Iron Mountain, Kingsford reckon with football rivalry’s end

IM officials cite scheduling needs caused end of rivalry; Kingsford AD calls it ‘insensitive’

It’s a phone call Joe Pontbriand never thought he’d make when he took over in July as athletic director at Iron Mountain.

But on Nov. 28, driving along US-141, he made the call. On the other end of the line was Kingsford athletic director Al Unger.

After sitting in a five-hour meeting with other West PAC athletic directors finalizing football schedules for the 2018 season, Pontbriand had the news. With a nine-game conference schedule, there was no room for the 94th annual rivalry football game between Iron Mountain and Kingsford. There wouldn’t come a chance for either team to break the rivalry series deadlock at 45-45-3.

“I called him and I let him know that this is final, the conference decided to go with nine conference games, two of which were crossover. Unfortunately that’s not going to involve Kingsford. That’s a tough call to make, being my first year here,” Pontbriand said. “Being my first year here. I’m not trying to come in and change tradition. That wasn’t my vision. My vision was to maintain nine games with an 11-man program. I know that’s difficult for Al scheduling games and I know it’s difficult for the (Great Northern Conference) schools.”

During the summer, the West PAC accepted Norway, Munising, Lake Linden-Hubbell and Bark River-Harris, which inversely meant schools that scheduled them in 2018 had lost those games. Schedules for schools in the Mid-Peninsula Conference unraveled.

Unger disagreed with Pontbriand’s point that the rivalry game had to end. After all, both schools already had a signed contract to play out the 2018 game on Week 7, Oct. 5. Unger said he thought the merger would have been for 2019.

“Conferences have been realigned and merged always throughout the state. Wisconsin did it from the state level, at the WIAA level and they know how important rivalry games are to communities,” Unger said. “So whenever they’ve created mega-conferences like 12 teams or more, they’ve always allowed a floater date, bye date, for continuing on with that rivalry. Perfect example — Menominee, Marinette — there’s a cross-state rivalry that they were very sensitive to and they let them continue on with it.

“There’s no reason why this couldn’t have happened. There really isn’t. To lock up a nine-game schedule with no regard for playing a rivalry game, to me, it only tells me one thing. Why wouldn’t Iron Mountain and Negaunee not want to advocate for that important game? If they truly wanted this game to continue, they would have advocated for it. It’s my understanding that they didn’t.”

Pontbriand defended his approach to the conference with respect to the rivalry games.

“It was brought up at a meeting, it was talked about,” he said. “The response was to keep inter-conference matchups. Could I have said more and pound my fists on the table? Probably, but we wanted to keep it business professional. Us (Iron Mountain and Negaunee) going in and demanding things doesn’t suit well for the conference.”

‘Something had to give’

Iron Mountain Public Schools superintendent Raphael Rittenhouse, who was familiar with Iron Mountain’s consideration for conference changes that began in 2015 before Pontbriand’s arrival, said the football schedule was the priority after it had fallen apart.

“The driving force behind this was truly building a schedule for next year,” Rittenhouse said. “When I was first approached, there was no question that immediately (Pontbriand) was saying as an athletic director he’s never had to build this many games. It just isn’t done. It’s impossible to accomplish that type of task at this point in the year. Replacing one game is hard enough, redoing your entire schedule is impossible. Always, that was at the forefront of the conversation and the fallout is obviously, when you line up to get in a conference, that’s what happens. And so obviously that’s the driving force.”

Unger, whose Kingsford football team plays in the five-team GNC, is left to fill a five-game hole in the schedule each season. He said the Flivvers’ schedule is completed well before a year in advance.

But Iron Mountain had a tentative nine-game schedule when Pontbriand took over as athletic director. Kingsford was on that schedule. When the West PAC accepted the four schools in July, Pontbriand said he lost two games — Norway and West Iron County. And with September approaching, he still had two games to fill for 2018, a time when most schools have finalized schedules and referee crews lined up. Other Mid-Peninsula Conference teams besides Iron Mountain had worse scheduling woes after the West PAC expanded to 12 teams.

“Ishpeming’s schedule was a little bit different because they were still holding on to some schools that were in the Mid Eastern Conference,” Pontbriand said. “They were playing schools such as Norway. This year, when Norway went to the West PAC, they lost them. They lost a few games because of the merger, the MEC falling apart and some of those schools going into the West PAC. Those schools already had a schedule — the original West PAC had some games. So Ishpeming’s schedule fell apart. They were looking at five, six games at the most. They were talking to us about playing twice, that’s what it was coming to. We had seven games. Westwood had seven games. We had Kingsford, but those schools didn’t, or Menominee, or Escanaba, Marquette, or the Soo. It was just scary times for everybody. You need eight games on your schedule to be able to qualify for the playoffs. It was looking like some schools weren’t going to get there.

“We (MPC) decided as a conference minus Manistique and Gladstone to collectively apply to the West PAC,” Pontbriand added. “We were all competing for the same games on a lot of the same weeks and we already played each other. Ultimately there were really no games to be had. Something had to give.”

Unger said he wanted to see Iron Mountain put more effort into saving the rivalry game. He called the lack of effort ‘insensitive.’

“That’s what it comes down to. If you care about high school sports, you got to look at it big picture,” Unger said. “The decisions we’re making, how is that going to affect other schools we do business with? Either you care, or you don’t care.”

‘I’m not buying it’

Unger cited a letter written a year ago by Iron Mountain head football coach Robin Marttila. Unger said it showed an intention on ending the rivalry.

In the 370-word letter dated Dec. 8, 2016, Marttila addressed a letter to the Iron Mountain athletic committee. In the first paragraph Marttila said, “It is my professional opinion that we should drop Kingsford immediately. It is simply what is best for our kids at Iron Mountain.”

Marttila supported his recommendation, saying, “the discrepancy in the enrollment between Iron Mountain and Kingsford is growing too far apart. With this comes a safety issue on the field.”

“I’m not buying it,” Unger said. “We know they wanted to eliminate us off their schedule to begin with.”

Last season, the Mountaineers finished 1-8 with a roster that hovered at about 17 players. Injuries further limited them. Marttila defended his letter against Unger’s point, adding that the need to secure a viable nine-game schedule was a priority.

“Safety in football in general is a big element, as it should be,” Marttila said. “We’ve talked for a number of years now. I understand Kingsford wants to play the game, I get that. But again we have to do what’s best for our kids at Iron Mountain.

“I’ve talked to (Kingsford head football coach) Chris Hofer the last few years about Iron Mountain football and where it’s going. We’ve talked about the discrepancy in enrollments,” Marttila added. “Our athletic directors have talked about that. We talked about the safety of our players. That’s just part of the game of football. I talked to some kids and they’ve looked forward to playing in this game for a long time. I think they understand where it’s at as far as our football schedule. It’s sad to see it go. For the community it’s sad to see it go – the response to it. It’s sad, it’s disappointing. I want people to understand both sides of it. What would also be disappointing is if we had four football games next season. That’d be very disappointing, without a doubt.”

Hofer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The rivalry’s future

With the enrollment cutoff for playoff-eligible eight-player teams at 203 students, some West PAC schools are close to deciding whether they’ll transition to eight-player programs in the near future.

Pontbriand said if a hypothetical situation arose where some teams dropped out of the West PAC and Iron Mountain had an open date, he would be open to playing Kingsford. Marttila said he was also open to the possibility.

“If it was in the best interest of our kids, we would do that,” Marttila said.

When asked about resuming the rivalry, Unger left it open-ended.

“I guess we’ll wait and see what happens,” he said.