The rules-making committee of the Illinois High School Association has signed off on a proposal that would change the football playoffs format and, likely, mean the end of traditional athletic conferences.
Similar changes have been discussed in the past, but had yet to advance beyond the legislative committee that on Wednesday voted to forward the proposal for consideration by IHSA member high schools.
Changes would include dividing Illinois into eight groups based on geography and school enrollment. Teams would be required to play each of the other teams of the same enrollment class within their district.
The top four teams from each district, based on their record only in games played within their group, would qualify for the postseason.
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Enrollment classes would be determined prior to the start of the season, unlike the current format. The current playoff point system would be abandoned.
Member schools will begin voting on the proposed changes on Monday. The deadline is midnight on Monday, Dec. 17.
A simple majority will result in implementation of the new format for the 2021 season.
Ending the ‘drive for 5’
Sam Knox, an assistant executive director at the IHSA, said the proposals originated by the football advisory committee that hopes to stem the so-called “drive for 5.”
Some athletic directors, he said, purposely schedule games against smaller schools to enhance their team’s chances of winning a five games, which makes them playoff eligible under the current format. Schools also jump conferences to avoid games against stronger teams, even if they are similar in enrollment.
“The football committee has heard from many around the state who have seen the conferences change over the years ... that have not been good for a lot of schools,” Knox said. “They’ll continue to happen as long as teams try to build a football schedule that puts them into the playoffs.”
The proposed changes, Knox said, would likely mean the end of athletic conferences, at least where football is concerned.
“Certainly, teams can stay in their conferences for other sports,” he said. “In fact, if the IHSA establishes football districts, some schools might go back to old conferences they had previously left strictly because of football.
“In the beginning of conference formation, they were started on the same criteria we’re talking about here — geography and enrollment.”
Traditional rivalries could survive the changes since two or three weeks of the season will still be open for schools to schedule as they see fit. Belleville East, a class 8A school, could still schedule a cross-town rivalry game with class 7A West, for example.
“West and East can still play, and should play, that game. It’s good for the programs and good for the community,” Knox said. “It’s just that, in the end, the game wouldn’t factor into whether either team makes the playoffs.”
The logisitical challenges
The proposed format presents logistical challenges downstate and, in particular, the metro-east, where only Belleville East, O’Fallon and Edwardsville compete in class 8A.
The Lancers, Panthers and Tigers would therefore have to be zoned with schools in suburban Chicago, meaning at least two or three cross-state road trips each season. Increased travel likely would be required in other classes as well.
“Whether we call them districts or zones or whatever, I think the IHSA will probably challenge what most people think of as geography,” Knox said.
O’Fallon Athletic Director says he sees both good and bad in the proposed changes.
“The negative side is the travel and what the changes would do to our conference,” he said. “The upside is the schedule is done.”
Filling a nine-week schedule, Moeller said, is problematic because smaller schools trying to be playoff eligible don’t typically want to risk a loss against teams in the state’s larger enrollment classes.
That hurdle has only gotten higher with Collinsville and Granite City out of Southwestern Conference and a new Missouri football format that will take St. Louis-area public schools off the scheduling table.
In other words, more travel may be inevitable no matter what format the IHSA adopts.
“There is no best-case scenario,” Moeller said. “Even if the proposal doesn’t pass, we still have to contend with things that are not ideal. Traveling is something we’ve become accustomed to; we’ve been up north before.”
Traveling would be nothing new for East St. Louis, which elects to “play up” to class 7A and tackles a competitive non-conference schedule that routinely takes the Flyers out of state.
Knox said it’s possible that metro-east teams in some classes could be placed in seven-team districts, instead of eight, to mitigate some of the need for travel.
Mark Larsen, athletic director at Belleville East, said the District 201 administration has purposely avoided conversation about the changes pending a review of the actual proposal. He echoed, however, some of the concerns Moeller raised about the challenges of scheduling.
“If it’s implemented, obviously, we’ll go along and make it work,” Larsen said. “But I agree it’s a two-sided coin. There would be some challenges and some advantages.”
Moeller suggested that some of the strain and expense of long bus rides could be eliminated by playing games at neutral sites, such as Belleville West did in 2016 with a non-conference game against Lincoln Way-East of suburban Frankfort at Illinois Weslyan University in Bloomington.
“That’s just me thinking out loud,” Moeller said, “but it has been done before. There are creative ways to manage things.”
Knox said the decision to advance the changes for vote by the IHSA membership was influenced, in part, by annual town hall meetings of Illinois principals and athletic directors. Moeller estimated that the 60-or-so school administrators that attended his town hall meeting favored the changes by a 2-to-1 margin.
“It’s a concept that has been around for a while,” he said. “This proposal seems to be resonating the most and feels like it has the best chance of passing.”