Craig Anderson, executive director of the Illinois High School Association, knows all about the scheduling problems that West Hancock, Quincy Notre Dame and Macomb have for football.
"I feel bad for them," he said. "I wish I had some answers. They're travelling hours and hours to locate teams to play them.
"It's just a terrible position. There are no easy answers in this situation."
Conference lineups around the state have been juggled like never before in the past 10 years, and most of the moves were football-related. Either teams are getting out of conferences that they struggle to win in, or they're looking to be part of conferences that have at least 10 teams so they don't have to search for non-conference games to fill a nine-game schedule.
The West Central Conference, which had nine teams in 2012, lost Monmouth-Roseville, Sherrard, Orion, Rockridge and Princeton to the Three Rivers, Pittsfield to the Sangamo and Illini West to the Prairieland.
Left twisting in the wind are Macomb, West Hancock and Quincy Notre Dame. The closest conferences are the Sangamo (10 teams), the Western Illinois Valley Conference (12 teams) and the Prairieland (12 teams).
"(Teams in those conferences) are comfortable. There's no reason for them to have to expand, even though you have fellow IHSA schools who are in need of help," West Hancock coach Travis Cook said. "You get any further (to join a conference), and there's too much travel every week. If we had to go farther east or north, it would become ridiculous.
Only five other teams are not affiliated with recognized conferences in Illinois, compared to 24 independents two decades ago. Farmer City Blue Ridge is joining the Little Okaw Valley next year. Mount Carmel is the only Illinois member of the Big Eight Conference, an eight-team league in Indiana. Madison fielded a team this year for the first time since 1988. Breese Mater Dei and Metro-East Lutheran have been independents for many years, filling their schedules with teams around the St. Louis area.
West Hancock inquired into joining the Clarence Cannon Conference, a nine-team league based in Northeast Missouri. The CCC lost Mark Twain two years ago and may lose Louisiana after this year, but Cook said the league is not interested in adding West Hancock.
Cook did not have any teams scheduled for 2018 until after getting word from the CCC on Monday. He did schedule three CCC teams -- Monroe City, Centralia and Clark County -- as well as QND and West Hancock, but he still has four open dates to fill.
Quincy Notre Dame still has two dates to fill for 2018, and Raiders coach Bill Connell recently said that if a conference in Chicago were to make an offer to join, he would accept to alleviate the scheduling problems he faces each year.
"Monmouth-Roseville and Illini West didn't jump conferences. They simply solved the same issue that we had," Cook said. "They took the opportunity that was in front of them.
"If you look around the state, you have teams that have switched and switched and switched (leagues), looking for those five wins (to qualify for the playoffs). We've having success right now, and conferences don't want us."
Cook simply called his program's current predicament "frustrating."
"(The IHSA) is just hoping that eventually a conference will accept us in, but that's not a good enough answer," he said. "Now is when the IHSA can step in and say, ‘We can set conferences for everybody if this is what's going to happen.'"
Anderson, who was the administrator for football when he was an assistant executive director, doesn't like what he sees with the shifting conferences.
"Conference jumping, from where I sit, I don't believe it's healthy," he said. "When the conference geography is expanded for the sake of football, and the idea for joining a conference is that it's a better opportunity to get those five wins in football, every other sport within the school suffers as a result of expanded travel."
Anderson says he's seen bylaw proposals made in each of the past eight years that would alleviate the problems that the football playoff format and conference hopping have created.
One proposal was voted on by the IHSA member schools in December 2014. It called for:
º Regular-season competition taking place in regions of 7-9 teams that replace conferences. Regions would have been based on geography and enrollment. The regions would have been valid for two years, with playing schedules determined by formula.
º Each of the eight playoff classes would have been made up of eight regions, with the top four teams from each region qualifying for the playoffs. In each class, four regions would have been placed in a north bracket and four in the south bracket.
The proposal, created by Sycamore athletic director Chauncey Carrick, is similar to the playoff format used in Iowa. Schools would have had no input about their schedule, meaning annual rivalry games for many programs would have been eliminated. It also would have made teams beat similarly sized opponents to qualify for the playoffs.
The proposal was rejected by nearly two-thirds of the schools by a vote of 395-212.
The deadline for proposals for the 2017 ballot is in October, and Anderson said he's heard of a couple of ideas that might be forthcoming.
"We haven't got the magic proposal yet that gets the majority of our membership to agree to change," Anderson said. "Not enough schools have been affected to say, ‘Yes, bring on this change.'"
A variation of the proposal Carrick offered might work, but here's a suggestion: Give teams a chance to schedule a couple of games outside of their region to allow rivalry games to be played.
How about a schedule that allows all of the teams (except for those with 0-8 records) into the playoffs? It would alleviate the need to "find" five victories, and the playoffs could start in Week 9.
As long as teams are searching for the easiest way to get five victories in football, conference shuffling will persist. Seven teams -- Manteno, Lisle, Coal City, Reed-Custer, Wilmington, Peotone and Herscher -- in the Interstate Eight Conference recently informed the four remaining teams -- Streator, Sandwich, Plano and Westmont -- that they are "exploring other conference opportunities." The I-8 has been around for 38 years.
"When you speak to the 95 percent of schools, they may be right now in a conference they're comfortable with," Anderson said. "However, I'm guessing many of them suffered previously in another conference and have forgotten what a bad situation that is. If we can get a proposal that people can really reflect on, they might remember those times when they were uncomfortable."
Anderson says the IHSA board could take action on a proposal without giving the member schools a chance to vote on it, but he believes the schools need to be heard on a significant change like this.
However, if a proposal makes the ballot, he'll make it clear where he stands.
"We're going to add our two cents to it," he said. "Having been a former administrator (at Washington and Stanford Olympia), I know when athletic directors or principals are making decisions about changing a conference, in their mind, they're hearing from their school board or their local communities and hearing, ‘This is a better situation for us.' It might be the case, and they do jump.
"There are things we can adjust where football isn't such a driving force in making those decisions."