Photo by Jeff Vorva
Photo illustration by Kari Nelson
Will the grim reaper claim the storied football portion of Chicago Catholic League? It’s in the hands of more than 800 school officials this month as they could vote to eliminate conference in favor of districts during the season. Pictured are players from a Brother Rice-St. Laurence game this season during a pass play in the end zone.
By Jeff Vorva
Generations of Chicago and suburban football players, fans and coaches have grown up with Chicago Catholic League football.
From the days when Catholic League teams helped draw more than 100,000 fans to Solider Field for the Prep Bowl to the scores of Illinois High School Association state football titles brought home by teams such as Mt. Carmel and Providence Catholic, the Catholic League has been a staple of excellence in football.
Heck, Providence just added another trophy to the collection – its 10th -- on Saturday when the Celtics beat Cary-Grove 31-28 to win the Class 7A title and trail Mt. Carmel by two.
Donovan McNabb, Johnny Lattner and Bill Callahan headline a long list of famous Catholic League players or coaches who came from the Catholic League.
The Catholic League formed in 1912, added football in 1913 and has survived and thrived for more than 100 years.
But are its days numbered?
Officials from all of the 800-plus Illinois High School Association schools on Monday were asked to vote on a list of proposals including Proposal 10, which would be a huge change to football in the state as it would eliminate conference play and install a district system based on enrollment and geography.
That would affect all of our area teams and signal the end of the Southwest Suburban, South Suburban, East Suburban Catholic, Metro Suburban Conference and, yes, the storied Chicago Catholic League.
SUBHEAD – Destroying tradition
St. Laurence coach Harold Blackmon, who played at Leo High School en route to a career that took him to the NFL playing two seasons with Seattle, is hoping this proposal fails. Votes are expected in by the end of the month and the IHSA will announce the results on Jan. 6.
“It’s unfortunate that people are making decisions without looking at the long-term effects on certain schools,” Blackmon said. “The Catholic League has been a staple of high school football for a very long time. To destroy that is very unfair.
‘’As a player and a coach, there are so many neighborhood rivalries. This is a big deal for us. Our games are always in the spotlight. It was special for me as a player to know that you were going to face a quality team and a Catholic team as well and I think that if they break it up into regions the continuity won’t be there.”
The rationale of this 1,700-plus word proposal is not to stick it to the Catholic League. But the Catholic League’s tradition would be a victim in its wake.
Sycamore High School Principal Tim Carlson submitted the proposal citing that in the last five years, 20 conferences have changed, four new conference were formed, too many teams are loading their schedules up with smaller schools to get into the playoffs and a host of other issues of concern.
Tim O’Halloran, known to many in football circles as “Edgy Tim” runs a website dedicated to Illinois high school football (edgytim.com) and recruiting and appears regularly as Comcast SportsNet Chicago’s football expert, admits that change could be a good idea but this revamp is something he does not want to see.
“There are a ton of questions if, God forbid, this thing does pass.’’O’Halloran said. “Talk about changing the landscape…look at the Catholic League. Are you just going to forget how many years of history and tradition you have with that conference? It’s a lot to take in.
“Look at Mt. Carmel and look at St. Rita – who would be in that 18- or 19-team district. I would guess there would be a lot of Public League schools playing against them. The level of competition would be ridiculously bad. How many of those Public League schools don’t have lower-level football?”
O’Halloran was also a little edgy when talking about the impact it will make all around the state.
“What you do with schools like Edwardsville [near St. Louis]?” he said. “The closest schools district-wise would be Joliet. So, you’re going to have Joliet schools go for what would be like a conference game to St. Louis two or three times a year? What do you do for the lower levels? Do they make the same kind of travel as well?
“And the big question is who would pay for all of this? Well, I know the answer. We [taxpayers] would.”
He’s not buying one of the arguments that some other states – including Iowa – have a similar setup with regions and districts.
“It’s not the same,’’ O’Halloran said. “Chicago is a huge metropolitan city. It’s not Indianapolis. It’s not Des Moines. It’s a big, big, area with a lot of diverse schools and different levels of schools and we probably have more private schools than just about any other state going. You’re trying to paint a picture with a broad brush and there are way too many details that get left out.’’
SUBHEAD – Didn’t see it coming
Many insiders predict this won’t pass. But many insiders, including O’Halloran, didn’t think it would even reach the ballot stage.
"The vote to advance the football proposal was a surprise," said IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman in a news release. "At the town meetings there seemed to be little support for a sweeping change like this. But it speaks to the passionate feelings we've heard from both sides of this issue.”
When later asked by the Champaign News Gazette if he was surprised made the ballot, Hickman amped his answer up.
“No. I was shocked,’’ he said. “We didn’t see that coming. It’s got a real uphill battle with the membership is my guess.’’
O’Halloran agrees, to a point.
“I don’t think it will pass,” he said. “Look where the majority of the votes are. Two-thirds are north of Interstate 80. There are more issues than solutions. But never say never. That’s the scary part. Once you go to a vote anything can happen.’’
If it passes, it might not be implemented until the 2016 season.
So the wait is on.
“I’m hoping it doesn’t go through,” Blackmon said. “But if it does, it will be interesting to see what happens.’’