Illinois high school football has provided the gridiron faithful around the state with over one hundred years of thrills and excitement.
From the state's football origins in the 1880s, all the way to this season's championship playoffs, the gridiron history of Illinois has been filled with drama, color and tradition. From its beginnings as a sandlot game, high school football in Illinois quickly grew into a sport that thrived on arch-rivalries, claims of mythical championships, the big showdowns, and always the great teams and players.
Illinois high school football has been the spawning ground for many of the sport's very greatest names of all time, players such as Walter Eckersall (Hyde Park), Red Grange (Wheaton), Otto Graham (Waukegan), Buddy Young (Phillips), Dick Butkus (Chicago Vocational), Ray Nitschke (Proviso), George Connor (DeLaSalle), George Musso (Collinsville) and Kellen Bryant (East St. Louis). And then there are the countless other outstanding players from Illinois, who went on to distinguish themselves in the ranks of college and professional football.
Football was still a relatively unknown sport outside the Eastern United States when the first recorded interscholastic game in Illinois took place on November 1, 1879, as Evanston High School defeated Northwestern Academy. Over the next few years the new game developed sporadically in the high schools, but by 1885 the major universities had adopted major rules changes that began to give shape to the new sport.
While the many rules changes triggered the long evolution of American football into a sport that was quite different from soccer or rugby, they also succeeded in stimulating wide-spread interest in the game, all the way down to the high school level. In 1885, five high schools in the Chicago area joined together to form the state's first football conference, and the season-opening October matchup between Lake View and South Division (now Phillips) is the first recorded game in Illinois history between two public high schools.
But high school football was still a loosely organized and undisciplined venture, with parents and school administrators frequently being opposed to the game because of its considerable violence. In 1889, a true football conference was finally organized in the Chicago area, complete with a regular schedule of games, eligibility rules and plenty of newspaper publicity. The Cook County League was initially formed with five member schools, soon expanded to seven, and its organization signaled the sport's first period of major expansion.
University graduates familiar with the game of football had been moving into teaching positions across the country for years. Now these men began organizing and coaching football teams at their high schools, and one of the first examples of this in Illinois is seen at Peoria High School in 1890, when Walter Bush, a Yale University graduate, formed the school's first real football team.
The 1890s soon brought the organization of large numbers of high school football teams in every section of Illinois. Many of the state's most tradition-rich programs were launched during this era, schools such as Oak Park (1891); East Aurora, Freeport, Woodstock, Joliet, and West Aurora (all 1893); Champaign, Monmouth, Ottawa, Arcola, and Urbana (1894); Pontiac (1895); Pittsfield (1896); and East St. Louis (1897).
Along with the wide-spread growth of football among the state's high schools through the 1890s and early 1900s, came the development of the traditional arch-rivalries, which have always been one of the keys to the game's great popularity. Usually pitting schools from neighboring communities, these annual games quickly became the focal point of every football season for the two schools involved, and almost without exception was the last game on the schedule. By the mid-1890s, most of these showdowns were scheduled for Thanksgiving Day, making the "big game" each year a social event for the towns, as well as a sporting event. Many of these traditional games would continue to be played on the November holiday date until the early 1950s.
The earliest of these arch-rivalry matchups was between Hyde Park and Englewood. The two Chicago high schools first met on the gridiron in 1889, and this oldest series in state history was played for the 106th time as the new century began in 2000. In 1893 the neighboring schools of East Aurora and West Aurora began their traditional rivalry, while the third-oldest rivalry in state history kicked off in 1894, when Champaign (Central) and Urbana began their legendary series.
Other long-running traditional series around the state include: Ottawa vs. Streator, Tuscola vs. Arcola, Oak Park vs. Proviso (East), Centralia vs. Mount Vernon, Peoria Central vs. Peoria Manual, Thornton vs. Bloom, East St. Louis vs. Belleville (West) and Princeton vs. Kewanee.
By 1900 the sport of high school football in Illinois had become extremely competitive. While there was still just a handful of formally organized conferences, the top teams were regularly seeking to add to their gridiron laurels by taking on any highly-regarded opponent they felt was beatable. In the first years after the turn of the century, Chicago-region teams were generally considered to be playing the most advanced prep football in the state, and so it was the best of those teams that ultimately needed to be played.
In its first years of football, Rockford High had primarily played schools in northwestern Illinois and Wisconsin. But by 1899 Rockford, destined to become one of the state's football powerhouses, had ventured out of its area to add Elgin to its regular schedule, along with occasional matchups against top teams from Central Illinois such as Urbana and Bloomington. In 1900 Rockford began its long-running series with West Aurora, already recognized as among the top football schools; and in 1903 the Red and Black took on a Chicago city team for the first time with their matchup against West Division High.
