Proposal 23: How it came about, and what it means for high school football's future

  • In 2018, Naperville Central and Naperville North had to play two football games against each other to round out their nine-game schedule. That won't be necessary starting in 2021, when the Illinois High School Association's new district scheduling format is slated to begin.

      In 2018, Naperville Central and Naperville North had to play two football games against each other to round out their nine-game schedule. That won't be necessary starting in 2021, when the Illinois High School Association's new district scheduling format is slated to begin. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 

Andy Lutzenkirchen did not expect the bylaw amendment he proposed to radically change Illinois high school football to pass.

The Naperville Central athletic director co-sponsored Proposal 23 along with Forreston principal Travis Heinz. In December it won approval 324-307 from member schools, with 69 voting no opinion.

"I thought it would be close," Lutzenkirchen said, "but I thought it would be close and wouldn't pass. I was surprised."

Under the new bylaw amendment, conferences in football will be replaced with two-year predetermined districts of eight teams assigned by the Illinois High School Association based on enrollment and geography.

The proposal calls for football classes to be separated into eight districts per class, each consisting of eight schools, ideally.

Teams will play seven district games as assigned by the IHSA. According to assistant executive director Sam Knox, the organization plans to use the same proprietary software it applies to determine sectional and regional groupings in other sports. The top four finishers in each district will advance to the state playoffs.

Schools can still schedule two nondistrict games at their discretion in the first two weeks of the season. These games will not count toward playoff qualification.

Lutzenkirchen had good reasons to propose the district format for Illinois, which is similar but not identical to those used in Iowa, Nebraska, New York, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and Vermont, among other states.

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Because the Redhawks boast a long history of football success highlighted by state titles in 1999 and 2013, they found it increasingly difficult to fill nonconference openings.

"Nobody wanted to play us," Lutzenkirchen said.

Last September, Naperville Central filled a Week 4 open date by driving five hours to play Trinity High School in Kentucky. Two seasons ago it made a 365-mile road trip in Week 6 to play St. Edward of Lakewood, Ohio.

Caught in conference limbo with only five teams remaining in the once-robust DuPage Valley Conference in the wake of multiple membership changes, the Redhawks were forced to play rival Naperville North twice last fall just to round out a nine-game schedule.

Hoping to avoid a repeat of that scenario, Lutzenkirchen lobbied for district play. The IHSA Football Advisory Board, of which he and Heinz are members through 2019, sent the proposal to 28 town hall meetings around the state for discussion. The measure gained mixed support in straw polls.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Because there was enough straw-poll support, the IHSA Legislative Committee voted in November to put the district football proposal to a vote of the full membership. Of the 818 high schools in Illinois, 700 voted.

"This was the highest vote turnout ever, over 80 percent," Lutzenkirchen said. "To say that's unheard of, it is. You're happy when you get close to 75 percent."

Some around the state will never be ready for a predetermined district football schedule because the new format extinguishes long-standing conferences and some traditional rivalries.

Others, like Rich Wherley, have been calling for this type of sea change for a decade to fix what they see as a broken system.

Wherley submitted the first official proposal for Illinois district football in 2009. He retired last June after 24 years as principal of Eureka High, located 18 miles east of Peoria.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Eureka was wedged out of a small-school conference after the 2002-03 season and joined a league comprised of slightly larger schools out of necessity. The result between 2004-09 was 12 wins and 43 losses with one playoff appearance.

A member of the IHSA Legislative Committee at the time, Wherley figured there had to be a better way. He spent countless hours researching how other states managed high school football. He spoke to officials in Iowa, Texas and the east coast and eventually condensed the ideas into the first district football bylaw amendment proposal.

The Eureka plan differed in a profound way from the version that passed last month. Wherley proposed 10-team districts, not eight. That would have given the IHSA "the sole responsibility to schedule all football games for member schools," according to the 2009 proposal.

The bid was not greeted with open arms. Only two of about 30 IHSA Legislative Committee members supported it, Wherley said. It was never put to a full membership vote.

"I wasn't real popular back then," Wherley said with a laugh. "But I guess I opened the door."

The first district proposal failed to gain traction, but the idea didn't die because conference shifting continued unabated. In the five years following Wherley's proposal, 24 more conferences experienced membership fluctuation.

Sycamore athletic director Chauncey Karrick and principal Tim Carlson drafted a 2014 bylaw amendment designed to stop the seemingly constant conference churn.

Sycamore was a member of the Little Seven Conference from 1946-1995 but has led a nomadic existence since that league disbanded due to enrollment discrepancies. The Spartans move to a revamped Interstate Eight Conference next year. It will be their fourth conference affiliation in 23 years, not to mention the four division realignments within those conferences during that span.

"We were tired of changing conferences and changing divisions within conferences all because of football," Karrick said. "We weren't worried about basketball, baseball or volleyball. It was always football."

Like Wherley, Karrick did his homework. He spoke to officials in other states and settled on a model. Sycamore proposed eight-team districts for Classes 3A-8A so schools had a path to maintaining local rivalries in the event a neighboring school was assigned to a different district or class.

The Sycamore proposal gained enough interest for the legislative committee to put it to a full membership vote. It was defeated 395-212.

"It didn't pass but it did a little better than we thought," Karrick said. "We thought, well we tried. We'll see what happens in the future."

It seems the future is now considering district football is slated to begin in 2021. Nothing is written in stone, however. There is a pathway to repeal if enough support exists.

A proposal to repeal the district bylaw amendment would have to follow the same channels as the version that passed last month, a lengthy process. It must be submitted in writing by a member school's official IHSA representative, have the support of the football advisory committee, gain straw poll support at statewide town hall meetings, pass through the legislative committee and win a vote of the full membership.

Knox said the IHSA staff is in the early stages of planning for 2021. However, he did not rule out the possibility a repeal proposal could find support considering how close the final vote was in December.

"It could be we're doing a lot of work that turns out to be for nothing because there might be a bylaw that comes along to repeal this before it has a chance to go into effect," Knox said. "But until we know differently, our membership has said they want this and we are planning for that in the fall of 2021."

Lutzenkirchen said he would like to see member schools give district football a chance to work.

"The fact that so many schools got out and voted says a lot," he said. "I think it says we're ready to make a change. Let's try something.

"If it doesn't work, we can go back."

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