CHAMPAIGN — Steve Kouri was nervous.
Palm-sweating, anxiety-ridden, biting-your-fingernails-type nervous.
After 77 years, the Illinois high school boys’ basketball state tournament had moved away from Champaign.
Away from the Assembly Hall, the state’s most well-known basketball venue, and its precursor, Huff Hall.
Away from memories made by players like Quinn Buckner. Anthony Smedley. Ben Wilson. Marcus Liberty. Bruce Douglas. Kevin Garnett. Johnny Orr. Marty Simmons. And many more.
Away from memories of coaches who roamed the sidelines like Vergil Fletcher. Steve Goers. Sonny Cox. Bob Hambric. Gordie Kerkman. Gene Pingatore. Ron Felling. Jerry Leggett. Bennie Lewis. And many more.
To Carver Arena. Downtown Peoria.
Goodbye vast spaces of parking lots with farmland nearby.
Hello nearby parking garages with the Illinois River in the background.
Gone were the 16,000-plus seats in a bowl-like setting found at the Assembly Hall. In were 11,100 seats at Carver Arena, neatly laid out in two levels on Bradley’s home court.
When Wayne McClain and his Peoria Manual squad beat Harvey Thornton 65-53 in the Class AA state championship game on March 18, 1995, it marked the end of a historic stay in Champaign.
When Sean Taylor and his Shelbyville team tipped off the first game of the Class A state tournament against Mendota on March 8, 1996, a new part of history began.
A part of history that Kouri, a Peoria City councilman at the time who left that post in 1997 and is now a 10th Judicial Court judge in Peoria, had helped create.
“I know that first year, there were almost 300 media credentials issued, and we all were thinking, ‘What’s going to go wrong?’ ” Kouri said with a laugh 17 years later. “We’d never done it before. We were far from overconfident, and that helped us, too. We just had good people. That, more than anything, is what helped some of us who were battling nerves. It went pretty good the first year, and we built off of that.”
Indeed they have. Or haven’t.
Depends which camp you belong to.
There’s the pro-Peoria sentiment Kouri and others have.
“I think it’s gone very well,” IHSA executive director Marty Hickman said. “There are some unique features of Peoria that have made it attractive to our fans and teams. One of them is the proximity of hotels and things to do that are close to the site. I think people have enjoyed the convenience of that.”
Then there’s the anti-Peoria crowd.
“I’ve always said and I’ve written it before that it should have stayed in Champaign,” said Taylor Bell, the legendary former Chicago Sun-Times preps columnist who wrote the book “Sweet Charlie, Dike, Cazzie, and Bobby Joe: High School Basketball in Illinois,” in 2004. “I haven’t been to Peoria for the last few years, but I was there for the first several years. They did a good job and a wonderful job with the hotels, fans and the banquet for the teams. I thought they deserved to keep it. Champaign just frittered it away. It’s a shame because the tournament belongs in the Assembly Hall. Assembly Hall is a masterpiece, and Carver Arena is just another gym.”
And then there’s the in-between crowd of current coaches, former coaches and fans who see the benefit of having the state tournament in Peoria but came to know the state tournament as a Champaign fixture.
“I think Peoria does a great job holding it, but as a kid growing up, I thought it was a big deal to play at the state school,” said Sean Harrington, who played in Peoria after leading Elgin High School to the 1998 Class AA state tournament before playing at the Assembly Hall during his playing career with Illinois. “My dad was a high school coach, so I’ve followed high school basketball since I was 4 or 5 years old. From about the age of 5 until I got into high school, it was always a dream and a goal to play in Champaign.”
Now the dream and goal of high school basketball players, middle school basketball players and youth basketball players is different.
When Peoria was able to secure the bid for the state tournament on May 2, 1995, a three-year contract was awarded. No definitive plans were set to make sure the state tournament stayed in Peoria past that initial three years. It all depended on how the move was received.
