Football coach and athletic director Mike Allen of Class 2A state champion Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley opposes a proposal to replace a conference system for football with districts. 

There is no suitable opponent in Illinois that Normal Community High School can schedule in week four of the 2019 football season.

Likewise, Normal West has yet to find a foe for week six and Champaign Centennial needs one for week seven.

As these schools and others continue searching, Illinois High School Association members are voting on a proposal that could solve this annual problem as soon as 2021. 

If passed, Proposal 23 would replace a conference system for football with districts.

Each school's final seven games of the season would be scheduled by the IHSA. Schools would do their own scheduling the first two games, which would not impact the playoffs.

Playoff classes would be determined prior to the 2021 season based on enrollment. Schools would be placed in eight geographic groups of about eight teams each to play a round-robin schedule the final seven weeks.

The top four teams in each district would advance to the playoffs. A tiebreaker for the final playoff spot has yet to be determined. The districts would change every two years as enrollments fluctuate, co-ops change or as the success factor impacts non-boundaried schools.

Under Proposal 23, traditional rivals from different classes such as Class 6A Normal West and Class 7A NCHS could continue to meet in week one or two.

Schools have until Dec. 17 to vote on Proposal 23 and 10 other proposals. The results will be announced Dec. 18. Even if Proposal 23 passes, the IHSA Board of Directors has the final say. The IHSA football advisory committee voted unanimously to put Proposal 23 in front of the IHSA membership.

"It's going to be a close vote," predicts IHSA assistant executive director Sam Knox, who doesn't know if every district will have eight teams.

"Looking a little over two years down the road, we don't know how many football-playing schools we are going to have (compared to 565 at present)."

NCHS, Normal West and University High have voted for or are leaning in favor of Proposal 23 while Central Catholic is against it. Bloomington principal and IHSA executive board member Tim Moore has yet to decide how his school will vote, but BHS athletic director Tony Bauman and football coach Scott Godfrey are in favor of it. A similar proposal narrowly failed last year.

"I'm not a fan of it at all," said Mike Allen, the athletic director and football coach of two-time Class 2A state champion Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley.

"We're in an incredible conference with the Heart of Illinois Conference. I would hate to see us not be able to continue playing football in that conference."

NCHS athletic director Nic Kearfott likes the proposal because it will reduce "conference jumping" in which schools search for ways to get five wins to become playoff eligible.

"Conferences are breaking up, separating ... dominoes keep falling year after year due basically to this," he said. "Everybody is looking for the five or six wins."

Besides having no week four opponent for 2019, NCHS has no week seven foe in 2020. In two of the past three years, BHS has scrambled to fill a date after teams backed out of the second game of two-year contracts. Proposal 23 should make scheduling easier for some schools. 

"I think there are some definite benefits for our school," Bauman said. "With our size, I don't think it would drastically change our schedule because we do have similar teams within our conference who I think would be in our district."

BHS principal Moore is concerned about downstate 7A and 8A districts forcing teams to travel much farther. He also worries about teams with three big rivals losing one.

"I think that's what makes high school sports fun, is an opportunity to compete against local schools who have been rivals for years," he said. "No matter what is done, voted for or voted against, somebody is not going to be happy about it."

Some leagues such as the 10-team Illini Prairie Conference already ensure each member gets nine games.

"We don't have to worry about scheduling nonconference games," said Central Catholic athletic director Hud Venerable. "It makes it nice. We like where we're headed with our conference."

In a town hall meeting Venerable attended, 47 percent of voters liked Proposal 23. 

"The problem of conference jumping, in my mind, was worse years ago than it is now," he said.  

An earlier version of Proposal 23 included mock districts. That version had University High grouped with East Peoria, Washington and Metamora among others.

"When schools saw where they were actually going to be placed, that caused a lot of them to vote no," said U High athletic director Wendy Smith. 

Voting on Proposal 23 without knowing what teams you will face in 2021 is a gamble.

"It might be worse for you," Allen said. "Now you are going to allow the IHSA to dictate who you play."

Kearfott guesses the Ironmen, a Class 7A team with an enrollment of 2,091, could be in a district with Quincy, Pekin, Edwardsville, Belleville West, Belleville East and East St. Louis.

"If we don't have enough, we could draw one team from the south (Chicago) suburbs," said Kearfott, tabbing Bradley-Bourbonnais or Minooka as possibilities.

Facing such teams would require more travel by the Ironmen, but Kearfott notes it would only be for four or five road games per year on Fridays.

Normal West athletic director Stan Lewis guesses his school could be in a district with several current Big 12 Conference members such as BHS and Peoria Notre Dame along with nearby Dunlap and Washington.

While football has destroyed some conferences, Proposal 23 could encourage leagues to re-form for sports other than football. 

"You might see one more round of conference shifts," Lewis said. "People may get back to the way conferences used to be, which is 'we want to be in a league that has similar size schools and we're fairly close in geography.'"

Smith predicts Proposal 23 will affect entire athletic programs, not just football.

"It may take a while for that to trickle down," she said, "but eventually it's going to be affecting everything."

Other states that use districts include Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin and Texas. Proposal 23 does not address scheduling for lower level games.

"It would be a local decision on who you would play for freshman and JV games," Knox said.

One flaw Allen sees in Proposal 23, which he thinks will pass, is that there will be no incentive in weeks one and two. 

"You are going to take a chance on someone getting hurt," he said. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to me."

Knox said coaches could use those games to evaluate players without worrying about a loss endangering playoff hopes.

Some schools may feel locked in by districts, according to Allen, who notes Blue Ridge, among the state's 11 independent teams, was able to leave the HOIC to be an independent.

Proposal 23 could lead to more lopsided regular-season games as powerhouse teams (such as Rochester for example) who currently play larger schools switch to playing schools their own size. 

Lewis believes Proposal 23 will create more accurate playoff seedings. As it is now, a 9-0 team can lose in the first round to a 5-4 squad such as Joliet Catholic, which plays larger schools.  

"Everybody keeps waiting for the perfect scenario to come," Smith said. "I don't know that anybody has said they will be able to come up with that." 

Contact Randy Sharer at (309) 820-3405. Follow him on Twitter: @PG_sharer



Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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