IHSA announces Illinois State University will host football state championships through 2027

Lockport players hold up the Class 8A championship trophy at Lockport Township High School East Campus. Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021 in Lockport.

When his Roadrunners got the opportunity to play at the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium in 2014, Nazareth coach Tim Racki couldn’t think of a better venue where high schoolers could compete for state championships.

But he noticed a difference a year later when Nazareth won a state title at Northern Illinois University’s Huskie Stadium. The crowds didn’t get as drowned out in NIU’s 24,000-seat stadium as they did in Illinois’ 60,670-seat stadium. It felt fuller. Noisier. More energetic.

So when the IHSA announced Wednesday that Illinois State University’s Hancock Stadium will host the state football finals for the next five years, Racki thought it was a good way to create livelier crowds in a central location on a college field.

“[Hancock is] still a beautiful college stadium, I think, that would be packed for all [classes] even more because it’s all about the kids,” Racki said. “It would be a great experience on a collegiate field where there will be a capacity crowd, much louder with a festive atmosphere inside the stadium.”

ISU, NIU and Southern Illinois University in Carbondale all submitted bids to host the championships from 2023-27, while the University of Illinois submitted a bid to host in 2024, 2026 and 2028.

The state finals have alternated between U of I’s Memorial Stadium in Champaign and NIU’s Huskie Stadium in DeKalb since 2013, but with those contracts set to expire after 2022, the IHSA expressed its desire to keep the championships in the same location annually.

Sycamore coach Joe Ryan had the ease of being only 7 miles away from Huskie Stadium if the Spartans advanced to the state title game, but he admitted having ISU as a central location for all of the state’s schools will be good.

“I’m a traditionalist, and I grew up with it being at Illinois State,” Ryan said. “It’s a neat venue that’s had some great renovations, and now with that indoor facility it kind of makes it a perfect centralized spot. Nothing against Northern or the other places that may have put in a bid, but it’s nice to have it central for everybody.”

ISU first hosted the state title games in 1974 at Hancock Stadium and did so for the vast majority of games until 1999 when the games moved to Champaign. Northwestern University’s Dyche Stadium briefly hosted the Class 5A and 6A finals from 1980-1984.

Hancock Stadium’s current capacity is 13,391, a little bit more than the 12,000 requirement set by the IHSA. The stadium went through a $23 million renovation in 2013 that included a new press box, a transformation of the east side of the stadium, new chair back seating, suites and more stadium-wide upgrades.

ISU broke ground on an indoor football practice facility adjacent to Hancock Stadium in April 2022. It is scheduled to be completed before the 2023 state finals are held Nov. 24-25.

Prairie Ridge coach Chris Schremp hadn’t been to Hancock Stadium since the 1990s and only returned four years ago when he visited with his daughter. Schremp was impressed with the renovations but still admitted it wouldn’t have the same effect as Memorial Stadium.

“Knowing the people down there, they’re going to do a good job,” Schremp said. “I’m sure it will be a great venue, but I don’t think it’s going to have the same kind of wow factor that U of I did.”

Illinois couldn’t fulfill the annual requirement of hosting the state championships because of commitments with Big Ten scheduling.

Northern Illinois needed to step in for odd years beginning in 2013 because the Big Ten altered its schedule format with the conference’s addition of Nebraska. The schedule change required Illinois to play at home every other year during the same weekend the IHSA state championships are held.

Fenwick coach Matt Battaglia didn’t think as many Friars fans would’ve made the trip to watch the program win its first state title in 2021 if the games were held in Normal instead of DeKalb.

Battaglia noted that there’s more updates available over social media and state title games are shown on TV, two factors that might discourage fans from traveling.

He believe the rotation between Illinois and NIU solved the majority of those issues.

“I thought that was great,” Battaglia said. “I loved the split because I thought it gave you the best of both worlds, gave a location that was more central for the central and southern schools every other year and then it gave a location that was really convenient for the northern schools every other year.”

Despite the differences in opinions, the goal remains the same for every coach in the state. It doesn’t matter where the IHSA plays the game, if teams make it that far, they’ll play wherever.

“I have great, great memories of playing in both places,” Wilmington coach Jeff Reents said. “But I’m of the same school, wherever you tell me the state championships are, if I’m involved, I’ll play wherever.”