HELENA — Mark Beckman has spent 22 years working in the Montana High School Association office, including the past 15 as executive director. During that time, Beckman has seen a lot of changes to Montana’s high school sports landscape, one of the most notable being the recent school enrollment ranges used to determination football classifications.
The MHSA executive board’s recent November meeting saw a lot of changes, as schools moved into different football classifications again. The board also approved moving the 2019 Class B boys and girls state basketball tournaments to Belgrade.
In this week’s Sunday Conversation, Beckman sat down with MTN Sports to discuss the executive board’s role in placing schools into classifications, implementing rule changes and placing state tournaments. Beckman also provided a brief overview of the financial aspect of high school sports.
MTN Sports: The big topic of conversation, you guys had the MHSA meetings in November, always a lot of stuff that comes out of that one. Can you just explain the MHSA executive board, their role, your role and kind of how some of these things come about?
Mark Beckman: “Sure. The MHSA was put into place probably in the 1900s, but more so officially about 1921. And it was put in place because they were worried about the eligibility of student-athletes when you went and played. A visiting school would come in and they’d say, ‘Now, are all those kids of age? Are all those kids, should they be playing? Are they even in high school?’ That’s sort of how it came about. With that said, there was just a board selected from member high schools, their administrators. Then by the 50s or early 60s, this office was created, the MHSA office. There’s myself as the executive director, then I have three assistants and support staff. What we do, is we help schools in regard to the enforcement of those rules that are put in by the schools — not by the MHSA but by the schools themselves. Then we have bylaws, which are the most important rules and regulations, and they can only be put in by the schools with a two-thirds majority vote of our member schools, so it takes something to change a bylaw. And then rules and regulations can either be put in by proposal and a simple majority vote of our member schools or by our executive board, but if the board puts the rule or reg in, it has to go out for two-week notice to all of the schools, and then they come back and do that. That’s sort of the governance structure. On our board, we have four members that represent the classifications — we have AA, A, B and C, and they’re elected by the entire membership at our annual meeting every January. One-hundred seventy-nine member schools, each school gets a vote, so they elect those four members. They serve a four-year team. Then we also have appointed members. We have one appointed by the governor, one appointment by the superintendent of public instruction, and one appointed by the school boards association.”
MTN Sports: When, for example, 8-Man decides to go to a neutral-site state championship, what role does the MHSA play in making that happen?
Beckman: “The first thing we do is we say to the 8-Player schools, ‘This is what you’re saying you want. We want to see what each school that’s an 8-Player school, a vote from every school. Talk to your coaches and then the administrator votes.’ That’s exactly what we did. We surveyed, and there was what I call a super majority of those schools wanted to try it on a two-year rotation so that there was, this year was in Butte at Naranche Stadium and next year will be in the Billings area: Laurel, Daylis (Stadium) or Rocky (Mountain College). And then after that second year, we will evaluate it — more importantly to say, the 8-Player schools will evaluate it, and then they’ll come back to us and say, ‘We want to continue and here’s our votes, this is the support,’ or, ‘We want to go back to the other format.’”
MTN Sports: We’re fresh off of the big November meeting, where there’s always a lot of stuff that happens. One of the biggest topics, I think, this year was Glendive’s move, not move and everything that happened. Basically, how do those things happen? And, again, what do you and the MHSA executive board, what is your role in deciding where Glendive plays football?
Beckman: “These last two years have been the November meetings that have been just absolutely long. That’s all because we changed football enrollment ranges, again, through the survey process, going out to schools and saying, ‘There’s been a lot of talk about, should we let smaller Class B schools play 8-Player? And where should we go from 8-Player to 6, where’s the division? What’s the range?’ We worked through all that, we put that together, and that first happened last November. Well, there’s quite a few schools that are affected put in those ranges, so they have to come to the board with their numbers. We have to see their enrollment, see whether it fits, see their projected enrollments in the future and see if that fits, and then see their projected roster sizes and does that fit in what the board wants to do. Sometimes you may have two out of three, and the board can still make a decision. So, the board looks at all those factors to determine if they’re going to place them there, and it’s been mainly football and this change in football enrollments that have caused those longer meetings. But, again, it’s the school’s responsibility to come in, display or present the board what those three factors are. Then the board makes a determination if those factors are met or if two out of three are met, and then they make the decision on where to place them.”
