By Joe Henricksen
I believe four classes is here to stay in Illinois. It's not going to change, so I will eventually have to move on and forget about all that was lost in Illinois high school basketball. However, I have been bombarded with e-mails, voicemails and conversations since I returned from Peoria. Nearly all of which have been negative.
The common theme has been, "Joe, I'm done with this. They've ruined it." Avid fans have told me they are not going to return to Peoria after years of attending the Elite Eight. Others want to know how this all happened, how could something so special and unique be tarnished so badly? Coaches have just shaken their heads and wondered, "What have we done?"
And then there are those that say it was for the best. This is good for the small schools. Now they can compete.
There are two things that continue to eat at me and, as is usually the case, have just been accepted since this all went down. First, the way it did go down.
The high school administrators in this state should be ashamed. When the IHSA survey went out to principals a few years back only 57 percent of the principals of member schools voted in the class survey. This was a survey with a whole bunch of other survey questions in it, with the four-class question casually thrown in. Of those 57 percent, 64 percent voted for class expansion. This means that only 36 percent -- 36 percent! -- of the membership voted for class expansion. We make a monumental and important decision for this state's premier sport on that type of response?
So the question is, why did we have to rush this and push this forward? After all, the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Board of Directors voiced their organization's emphatic "no" to the proposal with a unanimous vote against class expansion. Was the system that broke we had to fix it despite such limited input? After such a paltry figure in terms of the survey result, other steps should have been made. In reality, this was just like many other votes that are taken, where due to lack of voter turnout the minority of the population make decisions. The ones most upset make the most noise, are most visible and are the most active. But we are supposed to be dealing with highly-educated administrators who are paid very good money and have a responsibility to extracurricular activities and their relationship to academic success.
I remember speaking with the highly-respected coach Ken Crawford of Teutopolis about the issue. Crawford, who stepped down prior to last season and saddened by class expansion, said he believed a binding referendum separate from the large survey should have been held to determine expansion of classes. He noted the binding referendum on the multiplier issue had a much larger participation by principals. I couldn't agree more.
The second aspect of this that bothers me is that small schools can't compete. Sure, it's more difficult. But that's part of the mystique, part of the aura when a small school makes its run. And it's been far from a rare occurence when they have competed. In fact, small schools have more than held their own.
In 2005 Liberty (enrollment of 185 students) finished fourth in state. In 2003 half of the Elite Eight field had enrollments under 300, including Mt. Carroll (149 students), Cairo (216 students) and Cissna Park (130 students). What about state champion Nauvoo-Calusa (136 students) in 1998? Or what about state champion Warsaw (195 students) in 1997? Those small schools couldn't compete? That Warsaw team in 1997 had to battle an Elite Eight field that included whopping giants like Nokomis (275 students), Madison (245 students) and Williamsfield (94 students).
The figures go on and on, year after year, including four of the eight Elite Eight schools in 1995 being under 300 students, four of the eight schools in 1991 under 300 students, and Findlay winning a state championship in 1992 with an enrollment of 96 students.
Want more? If the 1990s weren't proof enough that small schools can compete -- if they are good enough! -- you can dip into an earlier decade, where in 1987 the first (Venice with 174 students), second (Okawville with 234 students) and third-place (Chrisman with 146 students) finishers all had tiny enrollments, with an average student body among the three of 184. And do you think the beloved Ohio team from 1986 that finished second in the state with 69 students will be remembered as well in a four-class system the way they are now?
The notion small schools can't compete is a joke. There have been over 30 schools with enrollments less than 300 students who have played in the Elite Eight since 1990. Again, they can compete if they are good enough. And the lore and respect they earn along the way is memorable and truly special.
The four classes are here, I know. Move on. But, as a coach stated to me and I wholeheartedly agree with, it's sad that in our society today that success is only defined by winning, when success should be about doing the very best you can do."
Don't tell me small schools can't compete. And don't tell me this is what people wanted. Neither are true.