“In the back of my mind, I hoped that we would see the day where the kids that were playing on the floor only knew the tournament being played in Peoria,” Kouri said. “We (had) 16-, 17-year-old kids playing on the floor this year, and for the most part, most, if not all of them, were never alive when it was in Champaign.”
Kouri said he doesn’t intend any disrespect in that statement. He graduated from the University of Illinois and watched the state tournament flourish at the Assembly Hall when it was at its most popular in the 1970s and 1980s.
But memories of casual fans filling Assembly Hall to watch high school basketball are distant. The same argument can be made in regards to Carver Arena.
Why is that?
Bruce Firchau can talk about a particular program he has received from a 1930s high school regional basketball game in Donovan.
Or a letterman’s jacket from West Aurora High School from the 1960s.
It’s part of his job. Firchau, along with coaching the Westminster Christian boys’ basketball team in Elgin, is the Illinois Basketball Hall of Fame chairman, which is slated to open in late 2013 at David Palmer Arena in Danville.
Firchau has experienced coaching in the state tournament at the Assembly Hall. He led Harvard to the 1985 Class A state tournament, where his Hornets placed fourth after losing 84-70 in the third-place game to Hoopeston-East Lynn, which featured a player by the name of Thad Matta, who scored 34 points for the Cornjerkers in that particular game.
The process that ended with Harvard playing at the Assembly Hall was one long in the making for Firchau and his Harvard team.
“Before we played our first game, we had our last scrimmage before our Thanksgiving tournament,” Firchau said. “I told the boys, ‘I want you to close your eyes. I want you to envision that it’s March, and we’re wearing our black and gold uniforms. We can see the cameras and press row. As we go on the floor, you can see black and gold all the way to the top row of C Section at Assembly Hall. Flashes are going off on cameras all over the place, and you see the cameras turning on you and see the announcers.’
“Sure enough, the only thing that was different was we wore white and gold, and the other team did wear blue. For that to actually have happened was surreal. Every coach in the state should have that thrill of taking a team onto the floor at the Assembly Hall.”
Firchau is a vocal proponent of not having the state tournament in Peoria and having two-class basketball back. The IHSA went to a four-class system at the start of the 2007-08 boys’ basketball season.
“I really believe more is not better,” Firchau said. “I would go back instantly to a two-class system, even though that would mean fewer opportunities where I coach at now to win regional championships.”
Firchau has seen much of the state through his work with the Illinois Basketball Hall of Fame and the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association.
He has spoken at various civic organizations, like Rotary clubs and Shriners groups, and often is asked the same question.
“Why can’t we go back to two classes?” Firchau asked rhetorically. “Nobody wants the four classes, at least those that I speak to. I get asked this question every single place I go speak. There’s no doubt about it. The state tournament has lost its prestige and its history. It’s pretty tough to remember four state champions every year for both boys and girls.”
Illinois is one of 42 states that have at least four classes or more for their high school boys’ basketball state tournament. Only two (Hawaii and North Dakota) operate the two-class system Illinois had in place from 1972 until 2007, and only two (Delaware and Kentucky) still have the one-class system Illinois used from the tournament’s beginning in 1908 until 1971.
“The four-class tournament is ridiculous,” Bell said. “They should have stayed at two. They’ve watered down the tournament. The interest is lagging. It was a great tournament, and the classification expansion has ruined it.”
For those wanting the two-class system to return, don’t count on it.
At least in the foreseeable future.
“I know for the young people that participate in it it’s really special,” Hickman said. “That’s why we do it. We have these tournaments and events because we think it’s good for the young folks. When I’m traveling to events, every time I do that, I see how important these events are to them. I don’t spend much time worrying about the attendance.”
Clearly. The IHSA has not released attendance figures for the boys’ basketball state tournament since the 2002 Class AA state championship game that saw Chicago Westinghouse beat Springfield Lanphier 76-72 before a listed crowd of 11,100.
“I’m certainly not opposed to putting attendance figures out there,” Hickman said. “We’re not, as far as I know, not putting that information out because it might hurt us.”