Other schools leading the way in taking on rivals from other sections of the state, and some of their early major games included Springfield, which played Chicago teams in 1906 and 1909; Champaign, which played Chicago North Division in 1904; Moline, which played Chicago South Division in 1900-01, and then tangled with Chicago Englewood and Springfield in 1907; and Urbana, which played both Galesburg and East Aurora in 1901.
This search for greater football laurels gained momentum in 1902 when Chicago's Hyde Park High School played Poly Tech from Brooklyn, New York, one of the top teams of the Long Island Interscholastic League. Eastern high school football was believed to be technically superior to that played in other areas of the country, just as that opinion was also held concerning college football.
The Hyde Park team featured Walter Eckersall (a three-time consensus All-America at the University of Chicago from 1904-1906), and had just clinched the Cook County championship. The Chicago team had compiled a record of just 4-2 for the 1902 season, but both of its losses had come at the hands of college teams from the Big Ten. The Hyde Park lineup also included the Hammond brothers, Tom and Harry (Tom would receive All-America mention at Michigan in 1905), and Sam Ransom.
The game was played in a snowstorm in early December 1902, but a crowd of about six thousand fans still was on hand at Marshall Field on the campus of the University of Chicago. Everyone there, including the Brooklyn Poly team, was dazzled by the offensive fireworks of the Hyde Park backfield. The fast, wide-open running attack of the Chicago outfit was relentless and the eastern team had no answer for it, as Eckersall and his teammates literally ran up and down the field.
When the final gun sounded, Hyde Park had piled up an impressive 105-0 win. In 1903, North Division High of Chicago traveled east to take on Brooklyn Boys High in another intersectional matchup. The Chicago team, led by running back Walter Steffen (an All-America at Chicago in 1907-08), destroyed the New York team by a score of 75-0, and this second wipeout brought an end to the short-lived series.
The 1902 Hyde Park win over Brooklyn Poly in particular, with all the resulting talk of "championships", stimulated great interest in the annual quest of the best teams in Illinois for the so-called "mythical" state championship. The annual debate over the mythical state title became one of the most interesting features of each season, and would continue right up to the start of the IHSA's formal playoffs in 1974. But this was not a new concept in Illinois high school football. As early as 1898 Champaign had laid claim to the state championship, followed by Bloomington in 1899, but neither had defeated a Chicago team and so their claims were somewhat doubtful.
In 1900 Moline claimed the state title after beating Chicago South Division High, but many times the attempts of out-state teams to get a game against Chicago-area teams, and so to prove themselves, were rebuffed. In 1901, Urbana out-scored its opponents 211-0 as it rang up a 7-0-0 record, including big wins over Galesburg and East Aurora. When Urbana's attempts to arrange a post-season "championship" game with Hyde Park fell through, the downstate school simply laid claim to the mythical state title. Years later in 1918, Champaign compiled a 5-0-0 record and then declared itself the state champion after its challenge to Oak Park (8-0-1) was ignored.
Rockford claimed the state championship four times between 1903-1917, despite only one of those teams having compiled an unbeaten record. The 1910 Rockford team, led by two-time All-State halfback George Kitteringham, did have a legitimate looking title claim after going 8-0-0, which included impressive wins over both Aurora schools, Rock Island, Urbana and Chicago Englewood.
The mythical state championship was a crown that any team could lay claim to, no matter what the size of the school, who they had played, or what their record had been. In November 1903, the Watseka High team sent a letter to the Chicago Tribune and added its name to the list of schools claiming the state championship that season, while also issuing a challenge for a post-season game against the winner of the Cook County title. In 1911 little Sullivan High, located between Decatur and Mattoon, compiled a record of 12-0-0 behind their star back Harold Pogue (a future All-America at Illinois). The Sullivan team then issued a challenge to Oak Park for a state championship game, but not surprisingly was ignored. In 1912 Pontiac finished with an 8-0-0 record, and the Indian gridmen then issued a challenge to Champaign for a post-season playoff game. When refused, Pontiac declared itself the state champion for 1912.
Such claims were not limited to just the mythical state title, as over the years many a school declared itself winner of a regional championship of some type. Examples of this would include Taylorville claiming the championship of Southern Illinois in 1898, and Pontiac declaring itself the "Central and Southern Illinois" title holders for 1902 and 1903.
But football in the first years of the century was an extremely violent sport, with many serious injuries, and even fatalities, at the high school level of play. In response to the great hue and cry against these problems, which were also common in the college version of the sport, many Illinois high schools decided to drop football as of the 1906 season. That same year the college game's rules committee, under pressure from President Theodore Roosevelt, incorporated wide-ranging changes in the sport, the most significant being the legalization of forward passing, which would eventually open up the offensive play considerably. Most Illinois high schools returned to football after a break of just a few years, such as Joliet Township which dropped the sport from 1906-10. But for some schools there would be a much longer break, such as Centralia, which did not resume football until 1925.
