December 09, 2023
Benet Academy football

Benet Academy football

Take 2: District model or conference model, which one works better?

IHSA poised to switch playoff formats, but will it be worth it?

DeKalb Head Coach Keith Snyder talks to his team during the West Aurora 7-on-7 football tournament on July 12, 2019.

IHSA member schools voted by a narrow margin in December to abandon conferences for high school football in favor of a district model, which will go into effect for the 2021 season.

Since then, the IHSA released its first official district mock and speculation has remained on whether member schools will vote to scrap the district plan before it ever comes to fruition.

We won't know the outcome for several months, but that didn't stop Friday Night Drive editors Kyle Nabors and Eddie Carifio – two gentlemen with very different opinions on the topic – from duking it out.

They also did this on the Friday Night Drive podcast, which you can listen to wherever you get your podcasts.

Nabors: OK, let me get this out of the way first: I'm sure you're going to have many valid and completely reasonable points, my friend. But, even months after the vote, understand how schools voted in favor of the district system without seeing it modeled first. Are conferences really that awful?

Carifio: Short answer, yes. But that makes a boring discussion, so here's a longer one.

The fundamental theory behind conferences is flawed, and that's letting a school choose for itself what is best for only itself. The IHSA should be in the business of making high school sports (in this case football) as strong as it can be across the state. But the current model runs counter to that. An individual school makes a decision to slightly increase its chances for five wins, but simultaneously makes things harder for not only every other school in the conference, but other sports within its own school sometimes as well.

You can't blame a school for that either. If the system is setup only to reward an individual school for an individual choice, it's just operating in that framework. So you need to change the framework to something that works for mostly everyone. And this district system – used in some form by many, many other states, including ones known for high school football – does just that.

Nabors: You're not creating a better system. You're simply punishing select bad actors at the detriment of many other schools who use to the conference system in good faith. There are far more schools who join conferences for competitive balance or geographic reasoning than there are programs looking to just boost their playoff chances.

Carifio: I think the bad actors maybe far more than you suspect – or at the very least "competitive balance" is very fluid. Just take a look at the (former) Northern Illinois Big 12. Ten years ago, schools like Rochelle, LaSalle-Peru and Ottawa had no problems being in a conference with DeKalb, because to put a fine point on it, DeKalb was not good at football.

But DeKalb football got good. And then all of a sudden the size discrepancy between those schools and DeKalb, which existed 10 years ago, became too big a problem. So the league self destructed. You won't hear anybody say that's the official reason, but surely it can't be a coincidence.

"Competitive balance" as it is now changes. A traditionally bad team gets a good coach and becomes a power. A good coach leaves a school and it declines. Enrollments and geography are really all that should go into conferences, or districts, or whatever you want to call them.

To turn your initial question around on you, are districts really that awful? (Although I think I can guess your answer).

Nabors: Yes, districts will be awful unless schools vote to significantly overhaul the basic district framework the IHSA has to work with.

Basing any system solely on enrollment and geography is not dealing with the reality of the situation. We're talking about hundreds of communities that come with their own strengths, weaknesses and goals. How does putting Catholic League power Mt. Carmel with a bunch of Chicago Public League teams help anyone? How about throwing a struggling program like East Aurora in with the likes of Waubonsie Valley, Neuqua Valley, Naperville Central and Benet Academy?

You're asking coaches in programs that already have trouble keeping kids interested to tell those kids, "Let's work hard this season and maybe we won't have a running clock against us five times."

Carifio: Well, that open up another whole new can of worms when you get into private school-public disparity. There's plenty of fixes for that - mandate private schools in their own districts, increase the multiplier, or even the nuclear option of banishing private schools out of the IHSA, Texas style.

Tweaks and fixes are natural with any new system once it's seen in practice. But to me, it's clear there's no tweak or fix to the current conference system and why the complete overhaul is needed.

Nabors: And you open up an additional can of worms when you talk about removing schools from the pool. Remember, we have to get to 512 teams for the districts to be divided evenly. If not, that creates a whole new set of issues.

Carifio: There are solutions to that as well, but it's neither here or there. What does matter is that teams will play the schedules in front of them. And it's best if those schedules are produced by someone looking out for the best interest of Illinois high school football, and not one specific school.

Your ideas are intriguing to me, and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter, but in the end a district system is going to prove successful if given a chance.

Kyle Nabors

Kyle Nabors

Kyle Nabors is Shaw Local's Group Sports Editor and has been with Shaw Media since 2017.