Colleen Maguire is the executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Sbobet and my pick as the most powerful person in North Jersey athletics for the second straight year.
Maguire has helped lead the organization through the COVID crisis (and she hopes history isn’t going to repeat itself), keeping kids active and grateful for their chances to play.
I had a chance to talk with Maguire about her hopes for 2022, the plan to do away with the Tournament of Champions, where girls flag football fits in and what she saw on the final play of the Clifton-East Orange football game.
Colleen, we have to start with the biggest story in New Jersey high school sports in that we’re starting to see more and more events canceled and programs shut down, are you getting concerned?
Maguire: I am grateful that it’s early in the season. How long this surge and rising cases lasts, who knows? I am grateful that our schools have already been through it. There is not a panic out there. Games will get played when they get played. I am optimistic that as we progress through the winter season that things will level off and we have a fairly normal season for the most part. I am very optimistic that we will have normal state championships, on schedule.
So as of this moment, the state wrestling finals are still in Atlantic City and we are having a full basketball season.
Maguire: Absolutely. Absolutely.
I would think, though that as you all reconvene after the New Year that your office at least talks over some possibilities of having to make some changes.
Maguire: The Governor’s Office and health officials would be the ones to step in and say, hey, it’s time to make some changes and pause some activities. We have not gotten any communications or phone calls as such. We fully expect schools to be open in January, some may choose to go remote here and there, but the message is we will stay in person and stay open.
That said, my staff are mindful that the first few weeks of the season will be disrupted. We have some programs shut down for two weeks, some for a few days. We have a lot of athletes coming in and out of quarantine. Most of our sports have already moved to a model that provides that flexibility, like basketball, we will seed on your top 13 power pointed games. If we get through January and see that is not a tenable number, then we will look to pivot and come up with different qualifications. Our goal in the end is to identify the best teams that deserve to be in the tournament and then use the data to seed those teams. We are ready to pivot. We are ready to make adjustments as we see appropriate, but right now on Dec. 28, it’s way too early to predict.
In 1992, you played in the Tournament of Champions for girls basketball —
Maguire: — I did. I am still well known. I think South Hunterdon scored one of the biggest upsets in the TOC in any sport when it beat Linden (laughs).
So while I know the reasons why to discontinue the TOCs, there was some chatter that it was hypocritical because the NJSIAA was making the football season longer by going to group champions.
Maguire: We didn’t extend the length of the football season. We brought football on par to a group-wide state champion like we did in every sport. We reformatted the football playoffs in order to provide an opportunity to have a true group champion. It was long overdue. It’s not just basketball. It’s also ice hockey. We had two sports that were outliers. They had significantly longer days in their seasons. We tried to normalize the days among all those sports in the winter. Next year, ice hockey, swimming and bowling, but really ice hockey, will start practice two weeks later than they normally would which I think everyone realizes is really Ok.
I remember conversations with schools try to schedule regional crossover [football] games and they couldn’t get them done because ice hockey practice was starting that Monday. Now we will bring basketball back by two weeks to end the first weekend of March, similar to all our other sports. Normalizing those two sports from a calendar perspective.
You were talking about taking away, but we were bringing basketball and the other sports that have a TOC are ending by their natural state champions by group size.
It’s a balance because you always trying to satisfy the upper tier programs that want to challenge themselves against the best, while recognizing that there are so many more “middle class” programs in New Jersey that just want to make the State Tournament, not finish number 1 in the nation.
And the ones who win the most get the most attention and then they feel like they should get a bigger say in how things are run.
Maguire: That TOC, any of the sports identified in that proposal, the teams in that TOC the range is one and a half to three percent of teams, given the sport. In basketball, its probably three percent of teams [in New Jersey] participate in the TOC. Also, you go through our history of the TOC, any sport, you see a lot of the same teams.
Also, especially in basketball, think of how the scheduling in the sport has evolved. All those teams, if you want that competitiveness and you feel like you’re in the upper echelon, you can go play those teams. There are showcases all season long. Not only are you playing the best in New Jersey, but you’re getting match-ups from programs in other states. There’s plenty of opportunity to get that schedule balance. Now, there are teams seeing each other in the TOC, they’ve probably already played each other in the regular season.
And what’s going to happen with cross-country, and track. Are we getting rid of the Track Meet of Champions in winter and spring?
Maguire: Those are individual based events. We have no intention of touching any individual based Meet of Champions. We have that in swimming, we have that in fencing. Our spring Meet of Champions is phenomenal, it’s the event I am probably most proud of. I go to that event and it’s like a melting pot of our association, and we have like 40,000 kids running spring track (laughs). To qualify for that event is a really big deal.