With all the talk of mythical state honors, it was just a short step to considering possible national high school football championships. While the increasing numbers of out-of-state intersectional games helped to fuel this phenomenon, the greater cause was the rise to power of Oak Park High School under the direction of Coach Bob Zuppke. Zuppke arrived at the Chicago suburban-area school for the 1910 football season, and he was destined to coach there for only three years before he moved on to begin his legendary career at the University of Illinois.
Known as the "Little Dutchman," Zuppke guided Oak Park to a 9-2-0 record in 1910 that included a trip to the Pacific Northwest for two games. This was followed up with a 10-0 record in 1911 and an 11-0 tally in 1912, each season including a post-season trip to Massachusetts for "national championship" games. Oak Park would continue its unbeaten streak after Zuppke's departure, eventually reaching 41 straight before halted in 1914.
In 1918 much of Illinois was severely affected by the national influenza epidemic, and most of the state's schools curtailed or cancelled their football schedules that season. But the sport returned with a vengeance in 1919, and over the next three seasons football people in Illinois would all hear of Harold "Red" Grange from Wheaton.
After a decent sophomore season in 1919, Grange exploded in 1920 as one of the game's greatest offensive forces of all-time. Scoring at least three touchdowns a game that season as Wheaton rolled to the DuPage County title, Red really broke loose with seven TD's against Batavia and eight more against arch-rival Naperville. In 1921 Grange continued his high-powered ball carrying, and he highlighted his senior season with a six touchdown performance against Downers Grove, in the game he later called the best of his prep career. After scoring a total of 75 TD's during his days at Wheaton, along with a state career record of 532 points, Red went on to the University of Illinois and established himself as one of football's greatest players of all-time.
As the decade of the 1920s unfolded, the sport of high school football continued to grow in popularity as many Illinois schools began their programs during that period. One state record which will probably never be broken was set during this time, in 1923, when Staunton piled up a 233-0 win over Gillespie, as George Oehler scored ten touchdowns. The lopsided win by the Bulldogs capped off their 10-0-0 season, during which they out-scored their opposition 494 points to 23.
One of the hottest rivalrys of the 1920s was between Eldorado and Harrisburg. In 1924 Eldorado went 7-0-0 and claimed the mythical championship of Southern Illinois, after posting a 10-0 win over previously unbeaten Harrisburg. But the Bulldogs of Harrisburg turned the tables in 1925, wrapping up a perfect 9-0-0 season with a 13-0 win over Eldorado, and of course claiming the title of Southern Illinois. Then in 1929, Harrisburg capped off one of its best seasons ever by staking a claim to the state championship.
Two of the most consistent powerhouses of the 1920s were Champaign (now Central) and Oak Park. Under Coach Les Moyer, Champaign piled up a combined record of 72-8-4 for the seasons of 1920-1929, which included losing a total of just three games between 1924-1929. Oak Park continued its success of the pre-World War I days, rolling up a record of 41-4-5 between 1920-1925.
One of the most significant developments during the 1920s was the beginnings of night football in Illinois. The first night game between two high school teams in state history had been played back on October 28, 1898, when Elgin High hosted West Aurora at King Park. Just two weeks before, the Elgin team had played a game under the lights against an Alumni team. But the experiment of playing football under artificial lighting was dropped until September 21, 1928, when Westville High installed lights for its game against Milford. Friday night high school football in Illinois would eventually become a tradition in every corner of the state.
The decades of the 1920s and 1930s also brought the peak period for intersectional games against out-of-state teams. One of the top teams of the 1920s, Freeport, solidified its place in state history with two big intersectional wins in the East. In 1924 the Pretzels, under Coach Pat Holmes, capped off an 11-0-0 record with a 33-0 win at Ansonia, Connecticut; and then followed this up with another undefeated season in 1925, rounding it off with a 13-7 win over Elwood City, Pennsylvania in a game played in Pittsburgh.
By 1930 the champion traveler among the Illinois preps was the football team from Mooseheart High. Under Coach Ben Oswalt, and later Johnny Williams, the Mooseheart teams journeyed out of the state frequently over the next 25 years. The powerhouses from Oak Park in 1937, and Chicago Fenger in 1940, each traveled to Miami, Florida for Christmas Day games in the Orange Bowl stadium.
The 1940 Fenger team, under Coach Charles Palmer, travelled to Miami in defiance of an IHSA amendment, passed in November 1939, which prohibited football games being played after the first Saturday in December. On January 8, 1941 the IHSA suspended Fenger, which prevented the Titans from competing in any sport against other member schools. After nearly a year of negotiations, the suspension of Fenger was lifted on November 7, 1941 as part of an agreement that admitted all of the Chicago public high schools to membership in the IHSA.
Among the most unusual intersectional games were those at the close of the seasons between 1937 and 1939. During these years the Chicago American newspaper conducted a reader poll to select a Chicago high school all-star team, which then traveled to Arizona (1937) and Los Angeles (1938-39) to take on all-star squads from those areas.
