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 having too few opponents' wins — the criteria used to establish a cutoff.
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.
This proposal is the latest in a series that have tried to address the issues that have evolved from conference-jumping caused in large part by football and teams trying to position themselves to win five games and make the playoffs.
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."
Maroa-Forsyth coach Josh Jostes is on the IHSA Football Advisory Board and has seen several plans suggesting districts in the past that didn't pass.
"I think until you've went through a conference change, you don't think about it," Jostes said in the Herald & Review Outside the Box Podcast in September. "Ten years ago I would have told you the Okaw was the best conference in downstate Illinois and that would never change."
When the Okaw split and Maroa was left in a conference struggling to find teams, Jostes said his opinion shifted quickly. But a plan led in part by former Maroa-Forsyth principal Scott Adreon in 2013 didn't get this far.
"Districts is the only way you're ever going to end conference realignment," Jostes said. "When we had the proposal with my old boss Scott Adreon, there was about 30 percent support. Now it's up to about 50 percent. All it takes is a majority.
"I can't say it's 100 percent it's going to pass, but I think this has the best chance that it's ever had."
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 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.
Maroa plays in the Sangamo Conference with mostly Springfield-area schools. While his football team doesn't mind making the trips on Friday nights, he feels for the Maroa teams making those trips on weeknights.
"The freshman girls basketball game on a Wednesday night in PORTA is already not going to be well-attended in Warrensburg, and it's really not going to be well-attended in PORTA," Jostes said. "Or the volleyball team that has to leave at 3 o'clock for freshman, JV and varsity games in Williamsville and not get home until 9 or 10 tonight. That makes no sense when they should be driving to St. Teresa, Clinton, Argenta, Warrensburg — four directions — and be playing at the game in 15 minutes.
"The reason for that was football driven. I feel terrible about that."
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.
"I don't like it, obviously," said Rochester coach Derek Leonard, whose teams are 112-11 overall and 40-2 in the playoffs since joining the CS8. "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 non-conference 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 non-conference," Grounds said. "It would be Week 1 and Week 2."
Monticello coach Cully Welter, whose team had to change conferences with the breakup of the Okaw Valley and is now in the Illini Prairie, said in the Outside the Box Podcast in October that he can see both sides of the argument.
"It's looking at what's best for your school vs. what's best for the state as a whole — it's not always the same thing," Welter said. "Right now we're in a closed conference and we're pretty happy with that, but a couple of years ago we were scrambling all over the state.
"I see merit in it, but I'm not necessarily ready to jump on board full-fledged."