David Adam

Creation of football districts may lead to other changes

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jan. 30, 2019 1:30 am Updated: Jan. 30, 2019 10:14 pm

A month has passed since the Illinois High School Association member schools voted to implement a district scheduling system for football starting with the 2021 season.

The district football proposal passed by a vote of 324-307, with 69 schools casting a "no opinion" vote. However, some coaches interviewed after the vote was announced admitted that they would have liked to have seen a proposed district format in advance and might have changed their mind.

"I don't understand how you can vote for something and change an entire football system when you don't know what it looks like," Pana coach Trevor Higgins told the Decatur Herald-Review.

"We had no answers on how the playoffs would look," Bloomington coach Scott Godfrey told the Pantagraph.

The ripple effects of the switch to districts haven't taken effect yet, but be prepared for a few other possibilities.


Another vote is possible

A proposal to go back to the old format (teams must win five games to qualify for the playoffs) is likely to be submitted to the football advisory committee because the December vote was so close.

Would the football advisory committee consider undoing what it just did? The committee consists of eight members, and the terms of three members expire in 2019 -- Andy Lutzenkirchen from Naperville Central, Josh Jostes from Maroa-Forsyth and Jeremy Adolphson from Monmouth-Roseville. All three of them were in favor of the district proposal that was sent to the legislative committee. Their replacements have not been named.

Steve Soucie, sports editor of the Joliet Herald-News, has his finger on the pulse of Chicago-area football. He believes if the district proposal were to be voted on today, the results would be different.

"I've had 10 people who told me off the record that they voted for it, but now after seeing it, they would strongly consider changing their vote or at least having a longer and more drawn-out conversation about it," Soucie said.

One possible change to a new proposal would be to allow only schools that have football teams to vote. Voting on by-law amendment proposals was at an all-time high this year, with 702 of 818 member schools casting a ballot. However, only 548 teams play football.

Another idea that could be floated is to allow just one vote per team instead of one vote per school. Co-op teams like Unity-Payson or West Hancock (Warsaw and Hamilton) actually get two votes.


Old conferences might become new

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

Going to district play essentially eliminates conferences in football. With eight classes and teams being grouped in eight-team districts, the first two weeks of the season are the only opportunities for teams to play non-district foes. The results of those games will have no bearing on district play.

Many teams will resurrect old rivalries during the first two weeks. Illini West vs. West Hancock and Brown County vs. Rushville-Industry make sense.

Joining large football conferences also forced some schools to send their teams on lengthy weekday road trips for other sports. Some schools already are talking about going back to the conferences they left to reduce travel.

District play will help many teams play against old rivals, but in some cases, it will prevent teams from playing old rivals.

No school in the state was hurt more by the move to districts than Moline. Moline is the only Class 7A school in the Western Big Six Conference, so the only way it can play nearby rivals Rock Island, Alleman, Galesburg or United Township is in the first two games. It will be lumped into either a Chicago-area district or a St. Louis-area district.

Plainfield Central is the only Class 7A school in the Southwest Prairie Conference, which means it won't be in the same district as city rivals Plainfield East, Plainfield North or Plainfield South. Algonquin Jacobs, the only Class 7A school in the Fox Valley Conference, won't be in the same district as three conference rivals in Crystal Lake that are less than 10 miles away.


8-man football becoming force

One reason why the IHSA didn't show schools an example of what districts might look like in 2020 is because of the number of teams considering 8-man football.

Seven schools in Illinois played 8-man football in 2018. That number is expected to increase to 11 or 12 in 2019 and grow from there. Some schools that now form co-ops for 11-man football are considering breaking up and playing as 8-man teams.

The IHSA typically requires about 10 percent of schools play an "emerging sport" before it recognizes it as an official sport. The IHSA has 818 member schools, so about 80 schools typically would need to play a sport for a state championship to be offered. However, IHSA executive director Craig Anderson has said an exception could be made for 8-man football because it's a subset of an existing sport.

As more teams choose to play 8-man football, the number of teams playing 11-man drops. Eight classes of eight districts with eight teams calls for 512 teams necessary for district play. Thirty-two teams in the Chicago Public League weren't eligible for consideration for the IHSA playoffs in 2018, leaving only 516 teams.

One of the complaints with the district proposal is that teams are limited to 64 potential opponents. The IHSA should consider putting all 8-man teams in Class 1A and the rest in the seven remaining classes, allowing for more potential opponents. (Example: If only 500 teams played 11-man football, each class would have at least 71 teams.)


Watch out for the Chicago Catholic schools

The Chicago Catholic League is bringing 14 schools to a merger with the 10-team East Suburban Catholic League for football in 2019. Some coaches believe the football merger is the first step towards a merger for more sports. The two leagues merged together from 1996 to 2002 as the Catholic Metropolitan Conference.

The yet-to-be named conference brings together some of the state's powerhouse programs such as Brother Rice, Lombard Montini, Providence Catholic, Mount Carmel and Joliet Catholic.

District play, which calls for teams to be grouped based on geography, would instead put some of those teams against overmatched teams from the Chicago Public League.

An example of how districts could be aligned was proposed by Soucie last May. One of his Class 7A districts lumped Hubbard, Kelly, Lincoln Park, Schurz and Von Steuben from the Public League with Mount Carmel and St. Rita. One of his 6A districts had Lombard Montini paired with Juarez, Little Village and Phoenix Military.

The Catholic schools would go from playing in one of the top football conferences in the Midwest to districts with multiple opportunities for running clocks.

The IHSA considers only geography, not the records of teams, when placing teams in sectionals for all sports. Should the IHSA change that policy when teams are put into districts or risk making some teams play several noncompetitive opponents?

The merger for football appears to be a sign that Chicago's Catholic schools are locked arm in arm. Would the Catholic schools consider leaving the IHSA to play in their own league? Don't bet against those kinds of talks already happening.

"I've heard that rumble but not from anybody official," Soucie said. "The Catholic schools will give (district football) a try, but we'll have to see what the backlash is when Mount Carmel (a Class 7A semifinalist last fall) plays Hyde Park (which lost 52-0 to Montini last season)."

If the Catholic schools were to secede from the IHSA, nothing would prevent them from the recruiting of prep athletes -- which they already are accused of doing.

"The IHSA would have no ability to legislate them at all," Soucie said.

No one has come up with a magic proposal that addresses all of the concerns schools have with district play. Reducing the number of teams in each district could address some of them.

Just because schools voted for district play a month ago doesn't mean changes won't be made before the fall of 2021.