IHSA football moving to district format in 2021

IHSA football moving to district format in 2021

Local prep football coaches are expressing surprise and concern at the passage of an Illinois High School Association proposal for district scheduling.

This historic decision was announced Tuesday morning, with a 17-vote difference between IHSA member schools’ yes and no responses.

This follows district football proposals put before IHSA institutions in 2009 and 2014, neither of which passed.

Now, traditional athletic conferences will not exist on the football field beginning with the 2021 season.

“I’m really kind of in shock still,” said Jake Palmer, Fisher’s football coach and athletic director. “I don’t know that I’ve grasped what’s happened.”

“In my 29 years of doing this stuff, I’ve never seen something as significant a change as what this is,” added Scott Hamilton, Unity’s veteran football coach and AD.

This approved proposal features five critical prongs.

— Nine regular-season games, as has long been the case;

— Reveal of postseason classes prior to each season, which is a stark departure from the current system;

— Football programs shuffled into one of eight districts, each containing eight or nine teams, within their respective classes;

— Any open weeks filled by the schools, with those games not counting toward postseason qualification;

— The top four finishers in each district, determined only by results in district games, moving on to the their class playoffs.

IHSA executive director Craig Anderson said in a statement that “the ideal situation would be 64 schools in each class, giving each of the eight classes eight districts with eight teams apiece.”

That equates to 512 teams, but 560 IHSA schools fielded a program last season. Of those, 523 were eligible for the IHSA postseason.

Districts would be set for two-year periods, opening the door for changes over time if necessary. The first crack at determining districts will happen after the 2020 season.

Perhaps the most unique local situation belongs to Danville, which has eight Class 6A playoff berths since 2006, the most recent in 2017.

Area foes, such as Champaign Central and Urbana, are unlikely to join the Vikings in that realm, meaning some extensive travel could be in line.

“Who knows what’s going to happen to us,” former Danville coach and athletic director B.J. Luke said. “We could go out west and pick up Bloomington and Centennial and Normal West on the way out, and pick up the Quad Cities. It’s hard to tell.”

Luke expressed disappointment in what’s now the impending dissolution of Big 12 Conference football, adding that less-stable leagues may’ve played a decisive role in this vote.

“The conferences with the big schools up in the suburbs, those are all breaking up, and they’re having the same issues with smaller conferences over the years,” Luke said. “That’s probably what sent it over the edge.”

Unity has bounced between 2A, 3A and 4A during Hamilton’s 25 seasons in charge of the Rockets. Though he’s not sure of the feasibility, Hamilton would be curious to see a district template before the first alignment is established.

“Would the IHSA consider coming out with a (layout) — if this were the year (districts started), this is what it would’ve looked like,” Hamilton said. “(There could be) a pretty big push to get some idea of what this might look like so we might start to wrap ourselves around how this might play out.”

One place to look for this is Iowa, which has operated district football under the Iowa High School Athletic Association since 1992. Presently, that setup includes five classes with 16 schools in each playoff bracket.

However, the reasoning for districting in Iowa appears to be different than what Illinois has experienced.

A document on the IHSAA’s website describes districting being a response when “athletic conferences starting losing members due to school closings, consolidations and shrinking enrollments,” leading to teams having “difficulty in securing complete schedules.”

While some Illinois institutions have dropped football or moved to the 8-man game because of low numbers, the fact more than 500 programs exist today indicates Illinois is not in the same boat as Iowa once was.

That said, Argenta-Oreana coach Steve Kirk, while acknowledging that districting is “not ideal for us,” said schedule-making could become easier for ADs.

“It should be easier to find those games in Week 1 and 2,” Kirk said, “and then you go into district play.”

Tuscola coach Andy Romine feels this vote is a response to something that played out during the earlier part of this decade.

“One of the reasons I thought it wouldn’t pass: I thought the conference jumping had stabilized itself,” Romine said. “I thought it had settled down and people got happy.”

One of Romine’s biggest worries with districting has nothing to do with the Friday night lights.

Tuscola consistently is on the cusp of both 1A and 2A when it comes to football. That’s something that has Romine questioning the effect districts could have on non-varsity competition.

“Let’s say we fall 1A,” Romine said. “If our district has a lot of 1A schools that don’t play freshman football, we’re sitting looking for games. How are we going to be able to fill that schedule?

“My fear with all the unknowns would be how that ends up affecting younger levels.”

Kirk oversaw a local 1A playoff qualifier this year in the Bombers. His outfit is set to join a 10-team closed league for 2019, out of the ashes of the fracturing Little Okaw Valley Conference.

That new league will be short-lived.

“I don’t know what travel is going to look like for us,” Kirk said. “The only thing I had to go off was what (Joliet Herald-News sports editor) Steve Soucie did last spring. That sent us all the way out west to play Camp Point Central (about 2 1/2 hours away).”

Palmer, whose Bunnies boasted the seventh-smallest enrollment of all 2018 IHSA playoff qualifiers, is uncertain just how drastic districting could be for competition on Fisher’s level.

“It completely changes the landscape for what 1A football was and is going to look like in the future,” Palmer said. “There will be schools dropping co-ops, schools picking up co-ops, schools going to 8-man. It’s really hard to predict what these next two years are going to look like.”