The 1930s spawned many excellent football teams around the state, including 1931 Chicago Harrison, the Springfield teams of 1930-36, 1937 Carbondale, and East St. Louis, which fielded dominant teams through most of the decade. The Harrison team compiled a 12-0-0 record that included a 46-6 win over Mount Carmel for the Chicago city championship, along with a post-season 18-7 win over Miami (Fla.) High at the Orange Bowl on Christmas. This 1931 Harrison team, coached by Bob Daugherty, included two backfield stars, Andy Pilney and Andy Puplis, who both went on to receive All-America mention at Notre Dame.
The Springfield teams of 1930-36 racked up an overall record of 57-3-3 under the direction of Coach Bill Roellig, including winning or sharing the Big 12 conference title six times. The Senators were unbeaten in Big 12 play from late 1929 until November 1936, when they were finally knocked off by Danville, 13-0.
Carbondale, which fielded its first football team in 1921, reached ultimate perfection during the 1937 season. That year the Terriers, under the direction of Coach Frank Bridges, compiled a 10-0-0 record with every win featuring a shutout. Carbondale outscored its opposition by a count of 431-0 in 1937, Murphysboro coming the closest at 26-0.
But there was one player who stood out above everyone else during the 1930s, and who was the most publicized and sought-after schoolboy athlete of those days. His name was Bill DeCorrevont, and he played for Chicago's Austin High.
DeCorrevont had been a big star for Austin's 1936 city co-champions, but in 1937 he eclipsed all his previous exploits. As the Austin Tigers, under legendary coach Bill Heiland, rolled to a perfect record in 1937, DeCorrevont scored 34 touchdowns in 10 games. The season as capped off in Chicago's Prep Bowl game, when he scored three touchdowns and passed for another in Austin's 26-0 win over Leo High at Soldier Field. An amazing crowd, estimated at approximately 120,000 fans, jammed into the lakefront stadium to witness the city championship game.
The Prep Bowl series matched the winners of Chicago's Public and Catholic leagues in an annual showdown to decide the city championship. Several of the games prior to 1955 could have easily passed for state title matchups, based on the strength of the two champions. The Prep Bowl, which has operated under several names during its history, became an annual attraction in 1934 and continues to be played right to the current time; although its significance has been greatly reduced since the start of the IHSA playoffs in 1974. The Chicago city championship games actually began in 1927 when Mount Carmel beat Schurz 6-0, with another title matchup in the series being played in 1931 when Harrison defeated Mount Carmel.
High school football in Illinois during the 1940s was definitely affected by World War II. In 1942, during the first year of United States involvement in the war, there were numerous reports of prep football players being sworn into the military during halftime ceremonies at the games. For the next couple of seasons high school football schedules were often loosely conducted, especially at the smaller schools, as the shortage of players often caused the cancellation of games or entire seasons.
Despite the difficulties, East St. Louis, under Coach Wirt Downing, continued as the premier program in Southern Illinois during the 1940s. The early years of the decade in Chicago football produced a great rivalry between Leo and Tilden Tech, champions of the Catholic and Public leagues respectively, with Leo defeating the Blue Devils for the city championship in 1941 and 1942. Tilden then went on to notch two more Public titles in 1944 and 1945, to complete a great run of league championships in four out of five seasons in one of the state's premier conferences of the time. The Public League champion in 1943 was Phillips, led by the great running back Claude "Buddy" Young. The speedster would later go on to star at the University of Illinois and in professional football. The wars years were capped off in 1946 when West Aurora, under Coach Ken Zimmerman, fielded its best team ever and notched a 10-0-0 record.
With the arrival of the post-war prosperity of the 1950s, Illinois high school football settled into a period of quiet maturity, although the decade still featured plenty of outstanding teams around the state. One of the more powerful teams from this time was the 1950 Chicago Mount Carmel outfit. Under the direction of Coach Terry Brennan, who would soon jump to the head job at Notre Dame, the Caravan swept to an 11-0-0 record that included both the Catholic League and city championships. Evanston's St. George High was the only team that threatened the Carmel powerhouse that season, before dropping a 35-27 thriller.
East St. Louis continued to be a perennial powerhouse right through the 1950s, as the Flyers dominated the Southwestern Conference. A small school standout during this time was halfback Phil Wynn of Carlinville. Wynn compiled a career rushing total of 3,423 yards during the seasons of 1955-57, playing just eight or nine game schedules.
One of the state's biggest gridiron success stories of the 1950s was at Hinsdale High (now Hinsdale Central). In 1951, the Red Devils notched a record of 8-0-1 to begin a great run under Coach Harvey Dickinson. From 1951 through 1962, Hinsdale compiled an overall record of 82-13-3, along with winning eight West Suburban Conference titles. The Red Devils were considered one of the state's elite teams nearly every season during this run. Dickinson would continue to field good teams until his final season of 1967, which produced a record of 8-0-0 and serious claims for the mythical state title. The legendary coach closed out his 25-year career at Hinsdale with a record of 148-49-8.
