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The Friday Night Lights effect

Allen High School’s football team has transformed this once-small Texas town

In a state that often boasts about size, no town does big bigger than Allen, Texas.

A suburb northeast of Dallas, Allen is home to the state’s largest high school, both in terms of enrollment (6,664 teenagers) and campus size (roughly 880,000 square feet). The school’s enormous 750-man marching band covers most of the home field at Eagle Stadium, which, yes, has the biggest capacity of any high school football stadium catering to only one team in the state.

And on Texas’s most revered stage, Allen wins big. From 2012 to 2015, the football team won 57 straight games en route to three consecutive state titles, earning national attention for its dominance and a place among the greatest teams to ever play under Texas’s famed Friday night lights.

But listening to the old-timers gathered around the counter at Rodenbaugh’s appliance store—the town’s oldest business in its quaint downtown area—one gets the sense that underneath Allen’s king-sized presence on the football field is a community still rooted in its beginnings as a farm town, before Dallas’s suburban sprawl reached Collin County and turned it into one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation.

“It’s been a conscious attempt to keep our city, our community feeling like a small town,” said E.T. Boon, a local dentist who also served on Allen’s school board. “Everyone’s pulling together. You still feel like you’re connected. You still get the feeling of what’s going on.”

How did a Texas town with the biggest, well, everything come to think of itself as the little guy on the block? The answer, like many things in the state, is found in its high school football team.

A one-horse town

Ken Purcell was an assistant football coach at Plano High School in the 1970s when the Wildcats, buoyed by the city’s booming population, became one of Texas’s preeminent football programs, winning a state title in 1977.

But the opening of Plano’s second high school in 1981—Plano East—threatened to upend Plano High’s budding dynasty. When the head football coach job opened at Allen High School just a few miles north on Highway 75 in 1982, Purcell pounced on the opportunity.

“What attracted me to Allen was that it’s a one-horse town,” Purcell said. “If you can get the community united behind one high school in Texas, and then you combine that with a really good football team, it’s a part of our culture in Texas.”

An affluent growing suburban town with one high school is an ideal condition for building a high school football winner in Texas. The problem is that condition rarely lasts. Inevitably, the town’s student body outgrows the high school, the school board votes to open a new school to alleviate crowding, and the pool of players—and the community’s allegiance—are split in two, or in some cases, three, four, and five.

That never happened in Allen, though. In the late 1960s, Allen was mostly farmland for corn and wheat. Residents worked in the field or commuted to nearby Richardson, McKinney, and Dallas for work. Dallas’s population soon boomed behind relocating businesses, Hispanic and coastal migration, and a cultural focus on child-rearing—Dallas has one of the highest proportions of children of the nation’s largest metro areas, at 27.9 percent.

But instead of growing up, Dallas grew out. People who took jobs on the east side of Dallas moved to the communities along Highway 75 instead of in the city because they offered a short commute to work and a quiet place to raise their children. Going north out of Dallas along Highway 75, Richardson was the first city to experience explosive growth, then Plano, Allen’s neighbor to the south.

Soon, Collin County’s four major cities—Plano, Frisco, McKinney, and Allen—were rapidly transforming from rural communities into affluent suburbs. While Plano especially embraced its newfound urbanity, Allen, the smallest of the four cities by land area, tried to keep its small-town feel by rallying behind its one high school, and, of course, its high school football team.

“The town is not very big,” said James Kerr, owner of Allen Flower Shop, the city’s second-oldest business. “That seems like we’re a small community still, but when it started to grow it took off.”

City of Allen

As population in the Dallas-Fort Worth area ballooned, Plano (71 square miles), Frisco (62 square miles), and McKinney (62 square miles) were ultimately forced to build more high schools to accommodate its growing student enrollment. Plano, with a population of 286,000 people today, now has three senior high schools, as does McKinney, which has about 160,000 residents.

Allen is less than half the size of its Collin County neighbors at just about 27 square miles, and because there’s no unincorporated land around it, there was always a hard ceiling to how big the city could get.