While no known figures from the last decade’s worth of state tournament attendance are available, all one has to do is look around at the half-empty Carver Arena during the state tournament games and realize why the IHSA might not want to disclose the actual numbers.
“I really don’t think the IHSA cares if the arena isn’t filled,” Firchau said. “I find that disappointing.”
Scott Nagy felt elated nearly 30 years ago on a mid-March morning when he arrived at Centennial.
The Chargers boys’ basketball team he played on during the 1983-84 season had beaten Joliet West 66-59 in a Class AA super-sectional game the night before in Normal to clinch a spot in the state quarterfinals and a trip to the Assembly Hall for the first time in school history.
“It was a lot different when we just had two classes, and we were playing in the larger class,” said Nagy, now the head men’s basketball coach at South Dakota State. “My son’s team here in South Dakota made it to the final eight, and I asked him the other day how school was the day after the game. I remember when we won the super-sectional in Horton Fieldhouse, going to school the next day, I didn’t feel like my feet hit the floor at all.”
Getting the chance to play at the Assembly Hall doubled the thrill ride for Centennial coach Coleman Carrodine in 1984, even though his team only played one game after losing 73-44 to a West Aurora squad led by Kenny Battle in the Elite Eight.
“The Assembly Hall is one of the premier arenas in the country,” Carrodine said. “There’s no bad seat in the house, and the parking is good. The kids were hyped. The fans were hyped. The school was hyped. It was my most exciting time as a coach to go (in) the Assembly Hall and walk onto the floor.”
Roger McClendon, the star of that particular Centennial team who went on to play at Cincinnati, came to Champaign via New York after his father took a job at Illinois. He had no real roots to the state tournament, but said even without the long bus ride to the state tournament, it was a magical time.
“Being on the biggest stage as far as high school basketball was incredible,” McClendon said. “I think even for the home crowd and a lot of the fans that lived there in Champaign it was really an honor and groundbreaking. I do remember the dinners and the feelings of walking onto the floor, and that atmosphere was just magnetic.”
Nagy said he initially was disappointed to see the state tournament move away from Champaign, and more so when the move to the four classes was made.
“It didn’t feel right that it was going somewhere else,” Nagy said. “There’s part of me that just wishes it was one class. You start to water it down. Part of how our country is going is where we’re trying to include everybody and make sure they all feel important.”
When Centennial made it to the Assembly Hall nearly 30 years ago, Carrodine didn’t want his players staying in a hotel.
“There’s no place like home, so you don’t want to change the routine,” Carrodine said. “When you stay in a hotel, you’ve got to be on the watch for everybody: girlfriends, friends and everyone else. Having them at home, you’re not worrying about them sneaking out of the room.”
Mike Ellis led Peoria Richwoods to two second-place finishes at the state tournament in his seven seasons coaching the Knights, including a 31-29 loss to Chicago Simeon in the 2006 Class AA state championship game that featured former Illinois player Bill Cole going against Derrick Rose and his Wolverines.
Ellis handled the overnight accommodations differently than Carrodine.
“Other coaches might have had them stay in their own beds, but we wanted to enrich that experience for them,” Ellis said. “We would travel down after the pep assembly through a police motorcade down to the Civic Center and participate in the practice, photo sessions and check right into the hotel and not return until the end of the weekend. It was definitely that experience and that environment that we wanted our kids to take in.”
Now coaching at Evanston High School, Ellis sees the appeal of Peoria and Champaign. “I think Peoria is a tremendous location for the tournament,” Ellis said. “Champaign gives you the opportunity to play in front of a rich tradition and history at Assembly Hall. I think the venue of the Civic Center in Peoria is a perfect-sized arena. I know attendance has been down the last few years, so just moving it to Champaign would be a band-aid. For the first three, four or five years if they moved it back to Champaign, attendance might pick up, but if it decreases again, that’s not a good feeling of playing in a half-empty arena.”