Although the two powerhouses never met on the field during this era, one of the major challengers to Hinsdale's claims of gridiron supremacy was Evanston Township. While under the direction of Coach Murney Lazier, Evanston compiled an overall record of 127-15-4 between the seasons of 1957 and 1974. The veteran coach considered his 1971 Evanston team to be one of the best of this era in state football history. Other notable powerhouses in the 1960s included 1962 Fenwick, featuring halfback Jim DiLullo, 1962 Joliet Township, led by halfback Bill Wehrspann, and 1963 St. Rita.
The 1960s also brought turmoil to Illinois high school football, just as it did to society in general. With the arrival of the "baby boomers" generation on the prep scene at the start of the decade, Illinois school districts were forced into a wide-spread building of new high schools in response to the rapidly growing enrollments. Suddenly many of the state's traditional football powerhouses were being split-up into two or three separate schools, which also created the necessity of organizing new conferences and often the reorganization of long-standing historic ones. This shuffling of conference lineups was still continuing with great frequency in the late 1990s.
One of the most notable gridiron events of the 1960s and early 1970s was the state record winning streak compiled by Pittsfield. Starting with their season opening 6-0 win over North Greene in 1966, the Pittsfield Saukees reeled off 64 consecutive wins, which included 15 straight shutouts between 1969 and 1971. The streak extended all the way through to the second game of the 1973 season, when Pittsfield dropped a 12-0 decision to Winchester. By the time the Saukees' streak came to an end, Illinois high school football was ready to enter a new era with the advent of the state playoff system.
THE PLAYOFF ERA
After many years of debate, the high school principals of Illinois approved the adoption of a state playoff system for football. The season of 1974 was to be the maiden voyage for the playoff structure, which was destined to evolve through several revisions over the next two decades.
For the initial version of the Illinois playoffs, state champions would be crowned in five classes (Class 1A through 5A, with 5A representing the largest schools), with each field consisting of sixteen schools. In 1974 the class alignments for the playoffs were based upon the "average conference enrollment," with 13 conferences being parceled into each of the five classes.
In 1974, the champions from each of the state's 65 conferences were automatically placed in the tournaments, and if there happened to be a co-champion for a league, it was the responsibility of the conference to select its representative. The remaining three slots in each class would be filled from a pool of teams for that group that included co-champions not selected, independent schools with comparable enrollments, and any second place conference teams with a winning percentage over .800. The IHSA would select the three at-large teams for each class.
With a field of 80 schools spread across five classes, the playoffs were going to add up to four additional games for some of the state's 529 football schools. Illinois also adopted an overtime system for resolving games that ended in a tie after regulation time, in order to more clearly define conference standings and potential playoff qualifiers. The Chicago Public League, with nearly 60 schools competing in the several divisions that comprised the conference, chose not to have to select just one entrant, and so declined to send a team to the playoffs. No team from the Chicago Public League would appear in the state playoffs until 1979.
The adoption of a state playoff system had already brought about a number of conference realignments by the time the 1974 football season arrived. The schools of the Chicago Catholic League had finally joined the IHSA in the spring of 1974, and the large conference was initially willing to select just one of its section champions to enter the state playoffs. Many large conferences decided to realign into multiple leagues in order to qualify more teams. Examples of this in the Chicago area included the Suburban Catholic Conference dividing into East Suburban and West Suburban Catholic conferences, and the Central Suburban League dividing into the Central Suburban North and Central Suburban South conferences.
One of the eventual casualties of the state playoff system in terms of prestige and popularity, was Chicago's historic Prep Bowl game. Initially the Catholic League selected one of its section champions to enter the state playoffs, after which the team would also compete in the Catholic League playoffs. The Catholic champion, as always, would then meet the Public League champion for the city title at Soldier Field. This arrangement soon proved unworkable for the Catholic League, as its team was usually advancing well along through the state playoff rounds. The Catholic League eventually would adopt a playoff system among its "also-ran" teams, in order to produce an opponent for the Public League champion in the Prep Bowl. Since the late 1970s, only a few thousand fans come out each season for the annual renewal of the once-great classic, a far cry from the glory days of the late 1930s.
The first state championship game in Illinois history was played on November 22, 1974, at Hancock Stadium on the campus of Illinois State University. The matchup for the Class 1A title featured Flanagan (with just 171 students, the smallest school in the finals) against Concord Triopia. Flanagan knocked off the Trojans by a score of 13-8 to claim the first championship trophy, but Concord Triopia would return to the Class 1A title matchup again in 1975 and 1976, winning its own state championship in 1975 with a 36-6 win over Princeville.
