David Adam

State appears to be split on district football proposal

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Dec. 1, 2018 10:35 pm Updated: Dec. 2, 2018 1:19 am

The implementation of geographic districts for Illinois prep football teams is one step from becoming part of the Illinois High School Association's constitution and by-laws.

But it's a huge step.

The IHSA's 818 member schools will have a two-week window starting Monday to vote on the proposal. The IHSA's eight-person football advisory committee supported it in May, and the 35-member legislative committee voted earlier this week to put it on the ballot for schools to decide. The final vote total will be announced on Dec. 18.

Getting a simple majority of votes cast, however, won't be easy.

Nearly 73 percent of schools participated in straw votes at 28 town hall meetings held throughout the state this month. IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson has said about 53 percent of the votes cast did not support the proposal.

However, that also means 27 percent of schools either cast a "no opinion" vote at the town hall meetings or didn't cast a vote at all. Do the math, and approximately 200 votes are waiting to be swung.

A similar district football proposal was on the ballot in 2014, and it failed by a vote of 395-212. The recent town hall meetings show that support for district football has grown.

Rushville-Industry principal Brad Gooding is a member of the legislative committee, representing Hancock, Brown and Adams counties. He says if the proposal passes, "it's going to be by the narrowest of margins."

Asked what the feeling in the room was like when the advisory committee met on Wednesday, Gooding said, "Different parts of the state were highly in favor of it, and other parts were like, no, we need to stay where we're at.

"The first time we met (about ballot proposals) on Nov. 5, just based on our first vote, there was overwhelming support to put it on the ballot. Then we came back (Wednesday), and we had all been to the town hall meetings, and the gap narrowed to some degree."

After talking with people around the state who have followed this issue, this much is clear. The concept of district football is not popular in Chicago, but it has much more support downstate and among smaller schools.

Scheduling problems caused by unbridled conference swapping is at the root of why schools would support district play. Teams have swapped conferences to either join a league where it would be easier to earn five victories to become playoff eligible, or they've joined to large conferences to make sure their nine-game schedules are filled every fall.

Quincy Notre Dame, West Hancock and Macomb can't find a spot in any of those conferences, so they are forced to travel all over the state (or to other states) to find games. QND Athletic Director Bill Connell says it's a problem he's dealt with for more than 20 years.

"As an old coach, if you run the same play three times and you've lost 12 yards, hopefully the fourth time you run it, you try to do something different," he said. "If what you do doesn't work, you have to change it at some point, and I'm telling you, it's not working for the state. So change it to something different.

"I don't hear people in Missouri (where district play is used) complaining they can't find football games. It's gotta be better than what we're doing."

The number of schools facing scheduling problems is growing. However, many schools appear to be content with their conferences. As an example, Chicago-area experts say members of the 15-team Chicago Catholic League and the 10-team East Suburban Catholic Conference aren't likely to vote for district football. They're content with the schedules they've created against each other.

And in a projected Class 8A district created by Steve Soucie, sports editor of the Joliet Herald-News, Catholic powerhouses like St. Rita and Mount Carmel were lumped into an eight-team district with six Public League teams, creating multiple blowout games that would see implementation of a running clock.

The loss of conference play is a concern for Scott Douglas, athletic director at Quincy High School. The Western Big Six is celebrating its 50th year, and the league is adding Sterling and Geneseo for the 2019-2020 season.

"I'm really torn," Douglas said. "I totally get it. (District play) makes sense to me in a lot of ways, especially for those teams that are struggling outside of a conference. That's a big deal. But on the flip side, I love conference play. (District play) will be really bad for conference play or even destroy it.

"It's still a discussion topic for us. We don't talk about it every day, but we talk about it often. Honestly, I don't know where we stand."

The proposal doesn't answer all of the questions schools have.

"Right now, there's a lot of unknowns, and that's what scares people," Gooding said.

The IHSA opted not to create sample districts as part of the discussion process, figuring that an sample produced in 2018 would not reflect potential co-ops that are created before 2021. More and more schools are considering 8-man football, which also would affect the number of teams playing 11-man football. However, sample districts might have helped schools better understand the proposal.

District play based on geography would have little effect on, or possibly improve, travel for many teams. However, in the only "downstate" Class 7A district projected by Soucie, Moline and Quincy would be paired with four teams in the St. Louis area. That wouldn't bother Quincy, but it's not likely Moline will be in favor of losing games with Rock Island, Galesburg, Alleman and East Moline to travel nearly four hours south.

Some schools are concerned that the two non-district games will become little more than meaningless scrimmages because they don't count toward playoff qualification. Other schools like the non-district games because it will allow them to play rivalry games against other schools in other classes.

Any reason that makes the proposal enticing to one school can also be why another school will vote no.

Maybe the proposal needs a little tinkering.

District play allows for only 64 schools (or a few more in some instances) in each class, so reducing the number of classes might help provide more schools available to schedule. Schools that don't like the two non-district games might like 10-team districts better. Schools that want to maintain conferences might like four-team districts.

District football appears to be coming closer to reality in Illinois, and that would be a good thing.

But maybe it will take another year of discussion to get most of the state to agree.