Ellis said the four-class system has contributed to a decline in attendance, but he sees other factors involved.
“One is there’s an overall decline in attendance in high school basketball throughout the state and the nation,” he said. “Two, there’s just more for students to do now. Electronics and social media all have taken a bite out of attendance for high school basketball.”
Teams that make it to Peoria now are assured of playing two games. Under the two-class system, a chance to play on Saturday wasn’t a given if a team didn’t win its Friday quarterfinal game.
“I thought that was part of the drama,” Taylor said. “If you wanted to see a team play, you better go to the first day because they might get beat, no matter how good they were. I know our kids (at Shelbyville) came out so nervous, and you probably do at a Final Four, but you know you get a second game. I think that’s why that first day was a big reason why a lot of people went. You get to see eight teams from various parts of the state. Now you go to the 4A state tournament and you’re lucky to see a team south of Interstate 80, and that hurts attendance.”
Taylor’s point is worth noting. Since the four-class system went into effect at the 2008 state tournament, only two schools (O’Fallon in 2009 and Normal Community in 2011) at the 4A state tournament have come from outside the Chicago suburbs. Of the eight teams playing in 4A super-sectional games this season, only one, Edwardsville, came from south of I-80.
“Generally it boils down to if the teams have good followings make it, we have good crowds,” Hickman said. “The schools from Chicago, in particular, just have not had large fan followings. I don’t know if it has anything to do with Peoria, but certainly we’d like to see more fans come to it. We’ve had some declines in attendance over the years, even when we were in Champaign from its heyday. There are lots of reasons for that. There’s more going on than there was back in the heyday of IHSA basketball.”
The rise of AAU basketball has made players have a different mind-set than they used to.
Most of the people contacted for this story shared that sentiment when talking about high school players today compared with 20 years ago.
“Kids dream of growing up to play college basketball and to play in the NBA with the exposure they get from AAU,” said Gary Tidwell, Schlarman’s boys’ basketball coach who played on the 1989-90 Prairie Central team that placed second in Class A. “It’s just become common to see major college coaches more during those summer months of AAU ball. The luster of the high school state tournament isn’t the same as it used to be.”
“We took our junior high feeder team from Evanston down to Peoria last year,” he said. “Some of our kids didn’t even know where the state tournament was. They didn’t know how many teams go to state. One asked me after the state championship game ended, ‘Now, what? Do they go play somebody at nationals?’ I think the element of AAU is a contributing factor for kids not dying to go to state. They don’t grow up anymore saying they want to play at the state tournament.”
Mahomet-Seymour coach Chad Benedict said players today relate the state tournament to who they watch at the state tournament.
“Our kids will talk about seeing Derrick Rose on TV, and there’s been some awfully good players that have played at the state tournament recently,” Benedict said. “It’s no different than watching Bruce Douglas when I was a kid growing up in Mason City and Marcus Liberty. You identify the state tournament with the players that are in it.”
Rantoul coach Brett Frerichs said he attended the state tournament growing up when it was at the Assembly Hall but has never made the trip to Peoria. His Eagles nearly made it there two seasons ago in 2A but have never played in a regional championship game in 3A.
“I can see the advantages of four classes,” he said. “I liked the two-class system. I think it brings out the better champions, but the four-class system definitely gets more people involved.”
Taylor, who grew up in Rantoul and just finished his 10th season coaching at Quincy High School, said the reshuffling of schools in different classes every school year has not helped the state tournament.
“With two classes, people had their niche of what they wanted to see and what brand they wanted to see,” he said. “I think the more teams go back and forth between classes, you don’t even know what class some schools are in. I’m sure the IHSA might have a different take on it, but I think the four-class system has hurt attendance, and it’s hurt overall interest in the state tournament.”
The Assembly Hall is about to enter a phase of renovations that will most likely fully update the 50-year-old facility by the fall of 2016.
