The postseason football playoff, which was introduced in 1974, has forever changed the face of the game in Illinois in dramatic fashion--for the good and for the not-so-good. Folks who have only watched high school football for the past 35 years probably aren't aware of the way it was. But old-timers are.
"The state playoffs have ruined conferences and rivalries and common opponents," said Kankakee Bishop McNamara coach Rich Zinanni, who won state championships in 1982, 1985, 1986 and 1987 and settled for seconds in 1978 and 1981.
"Nobody wants to play anybody (good) for fear of losing. It forces you to find wins on your open dates (so you will qualify for the playoff). The way the system is set is you are in if you are 6-3 but if you are 5-4 it depends on points. The reality is you don't get anything for strength of schedule."
How crazy is the system? Zinanni pointed out that that McNamara earned a spot in this year's playoff only because Lake Forest Academy beat a team in Pittsburgh, Pa., by a 26-20 margin, giving McNamara the point it needed to qualify.
If that wasn't bad enough, McNamara had to survive an IHSA investigation prompted by Sandwich, which hoped to land a spot at McNamara's expense. Sandwich argued that McNamara wasn't entitled to points for beating St. Francis de Sales because the school was playing a junior varsity schedule. The issue was moot because it was proven than de Sales had signed contracts for four varsity games.
Is anyone following all of this?
The point is high school football in Illinois isn't the way it was. For one, I miss the aura of the Prep Bowl and Thanksgiving Day rivalries such as East St. Louis/Belleville. And Sunday games at Gately Stadium. Glenbard West vs. Wheaton Warrenville South. The Mid-Suburban League's Super Bowl.
The Prep Bowl, matching the champions of the Chicago Public League and Chicago Catholic League, was founded in 1934 and quickly became the grandest high school event in the nation. The 1937 game between Austin and Leo attracted an estimated 120,000 to old Soldier Field, the largest crowd ever assembled for a football game--high school, college or professional--in the United States.
The attendance was 83,750 for Weber/Lane Tech in 1961 and 91,328 for Fenwick/Schurz in 1962 and 81,270 for St. Rita/Vocational in 1963. As late as 1970, a crowd of 65,735 showed up for St. Rita/Lane Tech.
With the coming of the state playoff, Prep Bowl crowds began to wane. In recent years, only hundreds watch the game instead of thousands. And the best teams in the two conferences participate in the state playoff, not the Prep Bowl. Attempts to rekindle interest haven't been successful.
With all due respect to the IHSA's procedure for seeding the state playoff, there needs to be another formula to avoid embarrassing some schools, especially the Chicago Public League. No one suggests that city schools are competitive with suburban and Downstate programs. Since the Public League joined the state playoff in 1979, only one city representative (Robeson in 1982) has advanced to the state championship game.
Worse, some city schools have been seeded No. 1 in their brackets by virtue of posting 9-0 records in Public League competition. Remember a few years ago when Marshall was seeded No. 1 and lost its opening game by 50 or 60 points? Let's hope Bogan fares better this year.
The IHSA argues that its system, using a computer, is best of all because it is totally objective and isn't influenced by anyone or anything, just records and points. Strength of schedule has nothing to do with it. In the IHSA's view, Bogan, Senn and Raby are just as good if not better than Maine South, Fremd, Glenbard West, Danville, Cary-Grove and Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin. Who's kidding whom?
Are eight classes at least one too many? Does it make sense to have 256 teams in the playoff? How about only 6-3 finishers and better? How many 5-4 teams are good enough to be competitive? Or are they no better than a 16th seed in a 16-team field that is hoping to be Cinderella before the clock strikes midnight?
The playoffs also played a role in changing the regular-season schedule. Remember when Mount Carmel hosted Leo or Mendel or St. Rita or St. Laurence or Brother Rice at Gately Stadium on Sunday afternoon? When the best officials in the country--Jerry Markbreit, Tom Quinn, Frank Strocchia, Don Hakes, Ed Maracich and other Big 10 officials--would work the Sunday games after working Ohio State/Michigan the previous afternoon? The atmosphere was electric. It isn't there anymore.
As the 2009 playoff begins, let's hope it will write its own exciting chapter in the history of high school football in Illinois. Will there be another final to rival East St. Louis/Glenbrook North in 1974? The five-touchdown performance by Decatur St. Teresa's Jerry Jones in 1975? Greg Bradshaw of Woodstock in 1983? Ryan Clifford of Naperville Central in 1999? Hinsdale Central's John Whitelaw last year?