An urge to merge

An urge to merge

News-Gazette staff writer Fred Kroner has examined the benefits and drawbacks to a possible merger of the Big 12 and Mid-State Six conferences. Here's what he discovered:

The Big 12 is celebrating its 76th year as an athletic conference for central Illinois high schools. As the 11-member league looks to the future, it does so with an ironic twist.

Expansion may include some of the same schools which were charter members back in 1925.

Big 12 athletic directors and principals are investigating an alignment with the Mid-State Six. That conference includes Peoria Central, which won or shared basketball titles in the Big 12 from 1927-29, and Peoria Manual, which was a Big 12 co-champion in 1930-31.

Such talk surprises former Champaign Central boys' basketball coach Lee Cabutti. He can't recall exact reasons for the split which occurred following the 1957-58 school year, but he's positive they weren't amicable.

"I'm sure it was the Big 12 that wanted them out," Cabutti said. "Those (Mid-State) schools wouldn't play us then because they were so irritated, so to get nonconference games, we played at Belleville, Elgin, Quincy and Salem. We had to do a lot of traveling to get competition with schools our size."

Travel was one factor in the removal of the Peoria schools from the Big 12.

"When we played Manual, Central or Pekin, we had to take Route 150 (a two-lane highway) all the way," said Tom Stewart, who coached football at Champaign Central from 1953 through the 1983 season.

Interstate 74, which links Champaign-Urbana to Bloomington-Normal and those communities to Peoria, was not completed until 1971 when a section west of Mahomet was finished.

"You always welcomed the idea that they had to come here rather than we had to go there," Stewart said.

Like Cabutti, Stewart didn't expect to see a revival between the Big 12 and Peoria schools.

"I thought that was long gone and would never come back," he said. "I hadn't thought the schools would get back together."

Just talking

At this point, they haven't. All that officials representing schools in each league have agreed to is to continue to meet.

"I like the idea, but I don't know if we're any closer to getting it done," Centennial athletic director Stan Lewis said.

The Mid-State is an athletic-rich conference. Current league members have state championship trophies for baseball, basketball, cross-country, football, golf and track and field in boys' sports and in basketball and track and field for girls' sports.

"The upside is we could have one of the better conferences in the state of Illinois," Urbana athletic director Alec Anderson said.

Principals from the Big 12 will convene next week and the possible merger is expected to be one topic of discussion. Athletic directors from Big 12 and Mid-State schools will gather again in Normal on May 14.

"I see an attitude of cooperation," Normal West athletic director Gary Woods said. "We have a sense it can benefit all of us, if we can get it done. The thing we're looking at is not necessarily short-term, but a long-term benefit."

Said Normal West principal Jerry Crabtree:

"These two conferences have great potential to really raise the bar. The initial response has been very positive. I think the prospects (of it occurring) are very good, at least 50-50."

Not everyone, however, is as optimistic. Said Normal Community athletic director Ron Goodwin:

"There are so many agendas that everyone has. I was probably more optimistic at the first meeting."

Among the points to be addressed is Danville's decision to start all home football games at 5:30 p.m. Teams traveling from Peoria or Pekin would miss the majority of their afternoon classes on Friday.

"It would pose a problem not only for the other school, but for parents and fans who work," said Danville football coach Mark Dodd.

Schools on the Big 12's outer perimeter – Danville, Mattoon and Rantoul – would be impacted the most by increased travel demands.

"It never hurts to talk and see what's out there," Danville assistant principal Bob Rice said. "You always want to do something to make the situation better for all involved."

Scheduling woes

On paper, there is less of a sense of urgency for the Mid-State Six than for the Big 12.

Last year's closure of Stephen Decatur has played havoc with the schedules in the Big 12. Schools in the league's West Division no longer will receive an automatic postseason berth for football (though the upcoming playoff expansion to eight classes makes that issue less of a concern) and there were fewer conference games this season in basketball.

