Illinois State University regains prep championship games beginning in ’23

Illinois State University’s Hancock Stadium will host the Illinois High School Association’s state football finals for the next five seasons. (Photo by Illinois State University)

By Dan Verdun

Illinois State University has regained the rights to host the state’s high school football championship games for the first time in a quarter century.

On Wednesday, the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) Board of Directors approved a five-year state final hosting contract with ISU and the Bloomington-Normal Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (BNACVB).

Consequently, the state prep football championship games will be held at ISU’s Hancock Stadium beginning next fall and running through 2027.

Craig Anderson

“We appreciate all of the hosting bids that we received for the IHSA Football State Finals,” said Craig Anderson, executive director of the Bloomington-based IHSA. “Seeing the passion that these university communities have for hosting the state finals and the amazing stadiums that each campus offers didn’t make for an easy decision.

“Ultimately, the first-class facilities, amazing support from Illinois State University and the Bloomington-Normal communities, and the central location proved to be the biggest factors in returning to ISU for the next five years.”

ISU Director of Athletics Kyle Brennan said, “The entire Illinois State University community is ecstatic to have the IHSA Football State Finals returning to Bloomington-Normal.”

Why ISU?

Illinois State, which hosted the inaugural IHSA Football State Finals in 1974 and over 100 title games through 1998, won out over the University of Illinois, Northern Illinois University and Southern Illinois University.

“This decision wasn’t made lightly, as Northern Illinois University and the University of Illinois have been incredible hosts for us through the years,” Anderson said. “We have a tremendous relationship with Champaign-Urbana and look forward to returning there in a few short months for state wrestling and boys’ basketball.

“Northern Illinois did an exemplary job, stepping up to host beginning in 2013 when the Big Ten schedule necessitated a hosting change in the midst of the contract with the University of Illinois. Southern Illinois University’s facility stacks up with any other in the state as well and the area is well-known for having a deeply-rooted high school sports fanbase. The IHSA deeply values its relationships with all of these institutions and their communities.”

Digging deeper

Veteran Illinois prep analyst “Edgy” Tim O’Halloran addressed the IHSA’s decision in a video he posted on his website.

“Illinois State has done a tremendous amount of work on Hancock Stadium,” O’Halloran said. “Just about everything on the new quote/unquote home side (of the stadium) is completely brand new. The overall facility is tremendous. Illinois State is also in the middle of building an indoor facility that will be ready for the state title games.”

That facility, along with Horton Fieldhouse, which is located directly behind Hancock Stadium, “can be used as a staging area to get teams ready in pregame,” he noted.

O’Halloran also pointed out Illinois State’s advantages over the other universities’ bids.

Tim O’Halloran

“Look at Normal-Bloomington over the past three decades, and how that has changed,” he said. “For those of you who don’t realize it, Bloomington-Normal is a big-time city now. I just read recently that it’s one of the largest per capita restaurant (cities). 

“It’s an area that has continued to grow. There’s more hotel space down there than there’s ever been before.”

O’Halloran cited the age of NIU’s Huskie Stadium, which was built in 1965, as another factor.

“The negative of Northern Illinois (is that) it’s an older facility. It’s in dire need of upgrades,” O’Halloran said.

The University of Illinois was severely affected by “the uncertainty of the schedule, the uncertainty of the Big Ten (with the additions of UCLA and USC).”

O’Halloran, a Southern Illinois University graduate, also discussed SIU’s Saluki Stadium, which is located 332 miles from Chicago in downstate Carbondale.

“I just think it’s distance, it’s very simple,” O’Halloran said. “It’s been mentioned before, talked about before, that SIU, maybe facility-wise, could honestly end up being the best place to host the games. (It has a) 15,000-17,000-seat capacity. Small enough to make it feel really big. Great on TV, would sound great on TV. It’s just too far south, that’s all there is to it. Logistically, it does not make a lot of sense.”

How does this affect ISU Redbird football?

ISU head coach Brock Spack met with Prairie State Pigskin Friday morning where he shared the importance of the state finals returning to the ISU campus.

“When I first signed my contract here (in Dec. 2008), I’d been away for 20 years, and I found out the state championships weren’t here anymore,” Spack said. “I told everyone (that) we had to get them back here.”

Brock Spack

The reasons for Spack’s plea were obvious to him.

“You’re going to get 16 student bodies in here, and their parents, so from a university standpoint you can’t pay for that kind of advertising,” said Spack, a Rockford native.

There could be one major negative aspect of ISU winning the IHSA state finals rights.

As things stand, the state prep championship games and the first round of the FCS playoffs are played in the days following Thanksgiving. Therefore, should the Redbirds make the FCS postseason, ISU would not be able to host an opening-round game.

Yet, Spack isn’t phased at all.

In fact, when the IHSA did its site tour at Illinois State a representative asked him to confirm that he would be willing to take his team on the road to allow the prep finals to take place at Hancock Stadium.

“It won’t be an issue,” Spack replied. “How can you give this (opportunity) up? There’s too much value.”

History lesson

According to the IHSA, four venues have hosted the state championships.

Beginning in 1974, Hancock Stadium hosted the first six years of title games.

Action from the 1976 state finals at Hancock Stadium in Normal. (Photo by IHSA)

In 1980, the IHSA expanded from five classes to six classes, at which point the IHSA opted to keep the 1A through 4A games at Hancock Stadium, while moving the Class 5A and Class 6A contests to Dyche Stadium on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston.

That arrangement lasted from 1980 to 1984.

All six classes returned to Normal in 1985 and remained there through the 1998 state championships.

The University of Illinois has hosted the state finals since 1999, with the exception of odds years from 2013 through 2021, when the games shifted to Northern Illinois University’s campus in DeKalb.

A split decision?

The IHSA expanded to eight classes in 2001.

Some have suggested returning to a split-arrangement with the four smaller classes being played downstate, while the four larger classes face off in the Chicago area.

O’Halloran balked at the idea.

“No. 1, logistically, it will never happen because of television,” O’Halloran said. “Television is not going to be able to host and cover games from two different sites unless you’re doing maybe one set of the games a week before the other set of games.

“Financially, it doesn’t work at all for the IHSA. There’s costs involved. You would have to have two crews in two different locations. Again, logistically a financial nightmare. So forget about it.”

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