TAKE 2: Options for conference realignment
Daily Chronicle sports editor John Sahly and sports reporter Steve Nitz spend their days covering the area’s sports scene. Occasionally, they give their viewpoints on those local sports. In this installment of their 2012 Take 2 column, they discuss conference realignment in the Northern Illinois Big 12 and Big Northern conferences.
Sahly: Steve, as we and other Shaw Media papers previously have reported, the Big Northern Conference is looking at possible options to expand. The two schools that have come up the most in conversations about that expansion are Dixon and Johnsburg, who both have made their pitches to apply to the conference.
If Dixon leaves the Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference, the rumor du jour is Burlington Central leaving the BNC to come to the NI Big 12 East, with Rochelle going to the West Division. Kaneland athletic director Leigh Jaffke told Shaw Media’s Jay Schwab that Burlington Central would be “a perfect fit for our side of the conference.”
Put on your fantasy athletic director cap for a second and tell me what the two conferences should do?
Nitz: First of all, let me say that I’m surprised the NI Big 12 is starting to fall apart this quickly. When the league began play in the 2010-11 school year, I thought it would be a successful conference.
All of the sudden, Dixon is looking for greener pastures. Don’t forget, Streator is exploring other options as well, and there is a report out from the Champaign News-Gazette that the Bulldogs have applied to join the Corn Belt Conference, though the report says the interest is not entirely mutual.
To me, Burlington Central would be the best fit as a replacement. The Rockets fit both enrollment-wise (1,059, according to IHSA.org), and geographically. Burlington Central is a short drive from DeKalb, Kaneland and Sycamore. Rochelle also would have shorter trips in the West Division, and would be back with its old NCIC foes.
Should the NI Big 12 have to replace teams, two other schools I think the conference should consider are Belvidere and Belvidere North. Both schools are among the smallest in the NIC-10, which has sort of became a joke with a catholic school (Boylan) and two larger schools (Harlem and Hononegah) dominating in seemingly everything.
The Belvidere schools aren’t as good of a fit geographically, but I think the league could make it work.
Sahly: I’m actually going to go out on what I think is a little bit of a limb here and say the conferences stay the same. Dixon might not like being one of the smaller fish in a bigger pond, but the Dukes and Duchesses would be out on an island in the BNC. If they think driving to Kaneland is far, just wait for a crossover game against Richmond-Burton (it’s about 100 miles, one way).
If it’s about competitiveness, I think Dixon would be making a huge mistake in leaving. There are more than a few coaches at DeKalb and Sycamore who have made it known they miss the Western Sun Conference because of the good (and somewhat local) competition it provided in preparing teams for the postseason.
I’ve said for a long time Burlington Central would be a nice fit in the NI Big 12. It has been able to compete with DeKalb, Sycamore and Kaneland in a variety of sports in the past few years. But it’s not as if the BNC is a bad fit for the Rockets. Yes, they’re big for the BNC, but it’s not like they’re some giant that’s dominated in every sport.
Belvidere and Belvidere North would be interesting. They’ve hosted sectionals that have featured DeKalb, Sycamore and Kaneland, so it’s a geographic fit. And I’m sure they wouldn’t mind getting away from Boylan and Hononegah.
For once, in what have been a few turbulent years in conference realignment across the state, I think the status quo remains.
Nitz: It certainly is possible the NI Big 12 stays intact, and I hope that’s the case. I think the conference has been a success thus far, and I’d hate to see it break up.
Here is one thing to think about when it comes to Dixon and the Big Northern: Dixon athletic director Jon Empen told me the conference is either going to expand by two teams, or not add any teams at all.
The other school that’s trying to join the BNC is Johnsburg, and here’s the catch with the Skyhawks: they left the league after the 2005-06 school year to join the Fox Valley. I think that could play a part in whether the BNC lets them back in or not.
Should the Big Northern deny Johnsburg, that probably would mean Dixon would be out of luck as well.
Here’s a question for you – Let’s say the NI Big 12 stays the way it is with the same 12 teams. Any changes you would make, if you were in charge?
Sahly: There are a few, but I’ll stick to just one. Fix the crossover games. When the conference originally was announced, crossover games in all sports other than football were only supposed to take place on weekends. That hasn’t happened, and the result is teams from both sides of the conference are traveling a couple hours or more on weeknights. That’s ridiculous.
One more thing on crossovers: Count them or don’t count them, I don’t care, but keep it uniform across the sports. I’d prefer to count them, because otherwise what’s the point of two divisions under the banner of one conference? What about you?
Nitz: To me, they need to count the crossovers. Otherwise, what’s the point of playing them? Especially when teams in the East Division have to drive all the way to Geneseo.
Here’s my idea: Have a real conference championship game in each sport. Take the top team from each division and have them play the other division champion at the end of each season. The game would take place at the school with the better league record.
Sure, football might be a little more complicated, but it can be done. Play the crossover games during Week 2 and 3, and the division games the following five weeks. Teams would leave the final week of the season open. That’s where the conference championship game would take place at the school with the better record. Then, have both second-place teams meet, etc.
Now, there are still issues. High school teams always play either four or five home games, so schools would need to make sure they have played four home games heading into the final week, because teams won’t know where they are playing in Week 9.
Here’s one other problem I have with the NI Big 12. The current divisional alignment doesn’t make sense when it comes to travel. I would make the NI Big 12 a north-south conference.
It’s simple. The North Division would consist of all the schools along I-88 — DeKalb, Dixon, Kaneland, Rochelle, Sterling and Sycamore. LaSalle-Peru, Geneseo, Morris, Ottawa, Streator and Yorkville would make up the South Division.
Dixon might not be too happy being the smallest school in a division the larger schools in the league such as DeKalb and Kaneland. However, travel should be the No. 1 priority. No more of those long trips to Streator, which are at least an hour and a half by bus.
Do you think Morris enjoys having all of its divisional road trips (with the exception of Yorkville) more than an hour long? In a north-south alignment, all of the Redskins’ trips would be along I-80, plus a trip to Streator, which is a little less than an hour.
There still is the long trip to Geneseo, but that town is just out in the middle of nowhere. Really, it’s going to be a long trip for anyone in the conference.