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‘Good vibes all around’: IHSA hails the return of football finals to ISU

The Illinois High School Association estimates about 20,000 fans attended the eight football championship games at Hancock Stadium Nov. 24-25.
Emily Bollinger
The Illinois High School Association estimates about 20,000 fans attended the eight football championship games Nov. 24-25 at Hancock Stadium.

The Illinois high school football championships returned to Normal after a 25-year hiatus and event organizers are hailing it as a success.

The Illinois High School Association [IHSA] state finals were held Nov. 24-25. at Illinois State University’s Hancock Stadium.

“Just really good vibes all around and a lot of people, coaches and administrators and fans that we talked to who had been there before as fans. I think the overwhelming theme was that this is where it belongs and we're really glad it's back,” IHSA assistant executive director Matt Troha said about the weekend.

The finals were previously held at ISU from 1974 until 1998, and until this year were held at the University of Illinois and Northern Illinois University on rotating schedules.

Neighboring Horton Field House was transformed into a “tent city” for fans to experience pre and postgame festivities indoors.

“Just with the way the weather is in central Illinois this time of year, I think they really appreciated the ability to get inside before the game and kind of warm up before they went in for the game,” Troha said.

He also had high praise for the playing environment at Hancock Stadium compared with its counterparts.

A round sign with the letters IHSA and seating in the background with the inscription Illinois State University Redbirds
Emily Bollinger
The Illinois High School Association estimates about 20,000 fans attended the eight football championship games at Hancock Stadium Nov. 24-25.

“Hancock Stadium is such an intimate environment. I think it makes it feel really big time that the stands feel full. It feels loud, so I think it creates a really special atmosphere,” said Troha.

Hancock Stadium has a capacity of just under 14,000, while Huskie Stadium in DeKalb seats 23,500, and Memorial Stadium in Champaign seats almost 61,000.

Troha said official ticket sales won’t be known for a few weeks, but the estimated attendance for the eight championship games was close to 20,000, similar to recent seasons at Champaign-Urbana and DeKalb.

No major changes are planned for the finals next year that also will be held at ISU, Troha said.

The IHSA signed a four year contract with the school last year.

Tourism officials estimate the games would pump about $2.15 million into the Bloomington-Normal economy.

No more conferences?

The IHSA isn’t just reviewing a championship weekend, it’s also voting on major changes to the scheduling rules of high school football in the state.

Currently, schools are allowed to pick their own athletic conference, and with the IHSA playoffs requiring five wins to qualify, Troha said many schools would choose conferences based on their best chance to achieve five wins.

Under the new proposal, schools would be assigned to one of eight districts based on enrollment, and then those districts would be further divided into eight geographic divisions — each with eight teams.

The IHSA would be responsible for scheduling 3-to-9 of the regular season games for all member football schools. That leaves schools to schedule non-conference games in the first two weeks of the season.

“It’s created a lot of angst for schools that are very, very, good at football, who struggle to be able to schedule non-conference teams because teams looking for that ‘drive for five’ are not going to put them on their schedule, and in some cases it hurts local rivalries and just traditional rivalries.”

The proposal would force some schools to travel greater distances for in-district games. Critics of the plan say it also could limit the number of rivalry games if schools are in different enrollment classes.

IHSA schools narrowly approved a similar plan in 2018, but there was a buffer year before it took effect, and it was repealed in 2019. This vote has no buffer year, and if successful, would take effect in the 2024 season.

Troha said many people have strong opinions both ways on the issue.

“I think there’s a lot of people, some in our office included who think, ‘Maybe we should just try it.’ We’re kind of, I think, hopeful that, ‘Hey, it passes, let’s try it for a year or two and just see,' he said. "And we know how hard it is, you know, just to change. Change is hard for people, but maybe it’s something that we do and we realize is good and if it’s not then you could always go back and tweak the old system.”

Voting on the proposal began Dec. 4 and runs until Dec. 18. It requires a simple major of all IHSA member schools to be adopted.

Erik Dedo is a reporting and audio production intern at WGLT. He joined the station in 2022.
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