Scott Hamilton, Mike Allen and Cully Welter have spent a combined 66 seasons leading their current high school football programs — at Unity, Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley and Monticello, respectively.
They’ve amassed eight state championship game appearances and three titles. They’ve seen almost everything there is to witness in IHSA football.
They and other high school football coaches around the state are in the midst of a new experience, courtesy Wednesday’s IHSA announcement of a revised 2020-21 athletic calendar in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Football, along with volleyball and boys’ soccer, is moving from its typical fall slot to the spring. The current plan is for the season to begin Feb. 15 and end May 1, very much opposing the originally planned stint of Aug. 10 through Nov. 28. Games can start on March 1, with season openers for football expected to kick off March 5.
Hamilton, Allen and Welter all used “disappointing” upon initially hearing about the change. But all three also expressed that some sort of football is better than none at all.
“The fear was that the season could’ve easily been canceled altogether,” Allen said. “At least we have an opportunity.”
Allen said a Wednesday evening meeting with his players resulted in them expressing relief at getting guidance on their season.
Welter conducted a camp Wednesday night and heard “some disappointment and concern” but added that his athletes were “for the most part really pleased” that they’ll get to put on the helmet and pads at some point.
“Our kids handled the news well,” Hamilton said. “We spun it on a positive that, ‘Hey, it’s some crazy times right now and we still have an opportunity, and hopefully by then we have a vaccine and we can have a normal season.’”
On the scheduling front, Hamilton said that’s the first item he’s attempting to wrap his head around beyond the fact football will be played in the spring.
In order for football games to happen, the sport will need to reach at least Level 3 of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s “Types of Play” chart, a four-level system that dictates what an athlete can do based on a sport’s risk level — designated lower, medium or higher — and current public health conditions.
Football currently is at Level 1, considered a high-risk event. But even if and when football does get to Level 3, Pritzker’s guidelines allow only for “intra-conference or intra-EMS-region or intra-league play.” EMS Regions are the 11 regions the Illinois Department of Public Health is using in the “Restore Illinois” plan to define different sections of the state.
“We play (Bloomington) Central Catholic. I assume we can play them because we’re in the same conference but not the same region,” Hamilton said, “but I assume we couldn’t play Bloomington High School because we’re in different regions and not in the same conference.”
Both Unity and Monticello had scheduled games against out-of-state opponents this season, with the Rockets set to visit Pierce City, Mo., and the Sages set to host Osceola (Ind.) Grace during the initial fall season.
IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said Wednesday he’d like to see teams in the same conference and region work together on scheduling — which the IHSA is giving authority to schools to handle — and added that the IHSA will work with programs that need assistance retooling their schedules.
Coaches also are looking for clarity on how many games they could possibly play. Anderson said he currently anticipates a six- or seven-week regular season with one or two weeks of regional postseason action.
Hamilton said he wouldn’t be opposed to such a layout, with perhaps four teams placed into a regional playoff pod and playing semifinal games, followed by a third-place game and a championship game.
Welter said he’d opt for a different approach. Even if it means no postseason games of any type.
“There’s a big part of me that would be more interested in a nine-game schedule with no playoffs,” Welter said. “In football, you only get nine games to begin with anyway. You knock a couple (teams) out (in the playoffs), and that’s a pretty short season for some kids.”
The biggest aspect nagging each of these three coaches is the fact states surrounding Illinois are contesting fall football either as scheduled or close to it.
Kentucky and most of Indiana are running their campaigns as planned, while Iowa is using a flexible schedule that starts as early as Aug. 27.
“That’s probably the most frustrating aspect is to see all the surrounding states being able to go on and try to make something happen,” Welter said. “It would’ve been nice to, under the necessary precautions, do that as well. But I’m no expert on this stuff.”
Hamilton said he’s fearful for those neighboring states and the chance a COVID-19 spike could derail fall football while they are in season.
“I have a feeling they may get a week in or two weeks in or one game in and all the sudden they get it yanked out from underneath them,” Hamilton said, “and maybe they don’t get to restart and ... we’ll get a full nine-game season.”
One other element that almost definitely will change in moving football from fall to spring is an increase in the chance of poor weather. It’s not uncommon for typical spring sporting events to be postponed because of the weather.
Hamilton feels fortunate that Unity’s Hicks Field recently received a turf playing surface prior to the 2019 season.
Of course, not everyone sees the weather as a potential negative.
“A game that we’ll always remember is the (2018 Class 2A) semifinals at GCMS, playing against Sterling Newman,” Allen said. “That day there was snow, there was sleet, there was rain. That weather was a blast to play in. We’re going to get the opportunity to do that again, and that’s a lot of fun to play in.”