to legendary East Providence High School head coach John “Sandy” Gorham, who has participated in the Townies-Rams holiday rivalry as either a player, coach or interested observer for the better part of the last 45 years.
“We knew it was coming. You didn’t have to be a wise man to see which way the wind was blowing,” Coach Gorham. “We knew what was driving the Interscholastic League was they felt the playoff games should be played before Thanksgiving so you would have 10 full days off before the Super Bowl. I guess they’re right to a point. And once the (Interscholastic League’s) medical advisory board supported the move, we knew it was just a matter of time.”
East Providence and LaSalle will face each other in the early part of the Division I regular season, some time in either September or the beginning of October the latest, according to Coach Gorham. The schools still plan to maintain their traditional holiday game, but its two most important aspects — competition and financial — will be impacted dramatically due to playoff revision.
“Does it hurt? Yes. It hurts the tradition of the game. It hurts the gate. That’s money that helps the whole athletic department the rest of the year,” Coach Gorham continued. “Let’s be honest, we’re not as good as we once were and LaSalle is who they are. They beat us 30-6 last year. They’ve won the last seven (Thanksgiving) games. Who’s going to want to come watch that game if we’ve played once already during the season?
“And in the years when we are fortunate to be one of the four playoff teams, and if we both make it to the Super Bowl, then Thanksgiving is going to turn into a junior varsity game. The starters may play a series or two, but the coaches aren’t going to want to risk injuries with the state championship game still left to be played. Needless to say we’re very disappointed.”
There was a chance the Thanksgiving Day could be used as a semifinal playoff game between the schools, but a precise reading of the amended rules on scheduling seem to remove that possibility. Mr. Duarte, however, said it’s possible the schools could ask for special dispensation from the RIIL to conduct Thanksgiving as a playoff game if necessary.
“It killed the fun of the game, killed the tradition,” Coach Gorham concluded. “Barrington and Mt. Hope (Thanksgiving Day) is still a ‘big’ game because they’re not in the same league and they only play once. But it came down to only East Providence and LaSalle and one or two other leagues games, and we weren’t going to hold up what the Interscholastic League wanted. There was nothing we could do.”