East and West Division schools may have played each other twice in basketball, but just one game counted in the Big 12 standings.

"You like to play teams home and away," Danville boys' basketball coach Scott Olson said. "Sometimes teams are tough in their own gym and not very good away."

Winds of change could be hitting the Mid-State Six, too. There is speculation a public school in Peoria will be closed, though no definite announcement is expected for at least a year.

"Two months ago, I'd have said that was definitely going to happen," Peoria Central athletic director Mike Plunkett. "Now it's still out there, but I can't see anything happening sooner than four or five years."

An ongoing facility study is scheduled to be released in June, 2002. Enrollments at Peoria schools have declined during the past quarter-century.

"Twenty five years ago, we were a school of over 2,000 students," Plunkett said. "Now we're a school of 900 students."

Mid-State woes

One concern about a Big 12 and Mid-State merger is the latter's recent track record. The three public schools in Springfield (Lanphier, Southeast and Springfield High) were members of the Mid-State for less than a decade before leaving after the 1992-93 school year.

"Travel was a factor and lack of crowds," 18th-year Springfield girls' basketball coach Dave Urish said. "We played every Saturday morning and it got a little old, getting on the bus at 8 in the morning and knowing the fan turnout wasn't going to be there.

"We've formed a conference (Central State Eight) that's a little closer. The turnout is still not what the boys' game gets, but it's better."

Despite his comments, Urish supported Springfield's entry into the Mid-State.

"Competition in the Mid-State was fantastic and our participation in that conference helped us get to a higher level," he said. "We took our thumpings, but it came to the point where we needed to compete or get our nose rubbed in it all the time."

Since the breakup with the Springfield schools, the Mid-State hasn't been content to stand pat, talking first with the Western Big Six.

"I thought for a while we'd have a super conference and have two divisions," said Loren Wallace, the boys' basketball coach at Quincy, and the former head coach at Lincoln and Bloomington high schools. "Three or four years ago, we looked at each other, but things didn't work out."

Long road trips

Though enrollments of the Western Big Six schools – except for Rock Island Alleman – are greater than most of the existing Mid-State members, Wallace said, "size was not the deciding factor. The Mid-State is not used to traveling. Both ways, it didn't seem compatible."

The travel time from Quincy to Peoria, Wallace said, would be about 2 1/2 hours in a school bus.

"The closest away game we have (to Jacksonville) is 83 miles," Wallace said.

By comparison, travel time from Peoria to Danville would be about 2 hours, 15 minutes, from Peoria to Springfield is approximately 90 minutes and from Peoria to the Quad Cities (home for several Western Big Six members) is also about 90 minutes.

"We're getting involved with that (travel) as far as nonconference," Ayers said, "so that's a wash."

After talks fell through with the Western Big Six, the Mid-State in 2000 tried to lure both Normal Community and Normal West into dropping out of the Big 12 and joining its league. Administrators in Normal gave it serious consideration, but eventually declined.

"It was a little premature," Woods said. "At that time, it was not in our best interests to pull out and go by ourselves."

He does not rule out the possibility of the Normal schools pulling out of the Big 12 if an agreement can't be reached.

"I don't think it would be a dead issue," Woods said. "It will continue to resurface, depending on the stability of the Big 12. If anything disturbs the Big 12, Normal Community and Normal West would look at making a change."

Two points of view

What some see as a curse for conferences small in numbers can also be an advantage. The recent boys' basketball success at Manual (consecutive state championships from 1994-97) left former coach Wayne McClain, recently hired as an assistant at Illinois, scrambling to find nonconference foes.

"We didn't have a lot of takers," he said. "It has been difficult to fill our nonconference schedule, but that gives you versatility to see a wide variety of teams. I was in Chicago and in St. Louis to fill my schedule."

Danville paid a visit to Manual's gym last season and the Rams will travel to Danville next year for a game on Feb. 9.