In 1974 the Class 5A title matchup produced one of the most memorable games in state history, when Glenbrook North took on a great East St. Louis team that included stars such as Kellen Winslow and Cleveland Crosby, both future NFL players. The Flyers had stormed to 12 straight wins, including victories in their last two playoff games by a combined score of 81-0, while Glenbrook North had barely survived a first round struggle against Evanston with a 7-6 win. But in the first of many surprises that would come to characterize the history of the state playoffs, the Spartans came from behind with a fourth quarter touchdown, and then scored again in overtime to hand East St. Louis a stunning 19-13 defeat. In the Class 4A final, Rockford East, considered to be one of the best teams in that city's history, extended its winning streak to 22 straight with a 34-15 win over Normal Community.
But in 1974 the potential problems in using a conference enrollment average to align the classes had already become evident. West Chicago High, from the far western suburbs of Chicago, had an actual enrollment of 1628 students, but because the Wildcats were members of the Little Seven Conference (average enrollment of 994), they were slotted into Class 3A. In the 3A state title game, West Chicago beat downstate Mt Carmel (enrollment 861). This obvious flaw in the system would eventually lead to aligning the classes by a calculated enrollment figure for each school.
In 1975 Decatur St. Teresa won its second consecutive state championship in Class 2A, as the Bulldogs beat Stockton 35-0 to extend their winning streak to 47 straight, a run that was compiled between 1971 and 1975. The 1976 state finals featured overtime struggles in two of the championship tilts, including St. Laurence defeating Glenbard West by a score of 22-21 in the cold and ice for the 5A crown, in one of the state's most memorable games.
The 1978 football season produced several notable events. Two of the state's top teams that season were from Chicago's Catholic League, St. Laurence and St. Rita. When the two collided in a showdown during the regular season, there was so much fan interest that the game was played at Soldier Field. St. Rita pulled out a 14-6 win over the Vikings, and then continued on to eventually win the Class 5A state championship. With the Catholic League still sending only one team to the state playoffs, St. Laurence stayed home and beat Sullivan in Chicago's Prep Bowl game.
The 1978 state playoffs also witnessed several milestone events. In Class 3A, Geneseo Darnall captured its third consecutive title with a 14-7 win over Kankakee Bishop McNamara. Meanwhile, Joliet Catholic, with future Chicago Bears' lineman Tom Thayer, was winning its fourth consecutive Class 4A state title with a 25-0 win over LaSalle-Peru, the second straight year the two schools had clashed in the final. And in the Class 2A championship game, Stockton beat Carlinville 9-0 to give Coach John O'Boyle, the state's all-time winningest coach with 279 victories, his first of two state titles.
In 1980 the IHSA expanded the playoff field to include 96 teams, while also adding another class, 6A. Beginning in 1981, the championship games for Classes 5A and 6A were moved to Northwestern's Dyche Stadium in Evanston, in the belief that attendance would be improved as most of the schools in these two classes were from the northern part of the state.
Teams from the Chicago Public League finally made a splash in the 1982 state playoffs. Since first appearing in the tourney in 1979, the only time a Public League team had managed a playoff win was against another school from the same league. That all changed in the Class 5A playoffs of 1982, beginning in the first round when Tilden Tech upset Deerfield by a score of 27-21. A nine-yard touchdown pass from Jamie Barton to Dempsey Norman with eight seconds left to play stunned the highly regarded Warriors.
Tilden Tech tumbled out of the playoffs in the next round with a 30-20 defeat at the hands of Antioch. But the Public League wasn't done yet in 1982, as Chicago Robeson advanced to the Class 5A championship game after wins over Chicago Collins, Chicago Bogan and Antioch. The string ran out for the Raiders at Dyche Stadium, where they dropped a 16-12 decision to Rockford Guilford. Meanwhile, down at Illinois State that weekend, Geneseo Darnall outscored Springfield Griffin, 44-36, to win the Class 4A championship. The total of 80 points by the two teams set the title game record for most scoring.
In 1983, East St. Louis, directed by Coach Bob Shannon, began a run of three straight Class 6A state championships, as the Flyers blanked Addison Trail, 13-0. A 38-6 win over Downers Grove South in the 1984 title game set the stage for the East St. Louis powerhouse of the following year, the outfit that Shannon called his greatest team ever.
Paced by such stars as quarterback Kirwin Price, running backs Michael Cox and Marvin Lampkin, and receiver Cortez Robinson, the 1985 Flyers stormed through to the 6A championship, and in the process extended their winning streak to 40 straight games. In the 1985 season East St. Louis compiled a 14-0 record, while scoring a total of 671 points and 96 touchdowns, both state records which are still standing in 1999. The Flyers cruised through the playoffs—their 13-0 win over Sandburg in the quarterfinals the only real test—and capped off their great season with a 46-0 title game romp over Brother Rice of the Chicago Catholic League.
The Class 5A and 6A championship games had been shifted back to Illinois State in the fall of 1985, but much more significant to the playoff system that season was the expansion of the tournament field to a total of 192 teams. Each of the six classes would now have a field of 32 teams, which added a fifth round to the playoffs and created a fourteen-game season for 12 of the state's schools.