Under that assumption, in 1995 the Allen Independent School District put together a committee called AHS 2000 to explore options for expanding Allen’s original high school, now its freshman center, to accommodate growth. Instead of opening a second high school like its neighbors, Allen passed a bond package to build a massive new Allen High School that opened in 1999 in the heart of the city, just off Highway 75.

"The AHS 2000 community study group felt the school district could handle the growth with one high school based on what they knew at the time,’” said Tim Carroll, chief information officer for Allen ISD. “Those numbers have gone above projections in recent years as the zoning keeps changing, so we have had to adjust. Most of the committee people in the room in 1995 wanted Allen to retain its single high school identity as a community. This is our high school and it represents our community, we want to try to keep it this way if we can.”

Today, Allen’s population sits just shy of 100,000, 72 percent of which is white, according to the 2010 U.S. census. The median income is $103,051, and the more-than-projected growth has turned Allen High School into the largest high school in the state of Texas—by a lot.

According to the University Interscholastic League, the organizing body for extracurricular activities in Texas, Allen leads the state in enrollment with 6,664 students, followed by the three Plano high schools—Plano West (5,654), Plano Senior High (5,197.5), and Plano East (5342.5). No other Texas high school has more than 5,000 kids, and only 11 other schools have more than 4,000.

School districts in Texas with comparable total enrollments have at least two high schools, and in some cases have three. Allen High School sits on a 300-acre lot and has expanded to approximately 880,000 square feet, with 219 classrooms, a 1,500-seat performing arts center, and student-run restaurant.

Texas Education Agency

Allen is hardly the small community it was even 20 years ago, but an odd paradox in the culture of the city is that residents regularly credit its behemoth of a high school with helping preserve the town’s intimate culture.

“It’s a strange town in that it’s almost got a small-town feel to it, but it’s a big town,” said Chris Tripucka, owner of Eagle Designs, an Allen High School apparel store just off the school’s campus. “It’s because of this football program. It’s because of the school. It’s because of the band being the size that they are.”

For the 2017 season, 480 kids signed up to play football at Allen High School, giving it three freshman teams, two junior varsity teams, and the varsity team, which is currently undefeated and two wins away from the school’s fifth state title since 2008.

Allen’s size can be a double-edged sword for parents and students. In a program with 480 kids, only 22 get to start on Friday nights for the Allen Eagles. But the size of the student body gives the football team a built-in advantage in the form of a huge pool of players from which the coaches can form a team. There’s no easier way for a town in Texas to attract critics than for its high school football team to start winning state championships, and the school’s rivals often remind them of their institutional edge.

The pace of growth has started to slow, as Allen only has so much land it can still develop for new housing. Carroll says he’s noticed fewer new subdivisions and more apartments, townhouses, and patio homes going up in town, but multifamily residences tend to cater to single people and couples, meaning they may not bring in new students for the high school.

While it’s hard to project where the town’s population and student enrollment will max out, one thing is certain—there will only be one high school in Allen.

“In 1988 I was in a charter bus leaving Allen in the afternoon because we were playing Kilgore in the quarterfinals at Texas Stadium,” Purcell said. “I got choked up because as we drove out of Allen on Highway 75, someone had put a big sign out there that said ‘last one out of town turn out the lights.’ That’s the way it was. One high school, one team. There wasn’t a person left in town that night when we’re going to Texas Stadium to play in the state quarterfinals.”

The Taj Mahal of high school football stadiums

When E.T. Boon moved to Allen in the 1960s to become the town’s first full-time dentist, he recalls Allen football games as a relatively modest affair. It was a way for the community, then hardly 1,000 people, to come together to support the kids in town and the school system.

The stadium at the time wasn’t really a stadium at all. It was a field with two bleachers on either side. There wasn’t even a fence around it. People who didn’t want to pay the price of admission would park at the edge of the field and stay in their cars to watch the game.

“One of the primary objectives during the football games was to collect enough money where we could pay the [referees],” Boon said. “Superintendent would come down to the ticket office at halftime. One day he said, ‘I hope we got enough money to pay the officials and not take anything out of the general fund.’ And we did.”

