DEKALB — Now that this is the college gridiron capital of Illinois, it seems only fitting that the biggest show in prep football makes an appearance as well.
When the Big Ten revamped its schedules to give Illinois a home game every other year over Thanksgiving weekend, the Illinois High School Association had to figure out what to do with the state football finals.
One option would have been to say goodbye entirely to Champaign-Urbana, which wouldn’t have disappointed everyone. Illinois’ Memorial Stadium seats more than 70,000 fans and with crowds never more than a fraction of that, the atmosphere of state title games sometimes can leave something to be desired.
But coaches and players I’ve talked to are more than willing to overlook the tens of thousands of empty seats for a chance to play in a Big Ten venue. That’s something only a handful of prep players will ever get to experience again at the next level.
Northern Illinois, the team that calls Huskie Stadium home, has been on a roll lately. And, with Heisman Trophy candidate Jordan Lynch leading the way, is playing at a higher level than either of the state’s Big Ten teams.
But how does Huskie Stadium stack up as a venue for the prep state championship games?
It’s better than the IHSA playoffs’ original home, Illinois State’s Hancock Stadium, which felt like a super-sized high school field.
The only other venue to host state games besides Memorial Stadium was Northwestern’s Ryan Field, which was home to the big-school finals from 1981 to ‘84 when it was Dyche Stadium. There’s still some sentiment in the Chicago area to try to get those games back locally, but statewide support for that idea seems lukewarm at best.
DeKalb feels like a nice compromise. It’s close enough to Chicago, especially the western suburbs, to perhaps entice more fans to make the trip to state. And because it’s outside the metro area proper, it’s not an unbearable trip for a lot of Downstate fans.
Crowds for Saturday’s games were of varying sizes, but there was a distinct buzz all day long. The biggest crowd appeared to come support Class 6A champ Batavia, whose fans created a sea of red in the home grandstand.
Batavia senior Forrest Gilbertson couldn’t help but be fired up when he surveyed the scene during the Bulldogs’ 34-14 win over Richards.
“I looked up in the stands and thought, ‘This is the most people I’ll ever see in one game I’m playing in.”
This being the first time Northern Illinois has hosted state — it’ll be here in odd-numbered years with Illinois hosting in even-numbered years — everything wasn’t perfect.
The small concession booth underneath the south side of the home grandstand was out of hot dogs and pepperoni pizza by halftime of the Class 6A final and was running low on cheese pizza.
But on the problem scale, too much demand for food, is pretty far down. It’s something that can be easily fixed by the time the state finals come back to town in 2015.
Alternating venues every other year between two sites is a new concept for the IHSA, which usually signs up with individual state venues for several years at a time.
But the rotating finals concept seems like an idea whose time has come — and should stick around for a while.