The 1986 season proved to be one of the most notable in many years, and the fireworks began during the regular season. East St. Louis extended its winning streak to 44 straight games, but it came to an end on October 4 when Granite City handed the Flyers a 17-14 defeat, their first since the 1982 season. East St. Louis exacted its revenge with a 20-0 win over Granite City in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs, but the string of state championships came to an end when Homewood-Flossmoor eliminated the Flyers in the quarterfinals by a score of 18-15.
By the 1980s, many coaches considered field goal kicking to be a major part of their offensive strategy. In 1986 Larry Sullivan of Elgin boomed a 56-yard place kick through the uprights against West Aurora, for a new state distance record that would hold up for just ten years. Sullivan finished the season with 24 career field goals for another state record; but that mark was matched in 1988 by Craig Hentrich of Alton Marquette, including one of 55 yards.
The 1986 regular season was also livened up when new state records for single-game player rushing were set in consecutive weeks. First to establish a new rushing record was Adam Dach of Byron High, as he carried the ball 27 times for 488 yards, while scoring eight touchdowns in a 53-0 win over Pecatonica. Dach would finish the 1986 season as the state's leading rusher with 2,319 yards.
But the new state record lasted just seven days in 1986, as Billy McClure of Maroa-Forsyth came out the next Friday and rushed for 498 yards on 29 carries in a 62-6 romp over Niantic-Harristown. Initially there was a good deal of confusion over McClure's actual total, as the first announced figure of 504 yards was changed two times before the 498 mark went in the record book. The 1986 season produced no less than eleven new state records.
The state playoffs chipped in to the excitement of 1986 also. In Class 6A, St. Rita was considered to be a serious contender for the state title despite having dropped one game during the regular season. But Kenwood High of the Chicago Public League, coming into the playoffs with a record of 4-5, put a quick end to those hopes. In what is arguably called the greatest upset in Illinois football history, Kenwood handed powerful St. Rita a 12-0 defeat in the first round game that was played at the Chicago's Gately Stadium. St. Rita ran 77 offensive plays in the game, to just 33 for Kenwood, but three lost fumbles, a pass interception and a botched punt attempt kept St. Rita in trouble all afternoon. Meanwhile, Kenwood took advantage of the mistakes and shocked the Catholic League team with touchdown runs of 88 and 28 yards by Phil Sevier. The Broncos then advanced to the second round where they were handed a 36-7 loss by St. Laurence.
The next three seasons produced one of the better downstate teams of this period in Peoria Richwoods. The Knights had reached the 5A quarterfinals in 1986, but in 1987 everything was clicking. Richwoods stormed into the 5A title game with a 13-0 record, with Peoria Woodruff being the only team to get within 20 points of them. But Joliet Catholic, with two losses during the regular season, staged a late touchdown drive to upset Richwoods in a thriller by a score of 14-13. Parochial schools won state championships in five of the six classes in 1987, including the third straight title for Kankakee Bishop McNamara in 3A. The only dissenting vote came in Class 6A where Hersey defeated East St. Louis 26-6.
Peoria Richwoods, directed by Coach Rod Butler, returned to Hancock Stadium in 1988, and this time there was no denying the Knights as they capped off their 14-0 record with a 29-26 win over Belvidere for the Class 5A title. Richwoods was poised for another shot at the championship in 1989 after opening with 12 straight wins. But in the Class 5A semifinals, the 26-game win streak of the Knights was snapped in a 7-6 loss to Mount Carmel, despite Richwoods having outgained the Chicago team by a tally of 218 yards to 83. Mount Carmel would go on to pound Notre Dame of Niles by a score of 32-0 for the title, the second of four straight championships for the Caravan.
After losing Class 6A title games in 1987 and 1988, East St. Louis finally broke through into the throne room again in 1989 with a 55-8 romp over Thornton, paced by sophomore running back Chris Moore's three touchdowns. The path to the crown hadn't been easy for the Flyers though, as they needed a touchdown with 2:19 left to play in order to edge past Sandburg by a score of 14-13 in the quarterfinals.
East St. Louis was handed a shocking 28-26 defeat by Downers Grove North in the 6A semifinals of 1990, but Moore and the Flyers were back at Hancock with a vengeance in 1991. Only Andrew High of Tinley Park had gotten within 20 points of East St. Louis during the playoffs, and the Flyers gave Coach Bob Shannon his last Illinois state championship with a 48-6 romp over Glenbard North. Moore rushed for 148 yards and scored four touchdowns in the title game, to finish with career totals of 5,174 yards rushing, 516 points scored, and 86 rushing touchdowns; the last figure still a state record as the 1990s were coming to a close.
Illinois prep football of the 1990s has witnessed the great success achieved in state tourney play by teams from the DuPage Valley Conference, as that circuit has established itself as one of the very best in the state. The decade also produced the incredible records compiled by Providence High of New Lenox and Chicago Mount Carmel. The DuPage Valley can boast of 6A state title winners in Naperville North (1992), Naperville Central (1999), and Wheaton-Warrenville South (1995-96, and 1998); while second place finishes in 6A have been claimed by Glenbard North (1991), Naperville North (1994) and Naperville Central (1995).
