BLOOMINGTON — High school football in Illinois soon will have a different look with the passage of a proposal to replace conferences with districts.
The Illinois High School Association announced Tuesday that Proposal 23 had passed by a vote of 324-307. The new system will take effect in the 2021 football season.
Under the district format, each school’s final seven games of the nine-game regular season will be scheduled by the IHSA. Schools will schedule their first two games, which will not impact the playoffs.
Playoff classes will be determined prior to the season by enrollment, with schools in each class placed in eight geographic groups of eight or nine teams by the IHSA and play a round-robin schedule.
The top four teams in each district advance to the playoffs. Districts will change every two years as enrollments fluctuate, co-ops change or the success factor impacts non-boundaried schools.
IHSA executive director Craig Anderson called it "a historic change."
"The narrow gap in the voting indicates that there are pros and cons that impact our diverse football-playing membership in a multitude of ways," Anderson added.
"We hope that it will effectively address conference realignment and scheduling concerns, while helping create long-term sustainability and growth for high school football in our state."
Districts will be assigned similarly to how schools are assigned to regionals and sectionals in other IHSA sports.
Anderson said it would be "ideal" if there were 64 teams in each class, with eight teams in each district. However, it is not yet known how many playoff-eligible schools will be playing football in 2021.
"We understand that everyone wants to know what district and class they will be in, but the reality is that we are two years away from being able to tabulate that information," Anderson said. “Because IHSA districts will operate on a two-year cycle, schools will need the next two years to evaluate their participation.
"Some may choose to join co-ops or disband co-ops. Some may choose to play eight-man football. Chicago Public Schools will need to determine what schools it will make playoff eligible, and we will also have non-boundaried schools that will change classes in that time frame as they gain or lose multiplier waivers.”
There were 560 Illinois schools playing football this past fall with 523 eligible to qualify for the playoffs. Anderson said the IHSA Football Advisory Committee, Board of Directors and IHSA staff will work to "create policy that addresses situations with more or less than 512 teams."
Among them, he said, are "the first two games not counting (toward postseason qualification), the added travel for some teams and some natural rivalries potentially being broken up."
"We had no answers on how the playoffs would look (i.e. who is in your district, etc.)," Godfrey added. "We play in a tough conference (Big 12) as it is, so if you're going to say we're a 6A school, we're going to be OK playing any 6A school you put us in with.
"My worries are how the playoffs are going to work and how are those first two games that don't mean anything going to work? I don't want our regular season to be a seven-week season with two practice games. I think it devalues the regular season."
Tri-Valley football coach and athletic director Josh Roop said his school has been content in the Heart of Illinois Conference, which has produced the past four Class 2A state champions (including Tri-Valley in 2015).
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The league currently has two six-team divisions so scheduling has not been an issue. Roop said he understands the pros of the district setup in terms of schools struggling to find a conference, conference realignments and the 'strive for five (wins)' under the current system.
However, like Godfrey, he worries about the first two games.
"I don't understand in this day and age playing games that don't matter," Roop said. "It's going to be up to individual schools on how they're going to handle that. Is it going to look like NFL exhibition games or be a rivalry game? If it doesn't matter for the postseason, it changes the philosophy for a lot of people."
Football coach and athletic director Mike Allen of two-time 2A state champion Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley expressed similar concerns to The Pantagraph when the proposal was put up for a vote.
"You are going to take a chance on someone getting hurt," he said of the first two games. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to me."
The district format will mean more time on a bus for Normal Community. As a Class 7A school with an enrollment of 2,091, the Ironmen likely would be in a district with the likes of Quincy, Pekin, Edwardsville, Belleville East and West, East St. Louis, etc.
Still, coach Jason Drengwitz said, "I think the positives definitely outweigh the negatives for us."
"I think potentially it makes scheduling easier," he said. "You're not scrambling to find games like you are some years. It also allows us to play schools our size."
Drengwitz is hopeful the Ironmen can maintain their natural rivalries with Bloomington and Normal West, both likely to be in 6A.
"Those are the games the kids grew up going to and the ones they want to play in," Drengwitz said. "I think playing great programs like Bloomington and Normal West would help us prepare for that district play and the playoffs.
"We just have so much respect for those programs and those schools. We want to find a way to keep that going if we could."
Normal West coach Nathan Fincham is all for playing NCHS, saying, “I would expect Normal Community will be one of our first two opponents in this new format. That’s a rivalry I think we’re going to want to keep going.”
Fincham hopes to use the first two games to challenge his team and “see where you’re at and get better from it.” He pointed out that under current setup there is incentive to find weak nonconference opponents to pile up wins for playoff qualifying purposes.
Now, he said, “You’re not playing a district game at the beginning, so you can kind of feel your way through the schedule to see what you’re good at before you get into games that count.”
Fincham’s team had to make a three-hour drive to Hampshire for a nonconference game in week six this season. In previous years, the Wildcats have gone to Indiana and Missouri for nonconference games.
“It’s tough when you have to go out of state for nonconference games,” he said.
The new system could impact conferences in sports other than football. Decisions on what league to play in will no longer be driven by football.
"This eliminated the only reason why conference realignment was happening; now it’s out of the picture," Maroa-Forsyth coach Josh Jostes said. "You don’t have to win a certain amount of basketball games (to make the playoffs)."