Inside Realignment: TXHSFB's version of the New York Stock Exchange

Carter Yates // Twitter

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BIRDVILLE -- There's a single-file line of men in khakis and team-labeled polos. Like anxious ants, they've marched from a parking lot packed with pickup trucks up to the second floor of the Birdville ISD athletic center and past the student artwork on display as the hum builds to a crescendo when the conference room door opens. One coach cues an apt Jaws reference as he crosses the threshold to an area 10 degrees warmer from body heat.

"We're gonna need a bigger room."

Nearly every high school football coach and athletic director from the Dallas-Fort Worth area is inside Birdville's stadium. It's 8:30 a.m. on the biennial UIL Realignment Day. In 30 minutes, the UIL will release the new football districts for the 2024 and 2025 seasons. These type of gatherings simultaneously occur statewide. For now, the DFW meeting is upbeat as old friends catch up. Coaching legends converse within feet of each other - Highland Park's Randy Allen, DeSoto's Claude Mathis, Longview's John King. When the clock strikes 9 a.m. and the districts are flashed on the three massive projectors, the time for hanging out is over.

"I wouldn't even say it's controlled chaos. I would say it's chaos," Sherman head coach Joshua Aleman said. "It'll look like we're at the stock market. Everyone's going to be staring at a board, waiting for the realignment to be posted. Then, once it's posted, everyone's going to be scrambling around.”

Every school knows what classification they'll reside in for the next two seasons based on where their enrollment fell on the UIL's cutoff numbers released in December. They'll find out today which teams they'll face for district games. Most schools can expect to add or subtract a couple district opponents. But it'll be an entirely different schedule for programs like Brock, who've jumped from Class 3A to Class 4A DII.

That's why head coach Billy Mathis brought his offensive and defensive coordinators to join him and the athletic director in Birdville. He's compiled a 38–10 record with a state championship appearance in three seasons as the Eagles' head coach, but his fourth will be the first in Class 4A. Mathis and his staff expected this. Brock has historically been full of ranches and farmland, but once those were sold, houses and apartment complexes were built up for young families to move in. The high school has added roughly 90 kids due to fuller middle school classes since Mathis's arrival. But even with that growth, Brock is a smaller fish in a bigger pond.

"There's always that uncertainty," Mathis said. "You're always nervous about moving up a classification because we turned in 626 kids, and we'll be playing with people that have close to 900 kids."

When the district is announced, the head coaches and superintendents in attendance will huddle to hammer out the district schedule and make sure everyone has an even number of home and away games.

However, the most challenging part of realignment is finding non-district games. Many coaches try to schedule some before the announcement, but programs only know how many they need when they learn how many teams are in their district. For instance, a five-team district means six non-district games are required. It's a relief to iron out all non-district opponents in the hour after realignment is announced, but for perennially successful programs such as Brock, that might be a pipedream. There must be a mutual agreement between the two teams to play a non-district game.

"You'll see your Southlakes and Aledos holding up a sign that says 'I need a Week 3 or Week 4,'" Mathis said. "And people going, 'Heck no, I ain't playing them Week 3 and Week 4.'"

That's a position Jeremy Mullins became all too familiar with leading Class 2A power Tolar High School. Following a 10–3 season in 2021, plenty of coaches avoided eye contact with Mullins at Realignment Day to avoid getting roped into a non-district contest.

"The worst feeling in the world is getting into the middle of the spring and still looking for games," Mullins said. 

But today, he's got a different problem - shooting down matchup proposals from a bevy of suitors. 

After leading Tolar to a state championship appearance last fall, Mullins took a new challenge as the inaugural coach of Class 4A DII Eagle Mountain, Saginaw ISD's brand-new high school opening in 2024. He's spent his offseason alternating between Saginaw High and Boswell High to meet the freshmen and sophomores attending Eagle Mountain next fall, when they'll play their first Varsity football season without seniors.

