BLOOMINGTON — Football teams grouped by geography became a closer reality Wednesday when the Illinois High School Association's Legislative Commission voted to advance Proposal 23 to a full membership vote.
If approved by a majority of IHSA member schools next month, geographic groups -- often referred to as districts -- would replace conferences for football purposes beginning in the 2021-22 academic year.
The proposal keeps in place the current nine-week regular season but divides schools into eight groups in each of the eight classifications. Playoff classes would be determined prior to the season instead of the current system which takes the 256 qualifying teams and separates the largest 32 schools into Class 8A, the next 32 largest into 7A, etc.
Most groups would be comprised of eight teams and each school would play all seven group opponents. The top-four teams in each group would make the playoffs based on district games only. Two non-group games, that schools would be able to schedule on their own, would not count toward playoff participation.
The IHSA's proposal says the purpose of grouping would be to avoid scheduling conflicts and eliminate the need for schools to search for a path to five wins to become playoff eligible. Currently, IHSA schools have to win five games to become playoff eligible but even some 5-4 teams can miss the playoffs altogether by too few playoff points -- i.e., wins by opponents.
The proposal lists three pros: 1. Schools will still be able to schedule natural rivals during non-regional play; 2. Travel for some regions could be less then what some current conferences are experiencing, and 3. IHSA scheduled games could bring conferences back together for all other sports.
The only negative associated with geographic group, according to the proposal, is: "Travel for some schools could increase compared to their current schedule."
The full vote is scheduled between Dec. 3-17. The votes will be counted and the results released on Dec. 18.
Jacksonville High School football coach Mark Grounds is one proponent of the proposal.
"It's successful in other states; the district model does work first and foremost," said Grounds, the second-longest tenured coach in the Central State Eight Conference. "This proposal came unanimously from the football advisory (committee), which is made up of different demographics, different sizes, public schools, private schools, big schools, little schools. The football advisory committee came with a unanimous approval and recommendation that this proposal go forward."
Like many conferences throughout the state, the Central State Eight is made up of teams spread across different classifications. The largest school, enrollment-wise, for 2018 was Springfield High at 1,415 students -- closely followed by Chatham Glenwood at 1,403. Both schools are naturally Class 6A teams. Sacred Heart-Griffin, at 1,069.20 students, is a 6A school after being subjected to the non-boundaried multiplier as well as the success advancement factor.
The smallest is Normal University High, the league's newest member, at 620. And that is after a multiplier as U-High is a non-boundaried school. At 766 students, Rochester is the smallest public school in the conference. U-High and Rochester are both 4A schools. Rochester has won seven Class 4A state championships since joining the CS8 in 2010. Eisenhower (1,023 students) and MacArthur (1,093) in Decatur have been Class 5A.
When increased travel was brought up, Grounds said it wasn't as big of a concern in football as it might be in other sports.
"We travel to Decatur. We travel to Bloomington. We travel 30 miles (minimum) for every single game. When we added Decatur and we added (Normal U-High) to our conference, Jacksonville went along with it because it was the right thing to do for the conference," Grounds said. "It wasn't the right thing to do for us and travel. They were talking about adding teams west of Jacksonville when we were adding and nobody wanted to do that because of travel. We did what was right for the league and we were the ones who had to deal with more travel than anybody.
"Honestly, I don't think coaches worry as much about the travel. Quite honestly, you're probably only going to travel four games out of the year anyway, maybe five, but the next year that's going to flip."
Kincaid South Fork coach Buddy Brown agreed with Grounds. Brown, who was a first-year head coach in 2018, said the Prairie State Conference makes it tough to make the playoffs as the smallest team in the league.
"We can stop playing 4A schools (if geographic groups are implemented)," Brown said. "When our schedule comes out each year, we've got nine games and usually two or three of them are 4A schools and you can pretty much almost chalk up a loss. You can do the math: you pretty much have to win out to make the playoffs. That's been our Achilles' heel.
"I have no issue traveling. If I can play another 1A school, distance doesn't really bother me. If we could play schools the same size as us, I really think we could immediately start competing."
South Fork hasn't made the playoffs since 1994, despite 5-4 seasons in 2016 and 2017.
In the Sangamo Conference, Athens has been a success story with nine consecutive playoff appearances despite being the smallest school in the league.
But Warriors coach Ryan Knox said past performance isn't a guarantee of future results and is therefore in favor of districts.
"I think the most important thing (to the success) is we've had consistency with our coaching staff," Knox said. "At Athens, the Sangamo has been really beneficial to us. But that's not to say it's always going to be beneficial to us.
"We're slowing gaining in enrollment but not at the rate that other schools in the Sangamo are growing. It's obviously a situation where the Sangamo has been great to us, preparing us for the playoffs. We've had a really good run here but how long is that run going to continue?"
While Grounds is a big advocate of the proposal, he understands some schools' situations won't be better because of it. But he thinks that the ultimate good outweighs the cons.
"Is it great for every single school? No, it's probably not," he said. "But is it best for all of the schools and all of the sport? I think there are more positives than negatives."
At least one of his fellow conference coaches is on the other side of the fence.
Rochester was the first school to join the CS8 since it was born in 1993. The Rockets have gone 112-11 overall and 40-2 in the playoffs since becoming a member.
"I don't like it, obviously," said Rochester coach Derek Leonard. "I think it hurts conferences, it hurts rivalries. The Central State Eight Conference, the Sangamo Conference, other great conferences are going to be broken up totally completely by this proposal.
"I didn't think (the proposal) would get this far. I thought travel . . . would be crazy at some of these (schools). We might have to go all the way down to Breese or Belleville Althoff just for conference games when we're (currently) driving to Springfield and Chatham.
Already in favor of the proposal, Grounds pointed to another important factor: all non-group games will be in the first two weeks of the season. When the CS8 was a nine-team league, there was one nonconference game each week. Trying to schedule out of conference in the middle of the season was almost impossible for some schools.
"But here's part of the thing why people don't understand why the district proposals make a lot of sense: one of the things it does is it gives a uniform date for all schools when they can play nonconference," Grounds said. "It would be Week 1 and Week 2."
Missouri is one nearby state that uses districts. The Missouri State High School Activities Association has six classes. The smallest five are broken into eight districts each. The largest -- Class 6 -- has four eight-team districts.
In 2018, there were 565 football schools in Illinois, down from 577 in 2012.