It’s hard to imagine this was ever the setting of an Allen High School football game. Today, the team plays in the massive and opulent Eagle Stadium, which at the time of its opening in 2012 was the most expensive high school football stadium ever built, at $60 million.

Allen Independent School District

At 18,000 seats, it’s the largest stadium in Texas that only caters to one team; stadiums in Mesquite (20,000), Fort Worth (18,500), and San Antonio (18,500) have slightly higher capacities, but serve five schools or more. Eagle Stadium also includes practice facilities underneath it for the golf and wrestling teams, in addition to a mixed-use weight room. The press box has three stories, one for the media, one for coaches, and one for administrators.

There are few venues that can match Eagle Stadium in its Texas high school football pageantry, with the school’s imposing band covering the entire field and cheerleaders lined on the sideline from end zone to end zone. The stadium’s inaugural season in 2012 saw Allen win the first of three consecutive state championships, and the Eagles have yet to lose a game in it, adding to its electric atmosphere on Friday nights.

Allen’s stadium was the first shot in what media are calling an “arms race” in Texas high school football stadiums. McKinney, Allen’s rival to the north, and Katy, a Houston suburb with another storied high school football program, responded by approving bond packages that included even more expensive stadiums at $70 million. But with both seating “only” 12,000, the prices may reflect rising construction costs more than anything. Katy’s stadium, which serves eight high schools, opened this year. McKinney’s stadium, which serves three high schools, opens next year.

Eagle Stadium solved very real logistical issues that existed with Allen’s old stadium. The old stadium had only 7,000 built-in seats and minimal parking. As the team turned into a powerhouse and the town’s population boomed, more fans in town wanted to go to the games. The school district was paying increasing amounts of money to bring in temporary bleachers, some of which offered only obstructed views of the field, and still they had to turn fans away. Parking was such a nightmare that some fans were forced to walk miles to the game.

“We definitely needed the stadium,” Tripucka said. “If we’d won those championships with that old field I don’t know what you would have done. People were getting to the point where they couldn’t go anymore. I couldn’t get season tickets and my kid played, because nobody gave them up.”

When pressed on why Allen needed to build a stadium so big, district officials pointed to the school’s enormous enrollment and to the fact that the town only has one high school. When a school district adds more high schools, allegiances in town divide. Even when one of those teams is winning, it doesn’t spark the same intensity—and thus the same attendance —from the community. In Allen, the entire town is nuts for its team, which in the last 10 years has entered every season as one of the favorites to win it all

But at a time when the Texas state government has been less than willing to put money into public education budgets, Eagle Stadium has been used as an example of misplaced priorities in the public education system by school advocates who believe football plays an outsized role.

“When you’re trying to get the legislature to realize they’re not putting enough money into public education and that they need to do that, one of the things they bring up quite often is, ‘Well, wait a minute, y’all are going out and building all these Taj Majal football stadiums,’” said Ray Freeman, executive director of the Texas school finance research and advocacy organization Equity Center. “‘You must have enough money to do everything else or you wouldn’t be wasting it on a football stadium.’ It’s an impediment, lightning-rod wise, for sure.”

Allen High School football stadium.

Football gets all the attention when a new stadium is built, but lost in the conversation is the fact that the facility is used by multiple extracurricular programs. Football games in Texas showcase not only the football team, but the band, cheerleaders, and drill team, which have their own competitions that are every bit as intense for the students as sports. Parents of those students go to the game not to see a football game, but to see their children perform for the crowd.

Drawing a straight line from the money used for building stadiums to the money cut from education programs or teacher salaries is difficult because the pool of money used to operate schools and the pool of money used to pay for facility construction are separate.

School districts raise money for education through property taxes to fund maintenance and operations (M&O), which includes teacher salaries and basic expenses accrued by schools. To raise money for building new facilities, like high schools or stadiums, districts adopt a separate tax, called interest and sinking (I&S).

