BLOOMINGTON — The IHSA state football championship games will not return to Champaign in 2023.
Or in at least the next four seasons after that, either.
The prep sports organization’s board of directors announced Wednesday it has selected Normal to host the next five years’ worth of football state championship games.
The bid from Normal, done in conjunction with Illinois State University, was selected ahead of offers from Champaign, DeKalb and Carbondale.
“Sad to see it go, happy for Normal and ISU. They’ll do a great job,” Visit Champaign County president and CEO Jayne DeLuce told The News-Gazette. “It’s been such a tradition. I was actually counting — I think I’ve worked about 17 or 18 of (the state finals) since 1999. I feel like it’s always been a part (of the community).”
Illinois’ Memorial Stadium hosted eight state title games late last month, in the continuation of an every-other-year partnership with DeKalb that began in 2013.
The Champaign/Illinois contingent submitted a hosting bid for the next five years that continues upon an every-other-year trajectory, a necessity with the Illini likely hosting Northwestern in alternate college football seasons that would conflict with the dates of the IHSA football state title games.
But the IHSA Board of Directors earlier this year stated its hope of finding a consistent host every year for the state championships’ immediate future.
“It has nothing to do with how we hosted and everything to do with they wanted somewhere they could do it every year,” DeLuce said. “Attendance is not where it was back in the 2000s. … But that’s (also) not the reason. They definitely love the way they’re treated in Champaign. They just wanted to go somewhere they could build that relationship on an every-year basis.”
IHSA executive director Craig Anderson said in a press release that the board of directors’ decision was not an easy one.
“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,” Anderson said. “This decision wasn’t made lightly, as Northern Illinois University and the University of Illinois have been incredible hosts for us through the years.
“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.”
The state championships first moved to Memorial Stadium in 1999 and were solely played there until the beginning of the Champaign and DeKalb partnership.
The IHSA state finals debuted at Illinois State’s Hancock Stadium in 1974, with Class 1A through 5A championships. Class 6A came into existence in 1980. The Class 5A and 6A games briefly were moved to Evanston in 1981 before being returned to Normal in 1985, where all of the championship games remained through the 1998 season.
“We are very disappointed with today’s news, which ends our longstanding history of hosting the IHSA football state championship games at Memorial Stadium,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said in a statement. “We believe Memorial Stadium is the most iconic football stadium in Illinois and offers the state’s premier experience for high school student-athletes and coaches.
“The IHSA sought a single venue to host the championships for the foreseeable future, and we engaged them in multiple discussions to brainstorm creative ways we might be able to accommodate that in Memorial Stadium, even in years when our Fighting Illini team had a home game to conclude the season.”
Illini football coach Bret Bielema also expressed disappointment with the decision.
“We have established since day one that recruiting and developing in-state players would be a huge priority for building our program and our foundation,” Bielema said in a press release. “I understand this decision has been thoroughly processed and, of course, would have liked a different answer, but it’s where they stand today. In this ever-changing world of college football and scheduling, maybe a return to Memorial Stadium could be addressed in the near future.”
Champaign remains the host for the IHSA boys’ basketball state championships and IHSA boys’ wrestling individual state meet, both which take place at State Farm Center on the UI campus.
DeLuce said the Champaign/UI contingent plans to “look at other IHSA sports or tournaments” it could bring to town, also mentioning the county’s relatively new Rantoul Family Sports Complex in that regard.
“Nothing to be announced quite yet, but stay tuned,” DeLuce said. “We’ve had some really good conversations about that.”
Colin Likas is the preps coordinator at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at [email protected], or on Twitter at @clikasNG.