Results will be known Dec. 18 on proposal that eliminates high school football conferences

Conferences could soon become a thing of the past in Illinois high school football.

The Illinois High Association’s Legislative Commission recently voted to bring Proposal 23 to a vote of the IHSA membership. The vote is in progress and concludes Tuesday, Dec. 18. If Proposal 23 is passed by the IHSA schools, geographical districts would replace conferences for football scheduling starting with the 2021-22 school year. 

Count a couple of area football coaches among those opposed to the change from conferences to districts.

“I’m just not a fan of it,” said Mid-County head coach Gary Denhart. “It takes a lot of stuff out of our local control. I think it takes away a lot of natural rivals.”

“It’s not something I’ve ever been in favor of,” said Stark County’s Jade Noard, the dean of Lincoln Trail Conference football coaches. 

“I like playing Mercer County, Mid-County and Annawan-Wethersfield,” Noard added of Stark County’s traditional LTC rivals. “Some of that — maybe all of that — would go away.”

The current nine-week regular season schedule would remain in place if the proposal passed, but schools would be divided into eight district groups in all classes, 1A through 8A. Playoff classes would be determined prior to the season.

Most districts would feature eight teams, and each team would play all district opponents. Schools would be able to schedule two non-district teams each season, which would not count toward playoff qualification. The top four teams in district competition would qualify for the playoffs.

The proposal was submitted by official representatives from Naperville Central and Forreston, on behalf of the Football Advisory Committee.

The rationale of the proposal is to “avoid scheduling conflicts and the search to win five games to be playoff eligible.”

Denhart doesn’t believe the current IHSA playoff system is in need of fixing.

“I think the way we do the playoffs is the best thing around,” the M-C coach said. “I think we have a great thing.”

Noard said it’s easy to draw that first district and like the way it looks, but the district system has to work for the whole state.

Steve Soucie, sports editor of the Joliet Herald-News, recently projected what districts might look like across the state based on 2017 enrollment numbers. Soucie put nine teams in some districts to account for overflow, and stressed his projections were based on his geographical observations.

Soucie placed Mid-County in a Class 3A district with Beardstown, Elmwood-Brimfield, Farmington, Monmouth-Roseville, Petersburg PORTA, Alleman and Sherrard. He put Ridgewood in a Class 1A district with Ashton-Franklin Center, Wethersfield, Milledgeville, Morrison, Ottawa Marquette, Polo and Stark County.

Proposal 23 lists three pros — schools will still be able to schedule natural rivals during non-district play; travel for some districts could decrease compared to current conference travel; and IHSA-scheduled games could bring conferences back together for all other sports.

The lone negative listed in the proposal is the possibility of increased travel for some teams compared to their current conference schedule.

Noard said from a competitive standpoint, it would probably benefit his program by playing 1A schools every week in district games, but he prefers the rivalries the Rebels have developed with 2A schools like Mercer County in the LTC.

“The people I know in other parts of the state are vehemently against it,” Denhart said. “For us as a co-op, it would increase our travel. If this goes through, we would have to play a lot of schools that we don’t know very well.”

A district proposal was presented to the IHSA membership several years ago and was resoundly defeated, with roughly 65 percent of the state opposed. But this new proposal appears to have a little more steam.

“I think it’s going to be real close,” Noard said. “I tend to think it will not pass, but it will be real close.”