CHAMPAIGN — Ted Beach’s first reaction when asked to share his thoughts on Champaign regaining the IHSA boys’ basketball state tournament?
It’s about time.
“This is where it ought to be,” Beach said this week after Monday’s vote by the IHSA Board of Directors ended the event’s 25-year run in Peoria and will resume a Champaign-Urbana tenure that originally lasted from 1919 through 1995.
“It was a real disappointment to me when they chose to put it elsewhere,” Beach continued. “I went to one tournament over in Peoria, and it didn’t seem like they had the same atmosphere and everything they had here, going back to Huff Gym and the Assembly Hall.”
A former Illinois men’s basketball player, Beach knows plenty about IHSA hoops being played on his alma mater’s campus and in his hometown.
He was a key member of three consecutive state-qualifying Champaign High School boys’ basketball teams under storied coach Harry Combes during the mid-1940s. Beach and his cohorts fell short of a title by placing second in 1945 and 1947, but topped the single-class field in 1946 with a 38-1 record.
It’s the only boys’ basketball state championship in Champaign Central history.
“We had a big advantage as locals sleeping in our own beds,” Beach said. “We were familiar with that arena and the crowds and everything.”
Beach, now 91 years old, actually started attending the IHSA tournament when it was contested in Huff Gym. Beach’s father operated the scoreboard during those state tournament games.
“Long days there. Full houses,” Beach said. “Those are good memories.”
As a sophomore in 1946, Beach led Champaign in scoring at the state tournament, averaging 17.8 points across four games. He was named to the five-player all-tournament team after compiling the third-most points by a player at the tournament.
“Winning it once was one of the best memories of my basketball career,” Beach said. “It’s going to be 75 years (next) year. That doesn’t seem possible.”
Beach, a 1951 Illinois graduate, worked at IHSA boys’ state basketball tournaments from the mid-1960s until the showcase left for Peoria in 1995. He served as a timekeeper at Illini basketball games through the 2003-04 season as well.
Many C-U locals these days discuss the difference in IHSA boys’ tournament atmosphere between its time at Assembly Hall and its stretch at Peoria’s Carver Arena.
Beach is one individual who can offer a different environmental comparison between two tournament sites — Huff Gym (1926-1962) and Assembly Hall (1963-95).
“The size of the arena was the big difference. I think the crowds were capacity for the early years at the Assembly Hall, and they began to kind of dwindle away,” Beach said. “The excitement in the new building, I’m sure, was strong for both the players and the fans.
“But I just remember some of the kids coming in from smaller towns, walking into the Assembly Hall and looking around and saying, ‘This place would hold a lot of hay.’ That’s what they were used to. It’s just overwhelming, I think, to walk up the tunnel and see the crowds and lights and everything. I didn’t experience that as a player, but I can relate to it. It was a big thrill in contrast to what they were used to playing in.”
Beach admitted that, while he is happy the tournament will return to Champaign beginning with its 2021 version, he said he doesn’t know “if it’ll ever be the same as what it was last.” The state tournament moved from one class to two classes in 1972 and then the current four-class system came into the fold in 2008.
“I’m not saying I’m for or against the class system,” Beach said, “... but something about when there’s one tournament, one school comes out as a champion, it felt like it was truly a state champion. I don’t really see it ever really getting back to that same level of interest.”
Beach said he wouldn’t be surprised if the initial two or three years at State Farm Center result in a crowd surge. At the same time, he knows it can be easier these days to catch state games on television, especially if a viewer doesn’t have a rooting interest in either team playing.
But Beach can’t help thinking about the scenes around the community and the UI campus when the boys’ state tournament rolled in — scenes that perhaps could be replicated in Part II of the IHSA’s local stay.
“Way back before in the dark ages, when the state tournament came to town it was an annual event everyone looked forward to in anticipation,” Beach said. “Even if your school wasn’t taking part in it ... it was just a big event of the year.”