In football, schools find it difficult to find opponents if they can't get matched up with schools in their own league.

Last fall, Bloomington played a game against Stevens Point, Wis., and Normal Community traveled to Stevensville, Mich.

Next fall, Normal West will travel to Indiana for a game while Normal Community faces an eight-game schedule instead of the customary nine.

"There needs to be some kind of addition or realignment, but I don't think we have the answer yet," said Mattoon athletic director Steve Parker, who filled an open football date next year by scheduling St. Louis University High.

Merger years off

Ayers, at Pekin, is retiring at the end of the school year and said, "I hope to see this thing through," but it's unlikely that decisions will be made swiftly.

Even if the leagues decide to join forces, it wouldn't happen until after current sophomores have graduated.

"There are a lot of (existing) two-year contracts out there," Woods said. "Realistically, it wouldn't happen before 2003."

The feeling is there would be two divisions if the Big 12 and Mid-State merge. Schools currently in the Big 12 East would be in one eight-team division along with Decatur schools Eisenhower and MacArthur. The Mid-State schools and Bloomington-Normal schools would be in a nine-school division.

The prospect of two divisions raises an obvious question for Peoria Richwoods athletic director Diane Pettet.

"Why have two divisions?" she said. "Why not just have two different conferences? Whether we would want to join something that large would be a question. We still have a lot of questions to ask."

Ultimately, the feelings of athletic directors, principals and superintendents will take a back seat to the feelings of another group of men and women.

"This (merger) is not something a building administrator could say," said Rice, Danville's assistant principal. "It would have to have the blessing of the Board of Education."

Or in this case, the approval of 17 boards of education.

Springfield burned in 1980's merger

SPRINGFIELD – Few people have a background with the Big 12 and Mid-State conferences like Robert Hill.

Now in his 10th year as superintendent of the Springfield schools, Hill was the principal at Springfield High when it was forced out of the Big 12.

"I made the motion (in 1983) that led to the Big 12 and Capitol conferences dissolving," Hill said.

It was not his intent.

Hill's thinking was that Springfield High should join the eight-team Capitol Conference, which already included three of the city's schools: Griffin, Lanphier and Southeast.

"I suggested that we exchange Centennial (which was in the Capitol Conference) for Springfield," he recalled.

He was shocked at what transpired a few days later.

"The Decatur schools and Bloomington-Normal led the charge and Springfield schools were out," he said. "They formed a new Big 12 at a meeting they did not invite us to, even though we were a charter member of the organization."

That turn of events led to Springfield seeking affiliation with another league. By the mid-1980s, the district joined the Peoria-based Mid-State Ten.

The alignment, however, lasted less than a decade. After the 1992-93 school year, Springfield was out.

"It was our choice," Hill said. "We asked to leave. I was involved with putting it together and tearing it apart."

Travel was an issue, but Hill emphasized it was not the primary reason for Springfield's departure.

"Economics," he said. "Early on in our endeavors, we thought we could send boys' and girls' teams on the same bus (for baseball and softball, for example) to make it more economically feasible. That proved not to be practical.

"It was not a case that it was no longer workable (athletically). In fact, very much unlike when the Big 12 and Capitol dissolved, there were no hard feelings and our athletic teams still play many of the Peoria teams (in nonconference games)."

The four Springfield schools immediately teamed up with four Class AA schools in its immediate area and the Central State Eight was born.

"This has been just the opposite in terms of travel cost and convenience," Hill said. "The longest trip now in the conference is from Lincoln to Jacksonville. The answer is, there is no long trip."

With soaring gas prices projected to reach $2 a gallon by summer, Hill said Central State Eight members are pleased to be in a league where travel costs are not a major expenditure.

Travel expense is a subject which is certain to be on the minds of Big 12 and Mid-State officials as they continue to discuss a possible merger.

"Adding travel doesn't really thrill me personally," Danville football coach Mark Dodd said.