Take Illinois’ 523 high school football teams, divide them into eight classes by size, then form eight eight-team districts within each of those classes geographically.
OK, so mathematically, that doesn’t quite work — some districts will have nine. But that’s the wonderfully simple plan that schools around the state will begin voting on this month to end conference realignment in football that’s been going on since conferences were first formed in the early 1900s.
Conference movement has ramped up in the 17 years since the playoff field expanded to eight classes with 32 teams, and many schools have tried to position themselves schedule-wise to guarantee the magic number of five wins that (nearly) guarantees a spot in the playoffs.
The movement has repeatedly left some schools with massive holes in their schedules. Maroa-Forsyth and Monticello were among the teams scrambling to re-form the Okaw Valley Conference when nine of the 12 Okaw members left to form the Central Illinois Conference.
Both Maroa and Monticello later found different fits that, while not ideal, are at least stable conferences.
Maroa is in the Sangamo Conference, which is mostly made up of the small schools surrounding Springfield. The Trojans have remained an elite program, winning the conference in football this year. But while the Maroa football team makes the road trip west to the Sangamo schools four or five times a year on Friday nights, the rest of the school’s sports teams are often making the trip a couple nights a week on school nights — not ideal, especially when they’re passing by the turn-offs for Warrensburg-Latham and St. Teresa on their way there.
The statewide membership vote for Proposal 23 is being held between Dec. 3-17. The votes will be counted and the results released on Dec. 18. If passed, the new format would take effect for the 2021 season.
But are districts a fix?
That’s hard to say because the IHSA members who advanced the proposal chose not to provide a look at exactly what these districts would look like. Maroa coach Josh Jostes, who is on the IHSA’s football advisory committee that formed the proposal, said, “We want voting based on the idea, not on an actual two-year district.”
We do know they’d be recalculated every two years. But exactly how they’d form the districts … there are a lot of ways to go that make sense, and a lot that don’t. Some groupings of eight are going to be perfect matches, some are going to be a mess.
And, like in the current system, making everyone happy will be impossible. And when they do change every two years, small tweaks could make major differences. A team that may be playing neighboring schools could suddenly be shipped to a district that required significantly more travel.
That’s why Proposal 23 is not going to pass, and probably shouldn’t.
(I should probably admit here that I’m rooting for it to pass just because it would be fun and different, and in a lot of ways a more legitimate way to form the playoffs. There would be lots of new matchups we haven’t seen much in the past, and — even better — the playoffs in the district format will be set up to where teams in the same district wouldn’t play each other until the third round)
One thing is for sure, when you try to split the state up by size and geography, you see why a lot of teams just learn to live with playing teams bigger or smaller than they are. Rochester and Clinton don’t travel much now for their football games. They will if this passes.
The current system could use some tweaks. Separate football conferences from the other sports’ conferences is worth considering.
But this plan will potentially turn everything upside down. And while I might think that's fun, a lot of schools have worked hard to put themselves in the position they're in schedule-wise.
There’s no easy answer, and I’ve heard a lot of the proposed solutions. I’d love to hear more. Email me at jconn@herald-review or comment on social media if you have a plan, think this one would work, or think they should just leave the whole thing alone.