While Brock and Eagle Mountain are new to its classifications, and thus wholly up in the air, Sherman High School's day can go one of two ways. The Bearcats spent the past two seasons in the Frisco ISD district. Since Frisco Liberty moved down from Class 5A DI, the UIL can add McKinney North to the existing district and make the day easy. The nine-team district already has a side room reserved in Birdville to make the year's schedule. Or, the UIL could send them south to the Dallas ISD district, which would throw Coach Aleman into a scramble trying to find extra non-district games after two years of only needing two.

But Aleman's plenty used to Sherman getting re-districted, having graduated from the school in 2004. They were in the Wichita Falls district his freshman year, then realigned east to play Sulphur Springs and Paris. As time passed, Sherman morphed into a Texoma island. Most schools they used to play don't match 5A DI status, which leaves them bouncing around every Realignment Day.

"What are they going to do with Sherman again?" Aleman said. "That's what we sit around and say every two years."

In two minutes, he'll find out.

While all the coaches were dapping up friends and grabbing doughnuts and coffee, they kept one eye on their watch. As the seconds tick closer to 9 a.m., 500 heads look expectantly at a projector displaying the UIL website. Once the site refreshes, paths to the playoffs change, rivalries are both formed, reformed and/or paused. The following two years of Texas high school football will be determined over 30 minutes.

Nine o'clock hits. The projector flashes the new districts. There's silence for the next 15 seconds as eyes dart over the list, searching for their program. And then, as if the opening bell of the NYSE just rang, pandemonium ensues.

UIL employees stand on a raised table in the middle of the conference with a stack of packets the size of an LSAT textbook, passing out the re-districting list to coaches who then shuffle away and immediately rifle through it. Coaches clump together, registering what their next two seasons look like for the first time. There's only time for a couple sentences of instant reaction before entering the stock exchange.

There are people wall-to-wall locked in fervent conversation. If they're not talking to someone, they're on the phone with another coach, athletic director or superintendent. It takes a combination of side steps, back taps, shuffle-throughs, and maybe an "excuse me, boss" to make it 30 feet. The broad smiles and glad-handing from five minutes ago have disappeared. Now it's help me help you. If I can't help you, this other guy can. If neither's the case, then screw you, not actually, but this conversation is over because I've got to figure out my year.

Aleman and his Sherman program are among the lucky ones. The UIL simply swapped Frisco Liberty for McKinney North, so he quickly ducks out of the chaos to a side room to compile the 5-5A DI district schedule calmly. Sherman can exhale for two years until the 2026 realignment threatens to reshuffle them.

Brock and Eagle Mountain ended up in the same District 3-4A DII. For Brock, it's a blessing and a curse. After traveling over 90 minutes to Whitesboro and Pilot Point in Class 3A, all but one school in their new district is within 65 minutes away. But in a five-team district, he has to work the room to get six non-district games. About 45 minutes after the district was announced, Mathis decided he'll attempt to schedule a game against a California school to get to 10.

Usually, six non-district games as a new varsity program would make Mullins the most popular man in Birdville. But knowing he'd get many offers, Mullins came into the morning with most of his non-district slate intact. Despite being 4A, Eagle Mountain will face 3A title contenders Jacksboro, Grandview and Paradise to open up the season before dipping their toes into 4A with Ferris and Benbrook before the district slate.

By 10 a.m., the room has thinned. Most coaches are out of stock broker mode and are back to reminiscing on the good old days. The projectors now flash teams seeking non-district games on certain weeks with the head coaches phone number attached. There are QR codes on the tables scattered around the room with open dates. For those still searching for a game, they're not going to find it today. Might as well see if there are any more doughnut holes left.

Now that his schedule is complete, Lovejoy head coach Todd Dodge sits for an interview, having returned to the DFW realignment gathering for the first time since he was the Southlake head coach in 2006. A month ago, he was in Horseshoe Bay enjoying retirement. Today, it's as if he teleported back to the mid-2000s if not for the technological upgrades.

"It seems the same," Dodge said."There weren't any QR codes at the time. Most of the communication about if you need a game or not was on a white board, not up on a screen."

Other than that, the most unique day in Texas high school football hasn't changed with the times. 

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