MTN Sports: Also at that meeting at the Class AA level, Class AA came in, got the board’s approval to go to the Eastern AA and Western AA, the two conferences for all sports, including football. Then after that, Class AA made the decision to all 15 teams making the playoffs in 2019. Any involvement at the MHSA level in determining the playoff structure?
Beckman: “Actually, the only thing that the schools or classifications — districts, divisions or classifications — would do, they would present it to our board to get approval, just to say that our board look at it and make sure that there wasn’t something unfair about it, like saying, ‘Well, in the Western AA, six of the schools will make it, but Eastern AA, seven will,’ and no reason for that. That’s all we look at. By our book, the schools in that classification and the schools in that district, the schools in that division, have the authority and right to determine how they’re going to have playoffs. Our board will approve it to make sure that it’s equitable.”
MTN Sports: You guys hand out the state championship trophies at state football, state volleyball. Just recap how this fall went in fall sports, financially and any issues that may have arose from your guys’ point of view.
Beckman: “State volleyball this year was very successful, as it has been for the past 15 years now that it’s been combined. Our revenue was down in the first day because of weather, but then it picked right up. We were very pleased with how it ended up. Our football playoffs went well. We don’t have final numbers in regard to the finances. Again, schools will determine how those playoffs are going to be structured. Sometimes you have schools traveling a long ways, but also people have to realize we’re in Montana — we have a long ways between different schools. If we’re going to cross over and have a true playoff-type structure, we’re going to have that at times. But that went well. Cross country was well-attended. Missoula did a fantastic job in hosting that cross country meet. And, of course, we have fall golf, and that was the first time that our board, through a pilot program, have allowed spectators most access, or more access, on our courses, and for both AA and A, that went extremely well. Overall, our fall sports went well.”
MTN Sports: Financially, I know you don’t have the numbers for football yet, but when these tournaments — and I know we talk a lot about it in basketball, because the Class C boys tournament seems to make so much money every year — where does that money go when the tournaments do have that success?
Beckman: “That’s a great question, and I want to thank you for asking that question, because that’s one of the most misconceived things out in our public, is that all of the money goes to the MHSA for postseason events. Really, almost none of the money goes to MHSA for postseason events. Back in the 80s, there was a concern about AAs not having the votes to out-vote the Class C schools, 100 Class C schools. So, someone a lot smarter than me came up with a plan to say, ‘Well, let’s try to appease those AA schools by putting in a different funding formula.’ The funding formula now is, schools pay dues to us, $250 per activity, and that’s our funding, along with corporate sponsorships. Any monies from district, divisional or state or playoffs, 100 percent of those monies — except for state track is the only one, because we wouldn’t know how to figure that out, because of the thousand participants — so, all the money from everything else goes back to the schools, to pay for the expenses for the tournament and then any profit goes back and is split amongst the district, the division or, for state, amongst the schools in the state classification.”
MTN Sports: When you guys are granting bids to host state tournaments, does the financial aspect come into it? Are you guys trying to make as much money as you can for the schools, or are you guys trying to be fair in how you place state tournaments?
Beckman: “We do a little bit of both. For example, if a state tournament bid came in at $17,000 and the other bids, which a lot of them are anymore, zero, we have to understand that those zero bids help our schools, because they’re going to get more money back. Unless we see, for example, Billings might bid a little bit, but a lot of times we have very successful tournaments in Billings and we make quite a bit of money, because we have a large facility and everybody, I think, realizes that we’re going to get a seat. Yes, we do both. Plus, we also don’t want every time that the West is going east or the East is going west, so we want to try to rotate them around geographically.”
MTN Sports: Going forward, not this year but I think next season, all basketball tournaments will be combined, boys and girls for each classification will be at the same site. How does that throw a wrinkle in the state tournament bids, because there’s only select venues that can host those. What’s your guys’ plan of attack, your primary objective in placing those future state tournament bids for the combined tournaments?
