Sunday Conversation: John Woods
Where do you think the Central athletic facilities rank in the Big 12?
I have not seen all the Peoria schools. But the old Big 12, with the renovations to Decatur MacArthur and to Decatur Eisenhower, Champaign High School currently ranks dead last. I’m going strictly based on proximity to the school. Our softball field is 2.6 miles away from campus. Our softball field is pretty good. Our soccer field is 0.8 miles away from school. Our soccer field is OK. When you are looking at just the facility, we probably rank close to Centennial. But when it comes to convenience, access, we are last.
Where do you rank in the state?
If we’re talking access and proximity to campus, we’re probably in the lower 100 (of 800-plus).
What do you need the most?
We need our kids to be able to access our facilities. When they walk out of school, when that bell rings at 3:20, our kids should be able to walk to practice right outside the back door. For several reasons. One, every second they take waiting for the shuttle bus to take them to practice across town, every second they take walking to their cars somewhere in the neighborhood, is time lost from their studies, time lost from being at home with their families. It’s just time lost, period. We need facilities where the kids can walk outside that back door, much like our sister school (Centennial) and be able to compete, practice and be able to go home by 6 o’clock to be able to eat dinner with their families, then spend the rest of the evening doing their homework.
Let’s say a rich donor, the T. Boone Pickens of Champaign, came to you and said “What do you need?” What is the first thing on your list?
The to-do list would be to have an all-encompassing campus. Building, parking, all athletic facilities all on campus. When the kids drive to school, they stay at school until they go home.
What’s second on the list?
I don’t have a second. That’s it.
It has been like this since the school opened in 1915.
When Edison was built, which was Champaign High School in 1915, McKinley Field also opened its gates. We played football down at McKinley. We ran track down at McKinley. We played baseball down at McKinley. We had six varsity boys’ sports in 1915. On campus, we played basketball, we wrestled, kids ran cross-country around town, which is what we do now. A little more dangerous now, ducking and dodging cars. We went to McKinley for the other three sports. Here we are 100 years later, 21 varsity sports, boys and girls, and we’re still using the same facilities. The same setup. Some time between 1915 and 1920, there was an article from a UI professor expressing his disappointment and frustration with the district for not purchasing the 22 acres that was available adjacent to then-Champaign High School, now Edison Middle School. He was frustrated because we didn’t have on-campus athletic facilities. Worried about it then and still worried about it now.
Are you missing kids on teams because of the facilities?
We did a survey back in the late fall of all of our freshmen and sophomores. We asked them: “If you are not an athlete, would you consider participating in athletics if all our facilities were on campus?” Over 170 kids said, “Yes.” Out of 600. That’s huge.
When the school was built, proximity for athletics wasn’t much of an issue.
We’re in a different situation now. We’ve got kids crossing University Avenue, Springfield Avenue, Green Street, John Street, during the busiest time of day just to get to practice. We’re shuttling kids all over town. We send kids 2.4 miles to the track, 2.4 miles to get to swimming, 2.6 to tennis, 2.6 to softball, 0.8 to soccer, 0.6 to football and baseball, 5 miles to get to Orchard Downs for cross-country. That’s they way we have always done it. I think the community has accepted it. We’re in a good spot right now to say, “It’s not right. It’s not fair. It’s not equitable.” Well over half of our kids participate in athletics. And that doesn’t include the 175 marching band kids that we have. Do you know where they practice? Centennial. Our kids take marching band eighth hour, last period of the day, and they bus from Central to Centennial and they practice until 4:30-5. Right now, they take four buses every day for nine weeks. On rainy days, we cram 200 kids into the band room.
When other ADs come to Central, what do they say to you?
First thing they ask is, “Where are we playing?” Supervision is an issue. Having a trainer is an issue. especially in the fall. On Thursdays when we have a home freshman football game, home soccer game, home volleyball game, where does our trainer go? She goes to football. If there is time, she goes to volleyball and then soccer. Centennial’s trainer, guess what he does? He just hangs out on campus and he’s available by walkie-talkie in his golf cart.
There are two public high schools in town. Isn’t one football field enough?
That’s a great question. Is it enough? Is that what we’re about in Champaign? And is that what is best for our kids? Two years ago, we were the only team in America that was late to its home football opener. Why? Two buses didn’t show up to get us from McKinley to Unit 4 Field. We currently share locker space with Centennial. We use the PE locker room as the visiting team. We don’t use their varsity football locker room because it is painted light blue. As a former Charger, it was a great feeling to go in there and get changed for a football game. As AD at Champaign High School, we don’t want to go in there. Is it enough? I would say, “No.” What happens when we both make the playoffs and we both host home games? Who plays Friday and who plays Saturday?
As you hired coaches in the past, have the facilities cost you top candidates?
Yes. No question. Repeatedly.
What happens to the sports programs if you get a new place? Instant success?
We teach seven core values through athletics at Champaign High School. Those core values include four questions to start: Can I trust you? Do you care? Are you totally committed? And do your actions support your answers? We talk about hard work and then success. If you are a person of character, who is committed, who has demonstrated through their actions that they care and can be trusted and you are putting forth the effort, then you are going to be successful. Whether it’s through athletics or in the classroom or marching band or whatever it is you do. To say that new facilities would lead to increased success, I think it is impossible to tell. But I can tell you that if we continue to teach those core values to our kids and provide them with facilities that are equitable, I think we would see increased numbers in our participation, and it would potentially lead to increased success.
When do you think you will be in a new building?
There are two parts to that question: When do I think it will be done and when do I want it to be done? Right now. When do I think it will be done? I certainly hope that this community recognizes what participation in extracurriculars means to our kids. Is this thing just about extracurriculars? Absolutely not. Our school is ripping at the seams. Our building is crowded. It’s not about athletics. It’s about doing what’s right for kids. We had an opportunity in 1915 to do what’s right for kids. We had another opportunity in 1934. We missed it. And 1950 when the addition went on that building and we missed it. We’ve got an opportunity now to do what’s best for kids.
My daughter is a going into sixth grade. Will she be going to a new Central?
I hope so.
They are talking about alternative sites. If the Spalding option is used, can you make that work?
It’s an interesting question. Is it enough? My answer would be no. When you look at that four-story parking garage, how do you supervise that? What happens if there is a fight on the third floor of that parking garage in the middle of the day? Who goes? I’m not sure how you would get from that parking garage to the gymnasium on a Friday night in December when there’s 6 inches of snow on the ground. The baseball field, the third-base line and left-field line run parallel to Prospect. It looked like the outfield fence was about 300 feet. I’m pretty sure you and I could hit the ball across that 300-foot fence. I know for a fact I could hit a foul ball onto Prospect Avenue all day long. It’s not safe.
So, you don’t prefer that site?
I think the land is not good. I think it would be costly. And it would not provide everything our kids need right now. To displace folks that have lived in this community for a long, long time, I think that would be asking a lot.
You are entering a new Big 12. What are the logistical issues you have to deal with?
This thing came on fast and furious last fall. What an opportunity to bring Peoria High and Peoria Manual back into the Big 12. Peoria High was a charter member. Manual and Peoria were in the conference until 1958. As a traditionalist, I’m excited to bring those guys back in. Notre Dame, bringing a private school, a non-boundaried school into our conference, certainly there were some reservations. But they do things the right way up there, and they provide great competition for us. It’s just a natural fit. The scheduling was tough. It was a whirlwind. We had meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting. It gives you a powerhouse conference in the state of Illinois, one that is going to be respected across the state.