Deflategate puts pressure on high school football coaches to follow rules
Every football at North Allegheny must pass the squeeze test before it’s ready for Friday night.
It’s often the defensive line coach who inflates the footballs, gives them a squeeze and then tosses them to coach Art Walker for a second opinion. The measurement is rather unscientific, but for them the hands tell more than a pressure gauge on an air pump.
“If you can just barely dimple it when you press on the ball, for us it’s good,” Walker said. “For us it’s more on feel. If I get one that just feels like it’s ballooned up, we’ll let a little bit out.”
High school footballs are required to meet the same air-pressure standards as those used in the NCAA and NFL. All balls must measure between 12½ and 13½ pounds per square inch, and officials check them before each WPIAL game.
But teams will adjust the air pressure to their liking — sometimes slightly harder or softer for their quarterback — a practice that could draw added interest and scrutiny after the NFL accused Patriots quarterback Tom Brady of strategically deflating footballs.
“All the things they’re accusing Brady of, we’ve done,” Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render said. “My take is, all quarterbacks and coaches adjust the ball every Friday night.”
The questions become, how much can a team legally adjust and does it make a difference?
“When we get them out of the box, they’re usually a little on the softer side to begin with,” Pine-Richland coach Eric Kasperowicz said. “So you either add a little bit of air or don’t add any at all. If that still falls within the range, you’re in good shape.”
As a star quarterback for North Hills in the 1990s, Kasperowicz developed a preference for throwing fully inflated footballs. That differed from quarterback Ben DiNucci, his record-setting senior last season at Pine-Richland.
“I liked mine extremely hard for a tighter spiral,” Kasperowicz said. “I know DiNucci actually liked his a little softer. … I just felt like when it was softer I’d squeeze it too much. It just never came off right for me. Obviously, Tom Brady likes them a little softer.”
Put Mt. Pleasant in Brady’s corner. Coach Bo Ruffner’s team prefers the footballs to be near the bottom of the legal range, he said.
“We like having them low, like Tom Brady,” Ruffner said. “We’re not going to overinflate the footballs.”
A former college receiver at Clarion, Walker said he preferred to catch a fully inflated ball like his team uses now at North Allegheny.
“I’ve never had a quarterback that wanted it under regulation pressure. Never,” Walker said. “As you’re throwing it, if your hand is sinking in, you’re not going to get a good spiral on a ball that doesn’t have enough air. It’s not going to come off your fingers the right way. And as a receiver, I’d never want that.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations sets the standard for air pressure in a rule book that the PIAA and WPIAL follow.
WPIAL officiating crews carry with them a pressure gauge for checking footballs, similar to those used to check tires but calibrated for lower pressures. However, not every game ball is gauge-measured by an official before kickoff.
“If the ball seems to be overinflated or underinflated, (the umpire) will check it with a gauge,” longtime WPIAL official Mike Jarosinski said. “I’d say he checks the (pressure) maybe one-third of the time, meaning it’s all done by feel.
“The coaches hand you the balls, and say these are our four or five game balls. (The umpire) just kind of gives them a quick feel. If you’ve been around the game long enough, when you grab a ball, you can kind of tell if it’s good or bad.”
Jarosinski is entering his 40th season officiating football and is the secretary of the Alle-Kiski Football Officials Chapter. He recalls an instance where a team came with multiple footballs well outside the allowed pressure range.
“Altoona handed the game balls to us and the umpire said, ‘I don’t like these balls,’ and handed them to the rest of us who were standing there,” Jarosinski said. “They were way overinflated. We said, ‘We’re going to make you take air out of them or we’ll take the air out.’ ”
Once approved, the official writes his initials on the balls, making them easy to identify during the game. There’s little to prevent a team from altering the air pressure after the balls are OK’d. But the initials can prevent an unapproved ball from slipping into play.
“The WPIAL refs are on it,” Kiski Area coach Dave Heavner said. “They evaluate them and put their signatures on them in marker. You can’t put an extra ball in there.”
However, over the years, Render said he’s seen footballs in play that should not have been allowed. For example, in the 1992 PIAA championship, Central Bucks West used a football so old the bladder had a bubble at the seam, he said.
“Knute Rockne must have used this ball,” Render said. “It lands at my feet and I throw the ball over a 12-foot snow bank behind me. The official just gave me this look.”
Depending on weather, a team could use four game balls on a dry night or as many as eight in rain or snow. Pine-Richland entered camp with around 15 in use and will add three more each week, a common practice.
“We take them out of the box and scrape them up,” Kasperowicz said. “There’s nothing worse than pulling a ball right out of the box. Being an ex-quarterback, I always hated that. There was a certain way I liked them.”
For most teams, balls are adjusted and broken in at practice. Then come Friday, a quarterback picks the ones that fit him best. For some, it’s a matter of hand size.
“If there’s a problem with one, the quarterbacks will tell me: ‘Hey, that ball feels like a balloon,’ ” Walker said. “Then we’ll take some out so when Friday comes, they don’t even discuss it.”
As a line judge on the home sideline, Jarosinski is responsible for switching balls on change of possessions. The NFL scandal might make him examine those footballs a little more closely.
“At the high school level, I just don’t see it being a big concern,” he said. “Until now it hasn’t been an issue. But Tom Brady and Deflategate will be in the back of everybody’s mind. When I get that ball from the ball boy, before I throw it in to my umpire I’ll look at it. Absolutely.”