Beckman: “We were really nervous about this year, because the Big Sky changed their conference schedule, so they play in that last weekend, where we have our combined state tournaments are always on the last weekend, and that’s because they have divisional tournaments that are set for all of our classifications that may be five-year contracts out on the weekend before. So, they’re all on that last weekend. This year, with that Big Sky Conference change, we were really nervous, because that took (University of Montana and Montana State University) out of the picture. Is that going to happen every year now? We were like, ‘What are we going to do?’ We’ve looked at their Big Sky championship schedule, their tournament schedule, and we should be OK for the next four years, so we’re pretty excited about that. They will all be on that last weekend, and we do have enough facilities. Between the two universities, the Butte Civic Center, the Metra and Great Falls’ Four Seasons, we should have enough to make sure that we’re covered.”
MTN Sports: In the future, we’re probably going to be down to just rotating between those five facilities. We won’t be seeing, unless there’s emergency scenarios, state tournaments at Belgrade or Hamilton anymore?
Beckman: “No, and the problem with that is, we had Title IX complaint filed against us in regards to facilities and having separate boys and girls, and the girls were at, for example, Hamilton and the boys were at Metra. One of the resolutions to that Title IX complaint against the Association is that we’ll have all combined and we’ll have them in venues where there can be enough seating for those. Belgrade is close. It’s sort of on the bubble, because you have 5,500 seats. As you know, covering these events all the years you have, it could be the perfect storm, and we had it one year in A, where we had to turn 1,000-1,500 people away. That could happen, probably, in any of our facilities but maybe not the Metra — pretty close. Class C when Plenty Coups played Roberts, we were pretty close to shutting her down, but we didn’t.”
MTN Sports: Maybe let’s steer away from all the bureaucracy of this. What do you enjoy about being the MHSA executive director?
Beckman: “I think, for me, they talk about dream jobs. I’ve heard that a lot, and it gets to be cliche. But when I was a teacher and a coach for many years, and then I went into administration as an (athletic director), and enjoyed all of that, and then you’re thinking, ‘Well, what else can I do in regard to this particular field?’ Did I want to be a principal? And I saw some of the things principals have to deal with. Did I want to be a superintendent? Oh my gosh, they have to deal with some real tough issues. A lot of people are made for that, but I loved the sports and activities, and that’s where I was based. This was a great job for me to come into as an assistant director, and then to have the opportunity to be the executive director now for the past 15 years, 22 years in the office, has been really enjoyable, that’s for sure.”
MTN Sports: Do you ever get tired of being the bad guy all the time?
Beckman: “We’ve had, through some of our media over the years, we’ve been called the Fun Police and all that kind of stuff. But I don’t really get tired of that, because usually it’s a situation where there’s a rule in place that, No. 1, was put in by the schools, No. 2, they expect us to enforce them, No. 3, they should be enforced. So I don’t have any problem enforcing those rules, because I agree with them. It was probably something that had to be done.”
MTN Sports: Last question for me, you can add anything else you need to at the end. Nationally, you’re going to the National Federation of High School Associations, you’re going to be the president, correct? What does that entail, and what’s that honor like for you?
Beckman: “Being able to serve on the NFHS executive board has been a real treat for me, because, really, I shouldn’t have had the opportunity, because we have five states in our region, and it’s a four-year term, and the executive directors rotate through those in your region, and there’s a rotation. We had a Montana person, Jim Haugen, serve back 15 years ago, and he was also the president in his last term. Really, with the rotation, I would’ve been 80-something by the time I would’ve been able, and I will not be here until 80-something. The states in our section changed the rotation so I could serve. It’s a four-year term. This is my third year, I’m the president elect and next year I’ll be the president, and I’ll get to go out with the executive director of the Federation and meet with all the different state associations and their sections in the month of September, be gone most of September, and do some other things and sort of help to champion some of the ideas that we have here in Montana that Montana administrators, Montana coaches, Montana players, Montana fans have said. I get to be able to champion them on the national level and try to see if we can get some of those things instituted, or at least some points of emphasis, from our thoughts, from our beliefs and from our perspective.