No public plans have been made to possibly bring back the state tournament to Champaign, but Hickman said he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of it returning to the Assembly Hall someday.
“We’ve had a good experience in Peoria for the most part, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to stay there forever,” he said. “We moved it out of Champaign after having it there for decades. For the right circumstances, if we felt it was going to enhance the event, we’d move it again, but to this point we’ve not had those conversations.”
Hickman said the volunteer base in Peoria is strong and, like Kouri mentioned, the group of high school players know nothing else but having the state tournament in Peoria.
“I’m one of those people who grew up going to the tournament in Champaign in the mid-to-late 1970s, and there’s nothing quite like the Assembly Hall,” Hickman said. “I have tremendously fond memories of that time period.”
Cory Hatfield, the sales and sports director with the Champaign County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the three-day 2013 state wrestling tournament Champaign and the Assembly Hall hosted last month made a $6.1 million economic impact in Champaign and Champaign County.
“Peoria is a great city, and I’m sure they host a great tournament, but we have a lot of things to offer to make fans stick around a little longer,” Hatfield said. “We have a historical venue that would have a great appeal, especially when the Assembly Hall renovations are completed. We feel we have a competitive facility that has a community that would be receptive to see it back.”
If the boys’ basketball state tournament returns to Champaign, there’s no guarantee of sellouts at the Assembly Hall. Or bringing back the popularity the boys’ basketball state tournament used to have on people throughout Illinois.
For now, it’s playing in Peoria and will continue to do so through 2015.
“I know the city of Peoria and surrounding area just loves it and looks forward to it every year,” Kouri said 17 years after he played a part in moving the state tournament. “It’d be a signature event anywhere it’s at, but we appreciate it and recognize it as one of our signature events.”
Stating their cases
A look at how the state tournament is handled in the five biggest — and smallest — states populationwise. We also highlight five other states:
Illinois is the fifth-largest state in the country with 12.8 million people, according to 2012 population estimates by the United States Census Bureau. California (38 million) tops the charts, followed by Texas (26 million), New York (19.5 million) and Florida (19.3 million).
California — The state has broken up its state championships into divisions (five of them) since 1998 and has held 15 of its last 16 state finals (with the exception of the 2011 event) at the Sacramento Kings’ home arena.
New York — The Empire State does it big. Would you expect anything else? New York has a five-class system it put into play in 2004, with the state tournament held at the Glens Falls Civic Center since 1981. Then the state holds a Tournament of Champions a week later in Albany, which pits the state champion from the New York State Public High School Athletic Association against winners from the Catholic High School Association, the Public Schools Athletic League and the New York Association of Independent Schools spread over three classes.
Texas — Six state champions emerge from the Lone Star State, which has had its games played at Texas’ Frank Erwin Center since 1978 and has crowned six state champions since 2000. Texas had a five-class system in place when Illinois played its last one-class state tournament in 1971.
Florida — The Sunshine State went to an eight-class system in 2012 after using six classes from 1995 to 2011. The state finals have been held at The Lakeland Center, an 8,000-seat multipurpose arena in Lakeland, since 1996.
Illinois — The current four-class setup started in 2008, with Carver Arena in downtown Peoria hosting the championships since 1996 after Champaign-Urbana hosted the event for more than 80 years.
The little guys
The winter still is filled with boys’ basketball action in our five smallest states — Wyoming (576,412), Vermont (626,011), North Dakota (699,628), Alaska (731,499) and South Dakota (833,354).
Wyoming — The smallest state in the Union holds a four-class state tournament at two venues in Casper — the Casper Events Center and at Casper College — since third-place games and consolation championship games are part of the state tournament. The boys’ and girls’ state tournaments are held on the same weekends, and the four-class system for the boys’ state tournament was used from 1952 to ’54. After eight years of a three-class system, the four-class setup returned in 1963 and has been used every year since.