Bond packages that use I&S funds must be approved by voters. In communities with multiple high schools or older populations that have little connection to the school system, the inclusion of stadiums or upgrades to sporting facilities can lead to a bond package’s defeat at the polls. However, in districts where the football team is a point of community pride, a stadium addition can actually help pass a bond package that includes mostly facilities and facility upgrades for academics and the arts.

M&O funds can’t be used to repay bonds used for construction projects unless they’re surplus funds from a previous year, so when stadium proponents are charged with fleecing education for a luxury item related to football, they say the money isn’t coming from the same pool. But while I&S funds are supposed to be used only for the repayment of bonds used for construction, wealthy school districts have started using those funds to pay for M&O activity—such as school buses, band uniforms, computers, etc.—to get around laws that distribute their excess funds to districts in poorer communities.

In 1993, Texas passed a law colloquially referred to as “Robin Hood.” Using a convoluted formula to assess both wealth and need, Robin Hood takes a portion of a wealthy school district’s M&O money to fund schools and projects across the state, including poor districts where property values are low, hence the name. But I&S funds are not subject to Robin Hood, and school districts are not legally bound to use those funds for the purpose listed on the voting ballot. So rather than raise the tax rate on M&O funds and risk some of that money going to the state for redistribution, wealthy school districts will pass a bond package and use the money to fund school operations.

“A lot of times in the information they put out to voters trying to get them to pass the bond issue, they will even use the argument that because there is no recapture, we get to keep all the money on this side and it frees up money to use on M&O,” Freeman said. “That’s an argument they frequently use, and it works.”

Quarterback Kyler Murray was a perfect 42-0 as a starter at Allen, leading the Eagles to three consecutive state titles from 2012 to 2014.

The combination of M&O funds being restricted from use to repay bond packages and I&S funds not being subject to recapture allows wealthy school districts to have their stadium cake and eat it, too. Freeman says Allen isn’t wealthy enough to make using I&S funds for M&O purposes worth the trouble, but the optics of Allen building a huge stadium while Dallas ISD struggles to keep teachers inflame local critics.

The housing market collapse in 2008 saw property values across the United State plummet, but Texas wasn’t hit nearly as hard as states like Florida and Nevada. Much of Texas’s property values have exceeded their pre-crisis peaks, giving towns the tax leverage to upgrade their school facilities for the 21st century.

Because stadiums are a matter of local choice that is voted on by the public, there’s little political will in the Texas government to make changes in school finance as it relates to football stadiums. Not to mention that the wealthier suburbs, whose school districts are more likely to want to build a new stadium, are better represented.

An effort in the Texas legislature to reform the “outdated” formulas used to assess wealth and need and inject more money into the school system was stripped at the last minute from a bill signed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in August. Instead, the bill added some money and formed a commission to investigate possible school finance reform in the future.

In a deeply conservative, liberty-minded state, school finance reform efforts tend to revolve around pet issues on the right, like charter schools and school vouchers. The Robin Hood law, anathema to conservative orthodoxy, exists in a perpetual state of peril. For now, the process for funding high school football stadiums is here to stay.

Still, for all the focus on Allen’s football team, the school also receives positive academic reviews. According to Niche, which gives it an A-plus rating and ranks it 41st among Texas public high schools, including magnet schools, Allen has a 19-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio and a 97 percent graduation rate.

Universities that invest heavily in college football often argue that when the football team is winning, it results in more applications to the school and thus a better pool of students from which to pick. That’s debatable, but James Kerr, who served on Allen’s school board for 23 years, believes a similar dynamic has developed in Allen since the football team started winning.

The added attention to the school, he believes, has led to parents moving to Allen so their kids can go to Allen High School, whether it be for football, band, or academics. Winning Texas high school football teams are regularly accused of recruiting players from out of town. People around Allen, and any successful high school football team, answer that charge with an old sports adage: Build it and they will come.

“We don’t have to recruit, but people move here anyway because that’s where they want to be,” Kerr said. “We can’t stop that. That’s one of the things that’s happened, for better or worse. It’s led to more growth.”