State Tournament is here to stay

State Tournament is here to stay
March 24, 2013, 4:45 pm
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You may not like it. It depends if you live in Woodlawn or Woodridge, Pinckneyville or Palos Heights, Madison or Maywood. But the state's four-class basketball format is here to stay. So live with it.

Ever since the Illinois High School Association scrapped its 35-year-old two-class system for a four-class playoff in 2008, critics have protested that the caliber of the state's signature event has fallen dramatically, the same way attendance has.

Every year, someone calls for the IHSA to return to a two-class or three-class format, return to the Assembly Hall in Champaign (I'll vote for that) or keep the small-school tournament in Peoria and move the large-school finals to the United Center in Chicago.

It won't happen.

The IHSA likes Peoria. And Peoria likes the IHSA. They have become very compatible. Peoria has done what Champaign-Urbana didn't want to do. And the entertaining Happening in the exhibition hall adjacent to Carver Arena is almost as popular as the games, something Champaign-Urbana couldn't provide.

And the IHSA likes the four-class plan. It gives the state's small schools an opportunity to win two state titles. The small schools want their own identity, as they did in the old two-class format. They don't care what the large schools do with the other two trophies.

Historically, the IHSA isn't prone to change. Look how long it took to adopt a two-class system in basketball. Look how long it took to adopt a state football playoff. Look how long it took to introduce a class system to other boys and girls sports. For that matter, look how long it took to begin playing girls sports.

Critics who complain about the state pairings (why not pit No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the state final and why put Simeon and Whitney Young in the same sectional?) just don't get it.

The IHSA isn't interested in producing a state tournament that will bring the Elite Eight, the state's best eight teams, to Peoria. It is about geography and participation and giving schools from all parts of the state an opportunity to take home a trophy. This isn't the NCAA, it's the IHSA.

Times have changed. Remember when games in Huff Gym and the Assembly Hall played to sold-out crowds with dozens of radio stations from throughout the state, providing live coverage and players from non-participating teams walking the halls and the aisles wearing their letter jackets?

No more. Only a few die-hard fans show up today. Players from non-participating teams stay home. Even the participating schools don't sell all of their allotted tickets. There are a lot of empty seats that the television cameras seek to avoid.

The Prep Bowl in Chicago, pitting the Public League and Catholic League football champions, pales in comparison to what it once was, when it attracted crowds of 120,000 to Soldier Field. Now only students from the competing schools and family and friends of the players show up.

The same is true for the state football finals at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. It is a magnificent and historic venue. Do any of the participants know who Red Grange was? Since the eight championship games draw scant crowds, the IHSA might as well play them at Northern Illinois or return to Hancock Stadium in Normal.

Peoria has done a good job of selling its product. For years, I enjoyed staying at the Holiday Inn, eating at Jim's Steakhouse and walking to Carver Arena. The Thursday afternoon shoot-around gave the event a Final Four atmosphere. The Happening was a one-of-a-kind event for one and all.

The NCAA may have stolen the IHSA's Original March Madness logo. But it can't take away the feeling that you get when you are watching an event that is filled with tradition and state and community pride.

The problem is kids today don't care much about that tradition. They don't acknowledge the history of the 100-year-old event. They don't understand what it means to be standing on the shoulders of those who came before, the ones who established the tradition.

What bothers me most of all is a kid who plays on the Carver basketball team doesn't know who Cazzie Russell was or a kid who plays at Lyons doesn't know who Ted Caiazza was or a kid who plays at Thornton doesn't know who Lloyd Batts was or a kid who plays at Bloom doesn't know who Homer Thurman was.

That's what we should be complaining about.