Sunday Conversation: Marty Hickman

Sunday Conversation: Marty Hickman

Marty Hickman has a job where, no matter what decisions he might make, people will have mixed emotions. The IHSA Executive Director
is no stranger to such dilemmas, holding his current position since 2002. This winter has produced turbulent times for his organization,
from the new success advancement factor bumping some private schools who have success up a class (hello St. Thomas More
girls’ basketball team) to the decision to allow a highly-ranked boys’ basketball team from the city to play in the postseason despite forfeiting
all of its regular season wins (hello Chicago Curie and Cliff Alexander) because of ineligibility among several players. Staff writer Matt Daniels spoke recently with Hickman about those issues and more as it relates to prep athletics in this state.

Can you explain the reasoning behind the success advancement factor?
We put a fairly large and diverse committee to look at that issue. What we’re continuing to do is to provide the best competitive balance that we can. Some other states are already starting to do some similar things. It’s part of our on-going effort to do the best we can to have the most level playing field as possible. We realize there isn’t any magic bullet for this. We’re always going to have issues with it and people are always going to question some of our decisions, but we always want to continue to revise and to rethink how we provide opportunities for student-athletes.

What was the reasoning behind the success advancement factor coming into play?
The reason for that is the 30-mile radius non-boundaried schools can draw from provides a tremendous advantage for schools should they really desire to promote and excel in their athletic programs. St. Thomas More is a good example. You draw a 30-mile radius around Champaign-Urbana, you’re certainly going to go over into St. Joseph, Gibson City, Paxton, Bement, Monticello and other towns. It’s an advantage. I think this proposal is trying to mitigate those circumstances.

How did you decide to let Chicago Curie’s boys’ basketball team play in the postseason?
We really let the Chicago Public Schools deal with that. That’s typical of how this should happen. It was brought to the attention of the CPS administration, and they conducted an internal review, along with the school. What they asked us to do was tell us which kids were eligible at the time for the postseason. Only nine turned out to be eligible. What we did was accept their word that the nine roster players were eligible in all respects.

How do you feel the IHSA can help more when it comes to matters like the one that unfolded at Curie?
That’s a good question. I think honestly it’s up to the school to have procedures in place to make sure they’re checking eligibility. It’s really the most fundamental rule we have. In order to participate, you have to have kids who are earning credits at an appropriate rate to graduate. I don’t know what else we can do besides stress that to our member schools.

It seems the IHSA made a lot of news in February with the Homewood-Flossmoor investigation and subsequent ruling to bar the girls’ basketball team from playing in the postseason, along with the initial decision to ban three boys’ basketball teams in Chicago Bogan, Chicago Hyde Park and Chicago Uplift, from postseason play that will upset quite a few people. How do you handle matters like those?
It depends on the perspective of each situation. There’s certainly feedback on both sides of that. There was plenty of feedback in the Homewood-Flossmoor situation that said to us that was the right decision to make. It was clear to me and a lot of people that this particular team had gained an advantage to not paying attention to a lot of our rules. I think people want schools to start out in our tournament who follow the rules. We concluded that the Homewood-Flossmoor girls’ basketball team had gained an advantage. By and large, people have supported the decision we made. The boys’ basketball teams did violate our contest limit rules, but they didn’t really play any more games than anybody else had played. Allowing them to participate further was the right thing to do.

How has the rise of AAU basketball changed the dynamic of high school basketball in the state?
It’s getting much more complicated. This entanglement with AAU is not healthy for our high school programs. I look for our members to propose some rule changes that will decrease the entanglement with AAU. If you have a high school coach who is also an AAU coach, you have the potential for a problem down the road. To go from being the AAU coach to not being the AAU coach and back to being the AAU coach, I think it’s just asking for trouble.

How do you feel the state football finals in DeKalb went last November?
It went well. They were very gracious hosts. As you would know, the facilities aren’t the same as the ones at Illinois, but they’re nice. We’re spoiled having been at Memorial Stadium with all the amenities that go with it, such as all the space for the locker rooms, the indoor facilities and the press. We still had a great experience at Northern. They did a great job. The community really embraced it.

What are some long-range goals the IHSA has?
We need to continue to see if there are other programs that might fit into our staple of activities. Lacrosse is another emerging sport that I’m hopeful we’re able to have an opportunity to have a state series in. We’re going to have to take a hard look at some of our activities where participation has diminished and if we want to continue to offer those. Maintain a financially viable organization is another priority. I think we’ve been doing well in that area, but those are some of the things we have to look at. We have to maintain a comprehensive interscholastic program that provides a lot of opportunities for young folks. We have one of the most comprehensive ones in the country, in my opinion.

How do you feel about all the conference realignments and changes that have developed during the last few years?
In some ways it’s rather tragic. We’re having conferences that have been together for years, and in some cases decades that are busting up simply because of football. We need to figure out a way as an organization to get our arms around that. Not everyone is going to be in the football playoffs. If you’re 1-8 or 0-9, you probably ought to be looking forward to basketball or wrestling season. The drive to get in the football playoffs has been devastating to conferences. If you take a global look at what’s good for all the young folks, we really need to see less of the conference breakups that we’re seeing. Some of them have been good, but some have increased travel and gotten rid of some key rivalries.

How confident are you that the current football playoff structure in place will stay that way in the future?
I think our football playoff structure is excellent. While it doesn’t satisfy everybody, I think what we’ve seen the last four or five years is that nobody has come up with a better plan. Until that happens, we’ll continue with a very good playoff structure. You look around at some of the states around us, and I wouldn’t trade what we have with Indiana, Iowa or Missouri. Our system is a pretty good system.

What do you think Peoria has done well when it comes to hosting the boys’ basketball state tournament?
The biggest thing they’ve done is be able to really support the tournament with volunteers. They get a lot of people involved in their community. That’s been the hallmark of the event over there. There’s some things we want to be sure we don’t see happen in terms of hotel pricing that there’s been a little bit of, but the overall stay has been a positive one.

What do you think Peoria needs to improve upon when it comes to hosting the boys’ basketball state tournament?
I don’t know if there’s anything we specifically need to improve on. What we have to be careful of is not to lose sight of the tournament. We have a lot of ancillary things that go on with the tournament there. While it’s great family fun, it has the potential to detract from the tournament itself. Now, there are lots of times where if your team is not playing, you’re over at the Exhibition Hall for the March Madness Experience, which is not necessarily a good thing. That has helped change the tenor of the tournament. We have to have people keep in the mind that the reason to go over there is to watch the tournament itself.

Any chance the boys’ basketball state tournament ever returns to Champaign, especially once renovations at State Farm Center are complete?
I think there is a chance. At some point our board is going to have to make that determination whether it opens it back up for bids again. It’s likely they’ll give strong consideration for that. The renovated Assembly Hall would put the Champaign-Urbana community in a better position. It’s up to the community, too, of whether it’s an event they want to attract back. That’s something the community has to decide. A new facility would certainly be an intriguing notion for our board.