Vermont — Starting in 1958, the Green Mountain State hosted a four-class state tournament. The format has stayed that way during the subsequent half century, with the exception from 1973 to ’79 when a three-class system was in place. The state championship games are played at two venues — the 1,856-seat Barre Auditorium has hosted the Division 2, 3 and 4 state tournaments every year since 2005, and Patrick Gym, the 3,228-seat home court for Vermont’s men’s basketball team, has held the Division I state championship game 49 of the last 50 years.
Alaska — The same state that offers a state championship in Nordic skiing has four classes, which has been in place since 1984. Alaska makes it a weeklong celebration, with all four state championship tournaments taking place in Anchorage at the 8,700-seat Sullivan Arena.
North Dakota — The state that is known for the birthplace of Roger Maris and Phil Jackson, along with the 1996 film “Fargo,” keeps its state tournaments simple. A two-class system (aptly named A and B) was established in 1933 and has stayed that way (with the exception of a three-class system from 1948 to ’63) for the last 50 years. The boys’ and girls’ state tournaments are held on the same weekend, with Class B state games taking place at the 10,000-seat Minot State University Dome and Class A state games held at the 10,100-seat Bismarck Civic Center.
South Dakota — The state has one fewer class (three) than faces on Mount Rushmore (four). All three state tournaments are held on the same weekend, albeit at different locations — Class AA at the 6,113-seat Sioux Falls Arena, Class A at the 10,000-seat Rushmore Plaza Civic Center and Class B at the 8,000-seat Aberdeen Barnett Center. Each state tournament features eight teams and guarantees each team will play three games with a state championship game, third-place game, fifth-place game and seventh-place game taking place. The three-class system started in 1986 after a two-class system existed from 1936 to ’85.
Indiana — The Hoosier State had the one-class system in place until 1997, burnishing the legends of Bobby Plump, Oscar Robertson and Damon Bailey, among others. Since 1998, Indiana switched to a four-class system. After playing games at the RCA Dome for the entire 1990s, Bankers Life Fieldhouse (formerly Conseco) has hosted the state tournament since 2000. When Bailey won a state title at Bedford Lawrence in 1990, 41,046 people attended the game, and the combined attendance for all four state title games last year was 22,820.
Kentucky — One of only two states to still have a single-class system (Delaware is the other), the Bluegrass State has had 16 teams converge for a shot at the state title every year since 1920. Rupp Arena in Lexington has hosted the state tournament since 1995, and last year’s state championship game drew 14,064.
Hawaii — The state that offers up canoe paddling (seriously) for a state championship has had a two-class system in place since 2007. A third-place game, fifth-place game and seventh-place game are included along with the required state championship game, which are played at the 7,700-seat Neal S. Blaisdell Center in Honolulu — which hosted Chaminade’s famed upset against No. 1 Virginia in 1982 — after first-round and quarterfinal games are held at high school sites. The Division I and Division II tournaments take place the same weekend.
Massachusetts — The birthplace of the sport has a four-class state tournament in place and has since 1994. Its Division I, 2 and 3 state championship games take place at the 14,800-seat DCU Center in Worcester while its Division 4 state championship game is hosted by the 17,565-seat TD Bank Garden, the home venue of the Boston Celtics.
Ohio — Illinois signee Maverick Morgan and his Springboro team were not among the final four schools still playing in Division I, which holds its state semifinals and state championship games at Value City Arena, Ohio State’s home court, Thursday through Saturday. Ohio has had a four-class system since 1988, and all four of its state championship games are played at Value City Arena.
Showing some class
The four-class system Illinois has in place for its boys’ basketball state tournament is the most common one used in the United States. Staff writer Matt Daniels took a look at how many classes are used in each state:
One class: Delaware, Kentucky
Two classes: North Dakota, Hawaii
Three classes: South Dakota, Rhode Island, Tennessee, West Virginia
Four classes: Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Vermont, Wyoming
Five classes: New York, California, Colorado, Missouri, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin
Six classes: Alabama, Texas, Idaho, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington
Seven classes: Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma
Eight classes: Florida