Soucie: Illinois State will host next five IHSA finals. Was it the right choice?

Nazareth's William Beargie and his teammates hoist the trophy after their IHSA Class 5A state championship win over Peoria Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

I asked a coach once where he preferred that the state championship games be played.

He was blunt.

“I’ll play it in your backyard, if we’re in it.”

Outside of the many logistical problems my backyard would provide in that scenario, I got his point.

And, in the grand scheme of things, many coaches would probably respond in much the same fashion – hopefully without the inclusion of me having to move my air conditioner.

But the IHSA was tasked this year with deciding where the finals would take place after the current 10-year rotational contract shared by Northern Illinois University and the University of Illinois expired at the conclusion on the 2022 season.

Four candidates emerged with placing bids for a five-year stretch: Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois, The University of Illinois and the eventual bid winner announced Wednesday, Illinois State University.

I’d been weighing the pros and cons of each bidder based on my knowledge of each school and what I thought would be the prime considerations for the IHSA.

To be completely transparent, I rather enjoyed the rotational system of the last 10 seasons, but ultimately, for me, I enjoyed the U of I experience just a little bit more.

I wasn’t alone.

“Being back down here at Champaign, at your state university, playing on a beautiful field and a beautiful stadium, it doesn’t get any better than this,” Lena-Winslow coach Ric Arand said after his team captured the Class 1A state championship just two weeks ago.

Based on the track record of Arand’s program, he’ll probably get the chance to see if ISU measures up or even surpasses the efforts Champaign put forth.

A tip of the cap is warranted for Champaign, especially for its most recent efforts hosting the finals. The community and university provided a welcoming atmosphere and a Big Ten Conference environment that none of the other bidders could have matched.

But moving forward, what the University of Illinois could not do was meet the specifications of the bid requirements set forth by the IHSA.

Illinois’ bid could only be submitted for alternating years due to scheduling conflicts in its own football schedule, which requires that Illinois have its field available for a home game in odd numbered years. It was why Champaign’s bid was only for the 2024, 2026 and 2028 finals, with the hopes that another partnership – similar to the recently expired one with NIU in DeKalb – could be put in play.

In an added wrinkle, there is a potential for ISU’s victorious bid to put a crimp in its own program’s postseason plans. The opening-round game of any potential ISU postseason appearance would fall on the same weekend as the IHSA finals. Higher-seeded teams are given the option of hosting opening-round games. With this development, ISU would have to decline.

However, since the state finals left Bloomington in 1999 to begin their run in Champaign (and eventually in DeKalb as well), Illinois State has had just four home playoff games, with the most recent being in 2015.

Since I’m a dinosaur, I have attended several state finals in Bloomington during its first run as host. I’ll be honest though, like the coach I mentioned before, I was honestly just happy to be there and I couldn’t make you an extensive list of pros and cons from my experiences. I do, however, remember a particularly unpleasant experience in an uncovered auxiliary press box in 1993.

It’s a much different facility now. With a seating capacity of a little over 13,000, it virtually eliminates one of the primary issues with the University of Illinois. Memorial Stadium seats over 60,000 and there was often a feeling of great emptiness – even with the games featuring larger classifications.

There’s not a great solution to that problem, other than moving the event to a smaller venue.

A good matchup in an environment like Illinois State could have the potential of filling the place and provide a raucous championship atmosphere.

So is Bloomington the right choice? It very well could be. And while a five-year term does seem like a relatively long one, it is probably just about the right amount of time to determine whether Bloomington is superior to previous bidders or even other potential new options on the horizon.

In the end, the IHSA apparently felt the positives of ISU’s bid and the stability of having a set host were too good to pass up.

It will be interesting to see how coaches and players react, but to be perfectly honest, many won’t care if they are still playing on Thanksgiving weekend.

Point them in the direction of a field and they’ll figure out the rest.

Just, please, not my backyard. I don’t have room for goalposts.