This [proposal was] really team based, we handed out six state championship trophies and now we are taking a whole week to play down to a single state championship [in the TOC]. Everyone was questioning – for some time – was this really still necessary? There is a reason no other state does this, maybe because it’s not really necessary.
Was the Clifton quarterback in, or not? You were standing right there!
Maguire: From my vantage point, all I saw was a big ole’ pile of people in front of me and all of the sudden, you saw a kid running down the field. I am not a trained official. I am not sure what I am looking at.
It did become a big story.
Maguire: Because of the replay involvement…and it was a learning lesson. We will look at it long and hard. The football committee meets at the end of January. We will get some information from other states that have used replay and their experiences.
I just hate any game, any event ending in fashion where people question the outcome. We will do our best to learn from it. We will review our options and the football committee will have some serious conversations about where do we want to go from here. Our goal is, we don’t want to get an ending again with a questionable outcome. We want our events to end with the confidence that it was the right outcome.
I think even with all the technology in the world, you may not have been able to tell.
Where will the group football finals be next year?
Maguire: The public [finals], we have every intention, I assume, we haven’t had conversation yet, but I assume the dates will be available. We will be running some games at MetLife on Thanksgiving weekend. I assume they will be non-public [state finals], but you have to wait and see the match-ups and then the following weekend, we will hopefully be at Rutgers. Both are eager and willing hosts. They love having us. They do a great job. We have every intention of being back there in both of those venues next year.
Did you see any of the girls flag football games last year and where could it fit in the NJSIAA’s calendar?
Maguire: I did last spring, I went out in May to Holmdel High School and it was great how the Shore Conference ran it, because they would send four teams to each school and run side-by-side games. It was a tremendous environment. There were a ton of people there. The girls, you could tell, were having an absolute blast. I think girls flag football is fantastic. My three daughters, I have a girls flag football league in our town and they have a blast, it’s their favorite night of the week. The more that girls know about football and understand football, the better for everyone I think. I tell my girls all the time that every guy respects a girl who can throw a football (laughs) or knows something about football.
Last year was a success, I anticipate both the Jets and Giants expect to see growth.
The Jets ran it for the Super Football Conference, did the Giants run it through the Shore Conference?
Maguire: Yes. The Giants ran it through the Shore Conference and I have spoken to the Eagles about having an outreach to the West Jersey Football League. So I am optimistic that it can be statewide. We will see. We will let it evolve. I think it suits well where it is in the spring. The states that have the most success, like Florida and Georgia, they are able to run it in the winter. We don’t have that luxury. I think staying in the spring seems to fit. They have another pilot year that the Giants and Jets are committed to. Is it something that we have to rush into and sanction as a strenuous sport? I am not sure. The last thing I want to do is impact our participation in our other spring sports, like a softball, or spring track or girls lacrosse. How the Shore ran it and the Super Football Conference, girls could do both, and I think there is a way for them to co-exist.
So this is the tenth anniversary of my most powerful people list and you are number one, but I am wondering who is number one on your list? Who is the person you call when things get weird in your office?
Maguire: [NJSIAA legal counsel] Steve Goodell. Steve’s institutional knowledge is unmatched. His ability to break down a complex issue in a short period of time and walk you through how you need to look at it, what facts to gather and then, also on the other side of the decision, where are you vulnerable, what criticisms can you face in such a short period of time. I am so grateful to have him close by because I have learned so much from him. He’s the first call, but I have to say I am so fortunate with our staff between Tony Maselli and Kim Cole, their experience, their breadth of knowledge for someone who didn’t grow up in that world, meaning athletic administration, they’re invaluable. And I have two great Assistant Directors in Al Stumpf and Derryk Sellers who are both great personalities and they have a lot of contacts. They bring some real common sense approach to things. I have always been very fortuinate with our Executive Committee officers, starting with two years ago with [Presidents] Mary Liz Ivins and then Steve Shohfi and now Tom Mullahey, it’s amazing they are volunteering their time. Any time something comes up, every proposal I put to the Executive Committee I vet it through them first. This is how I think I want to approach it, do you guys have any thoughts or feedback? Really, it’s a collective effort. I don’t work in a vacuum.
Darren Cooper is a high school sports columnist for NorthJersey.com. For full access to live scores, breaking news and analysis from our Varsity Aces team, subscribe today. To get breaking news directly to your inbox, sign up for our newsletter and download our app.