December 03, 2021


When the IHSA finally adopted plans for postseason play

The road to high school playoffs, championships in Illinois

For the past couple generations of high school football players and coaches in Illinois, helping their team reach the playoffs would more than likely be high up on the list of goals to reach.

There would also be those selective few teams that set the goal higher, say a state championship.

Prior to the 1974 season, though, those goals could go no higher than winning a conference title, as a playoff system in the state had not been implemented.

That all changed in February of 1973 when Illinois High School Association principals voted 400 to 209 to approve the long-discussed playoff proposal. At that time, the plan was for there to be 16-team brackets in five classes based on enrollment.


In April of 1969, East Moline High School athletic director Gene McCarter headed a seven-person panel — consisting of ADs and coaches around the state — to discuss final plans for a playoff system to propose to the IHSA. The plan, which was first submitted by Urbana High School coach Warren Smith, had never been able to come to an IHSA vote.

The plan closely followed the one used by Missouri, which was based on wins, losses, ties, yardage and competition. The proposal called for 24 teams to compete — eight district winners in three enrollment classes (A: 1-399 students; AA 400-1,199; AAA 1,200 and up). The eight district champs would be determined by a points system.

• 20 points for a win in your class

• 5 points for a tie in your class

• -10 points for a loss in your class

• If a team defeated a school of a lower classification, it would only get 10 points for a win, lose 5 points for a tie and lose 20 points for a loss. The team with the highest average number of playoff points per game would represent its district.

It was also suggested the start of the season be moved up a week to accommodate the three-week playoff plan. The final proposal was sent to ADs and principals across the state during the summer.

The then six-member IHSA board of directors meet in closed session for three hours with 17 district principals from all over the state in December. The result was a resounding no go.

Harry Fitzhugh, the executive secretary of the IHSA at the time, said the decision was simple in his mind.

"The commission, after a two-month study and discussion among board members and information gained through meetings and its correspondence with principals and member schools, showed there was not sufficient interest in the playoff proposal," Fitzhugh said.


Over the next couple years, "new and improved" plans were addressed, but fell short of approval. The Illinois High School Football Coaches Association was formed in March of 1971. President Joe Devine of Carl Sandburg High School and the representatives of the organization — along with helping coaches find jobs and hosting coaching clinics — had promoting the possibility of a football playoff in the state at the top of their to-do list.

Finally, the dam started to show cracks in January of 1973 as the IHSA voted to lengthen the football season — beginning one week earlier — a first step necessary toward a possible state-wide playoff. Fitzhugh told the media after the meeting the IHSA would be mailing out ballots before the month ended asking member schools to vote for or against a playoff proposal.

This proposal was for a five-class system, based on enrollment.


Only a month after sending out the ballots, IHSA principals voted in late February, 400 to 209, to approve the long-discussed playoff plan which would begin in 1974.

The postseason would be 16-team brackets for the five classes (1A 1-246 students; 2A 247-467; 3A 468-864; 4A 865-1,961, 5A 1,962 and up). Inside of the five classes, the state would be divided into eight districts with conference champions (exactly 13 in each district) earning an automatic berth. Also independent schools could qualify by winning 80% of their games, or conference runners-up could get in if spots remained.

The road after making the playoffs would be a tough one for sure.

The last regular-season game would be played November 1 or 2, and the opening playoff round would take place on Nov. 6, quarterfinals Nov. 9 and semifinals on Nov 16. The state championships would be played Nov. 22-23 at Illinois State University's Hancock Stadium.

Even with the approval, many schools weren't exactly thrilled, as the chance of a playoff game could put the end to annual Thanksgiving Day games against long-time rivals. Others felt they would have trouble competing with same-class opponents when the postseason began.


On Friday, Nov. 22 at 9:30 a.m. at Hancock Stadium, Flanagan and Concord Triopia kicked off for the very first state football championship game ever — and history was made.

That weekend saw Flanagan top Concord Triopia 13-8 in Class 1A, then Decatur St. Teresa defeated Alexis 15-6 in Class 2A. West Chicago ran past Mt. Carmel 32-0 in Class 3A. Then on Saturday, Rockford East defeated Normal Community 34-15 in Class 4A, and finally, Glenbrook North needed overtime to claim the title 19-13 over East St. Louis in Class 5A.

Since that historic day in Normal, the playoffs expanded to six classes in 1980 and eight classes in 2000, while the brackets were bumped up to 32 teams in 1985.

Brian Hoxsey

Brian Hoxsey

I worked for 25 years as a CNC operator and in 2005 answered an ad in The Times for a freelance sports writer position. I became a full-time sports writer/columnist for The Times in February of 2016. I enjoy researching high school athletics history, and in my spare time like to do the same, but also play video games and watch Twitch.