In Class 5A, Wheaton Warrenville South (previously Wheaton Central) took second place finishes in 1990 and 1991, along with a state crown in 1992.
Providence, under Coach Matt Senffner, had previously won the Class 4A title in 1987 with a 14-7 win over Roxana in the final. But the Celtics really began to click in the 1990s, opening with another 4A state crown in 1991. After a two year absence from Hancock Stadium, Providence notched a Class 5A title in 1994 with a 16-6 win over Palatine, and followed that up from 1995-1997 with three more state championships in Class 4A. The Celtics made their fifth straight title game appearance in 1998, but had to settle for a second place finish in Class 5A. During this incredible period Providence also compiled a winning streak of 50 consecutive games between 1994 and 1997, the third longest in state history, before dropping a 30-8 decision to Kankakee Bishop McNamara.
Meanwhile, Chicago Mount Carmel was also compiling a notable record during the decade, as the Caravan won five state championships in Class 5A competition (1990-91, 1996, and 1998-99), along with a second place finish in 1995.
In 1994 the IHSA made two major changes in the state playoff system: the seeding of teams within each class, and the elimination of the traditional Wednesday first-round game date. Since the advent of the playoff system in 1974, the brackets and first round pairings within each class had been established by an IHSA committee, meeting in a conference room at the Bloomington headquarters while every high school football fan, coach and player in the state held their breath.
Invariably, this method produced complaints every year, and often first round pairings sent unbeaten conference champions on the road to the home field of 6-3 teams. In 1985, St. Rita and St. Laurence were generally considered to be two of the best teams in the state, yet the Catholic League powerhouses ended up meeting in a 6A second round game. But the problems with the pairings were brought to a head in 1993, when two of the state's top Class 6A teams, Downers Grove South and Naperville North, had to meet in a first round game for the fourth time in five years. The seeding system which was adopted in 1994 is based upon an IHSA formula that factors in the number of victories and strength of schedule for each team, and while it is not foolproof, it has certainly provided a fair and reasonable bracketing of the playoff participants since being adopted.
The other change incorporated in 1994 was the extension of the state tournament by an additional week. Since its beginning in 1974, the playoffs had opened on the Wednesday after the last weekend of the regular season, with the second round games then being played just three days later. The traditional Wednesday first-round games were very popular with the fans, but the fact was that quite a few of the playoff teams were having to play three games in a space of just eight days, and considerable player injuries were attributed to this scheduling.
Beginning with the 1994 playoffs, the first round games were played one week after the end of the regular season, so that the entire tournament then required five weeks for completion, instead of four. This also meant that the regular season had to begin one week earlier, in late August, in order to maintain a nine-game schedule. This change initially created considerable controversy among the high school principals and coaches, but has remained in effect.
Over the last two decades of the 20th century, high school football in Illinois has continued to keep pace with the on-going changes taking place in the sport at the college and professional levels; while also retaining some of the historical trappings that have made the fall game so popular.
Just as college and professional football have evolved into wide-open passing circuses, so have the Illinois prep teams significantly expanded their aerial attacks. A check of the state record book shows that the top three marks for pass attempts in a game have been set since 1984; the top nine marks for most passing yardage in a season have taken place since 1985, with eight of them set in the 1990s; and the top four marks for defensive team pass interceptions in a game all date from 1985.
Field goal kicking has also continued on the upswing in high school football; the record book discloses that 11 of the top 14 marks for most field goals kicked in a game have been set since 1983. Meanwhile, the kick attempts get longer: Jason Sproul of Bloomington Central Catholic booted a 57-yard field goal against
Mendota on October 25, 1996, only to learn that Nick Setta of Lockport boomed a three-pointer from 59 yards out against Bloom Township on the same windy night.
Yet we can still find evidence that the state's football past lives on. The decade of the 1990s has seen a revival in the playing of intersectional games against teams from distant states. In 1995 and 1998, teams from California traveled to the Chicago area for games, while Naperville Central journeyed to Ohio in 1996 to take on that state's legendary Massillon Washington High. Dunbar of Chicago has also played several games against teams from Tennessee and Ohio in the 1990s.
The great traditional rivalry games have continued on also, as the 2000 season saw West Aurora and East Aurora meet in the 108th renewal of their long-running series; while Hyde Park and Englewood tangled the next week for the 106th time in their rivalry.
Illinois prep football has been defined by tradition, excitement and pageantry; its venue, the cool Friday nights and the sun-kissed Saturday afternoons that make autumn a special time. Great teams and players of the future will continue to etch their marks in the annals of the sport, as they carry on the colorful and legend-filled story that is the history of Illinois high school football.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Illinois High School Association.