Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a series of in-depth examinations of class basketball in Indiana.
Earlier this month, Indiana High School Athletic Association commissioner Bobby Cox issued a four-page study on the boys and girls basketball tournament formats, coming on the heels of an 11-stop town hall series.
In the report, Cox detailed the numbers. Though more than 68 percent of the public surveyed at the town hall meetings preferred the single-class tournament, a large majority of athletic directors, principals, high school athletes and — to a lesser extent — coaches were in favor of the current four-class system that was installed in 1997-98.
“In light of the results of this latest analysis,” Cox wrote, “there is a lack of compelling evidence that if present, would cause the Association to consider plans to alter the existing tournament structures for boys and girls.”
Case closed, it would seem.
But while the question posed at the meetings was either for a single-class or four-class tournament, there may be an appetite for something completely different, a compromise of sorts that would incorporate elements of both tournament formats.
There is no shortage of ideas, many of which were discussed at length at the town hall meetings. Cox, in his report, left the door open for further discussion, stating he would forward the ideas to the Indiana Basketball Coaches Association. The IBCA, for its part, is already in the process of surveying its membership to gauge interest in putting together a playoff proposal.
“If the majority of our coaches say they would like to see a compromise, then we’ll identify two or three different ideas and go from there,” said IBCA executive director Steve Witty. “I think there are coaches who feel like there are as many inequities with the multiclass tournament as there were with the single-class tournament. There are things that can be done to make the tournament better.”
One possible answer could be found just south of the state line, where the underdog spirit of the single-class tournament is alive and well.
The Kentucky model
In 1995, after a class sports study committee had issued its recommendation to the IHSAA on multiclass tournaments for several sports, including basketball, Stan Steidel, a former coach, made two trips from Kentucky to Indianapolis; once to meet with a group of small school administrators and another to talk with athletic directors statewide.
The purpose of Steidel’s visits was to educate Indiana administrators on Kentucky’s answer to the big school-versus-small school issue: a separate tournament for the small schools called the Kentucky All “A” Classic that began in 1980 with a modest eight teams and developed into a full-fledged 16-team state tournament in 1990.
The All “A” Classic operates outside the jurisdiction of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association but has its blessing. It is open to the smallest 130 schools in the state; there are now also statewide tournaments for girls basketball, baseball, softball and volleyball.
The boys basketball All “A” Classic concludes with 16 regional winners competing in a four-day state tournament the final week of January in Frankfort, Ky. The format is similar to that of the single-class tournament, which climaxes with a four-day “Sweet Sixteen” of regional winners at Rupp Arena in Lexington in mid-March.
“The All ‘A’ Classic saved (the single-class tournament),” said Steidel, who helped establish the tournament after a failed lawsuit against the KHSAA to allow multiple classes. “It wasn’t our first choice to begin with, but it’s turned out to be the best of both worlds.”
Originally, the class sports study committee recommended a similar format in September of 1995. It called for a maximum of three classes, a midseason multiple-class tournament and a single-class tourney at the end of the season. That idea was ditched two months later when there was overwhelming opposition to the midseason tournaments at principals’ meetings.
One of the issues that came up in his meetings in Indiana, Steidel remembered, was that the IHSAA allows just 20 games per season or 18 games and one in-season tournament. In Kentucky, a maximum of 29 games are allowed prior to the postseason tournament.
“There was interest in it, but (the administrators) weren’t sure how it would fit in the schedule,” Steidel said. “But it’s not too late. I think it could do for Indiana what it’s done for Kentucky.”
In 2010, Shelby Valley became the first boys basketball team to win both the All “A” Classic and the Sweet Sixteen in the same season, defeating much larger Louisville Ballard in front of more than 15,000 fans at Rupp Arena.
“There have been quite a few of those types of stories through the years,” said Bob White, a retired Louisville Courier-Journal sports writer who has attended the Sweet Sixteen since the 1950s. “There’s as much excitement now for it as there ever has been. Everybody gets behind the underdog teams.”
According to KHSAA officials, total attendance for the 15 games typically ranges between 110,000 and 125,000 fans. Kent Wise, a former high school coach in Indiana, attends the Sweet Sixteen every year and calls it a “four-day heaven on earth.”
“What Kentucky has done is brilliant,” Wise said. “They’ve been able to give a spotlight to the small schools and keep the Sweet Sixteen as a major event. It’s a great format, but you wonder if Indiana would ever want to do what Kentucky does.”
While two viewpoints were expressed frequently at the town hall meetings — those who reminisced about the single-class tournament and administrators who spoke for the multiclass format — a number preferred other options.
Brian Tibbs unveiled his “Hoosier Hysteria Tournament.” It would start as a single-class tournament, then dump losing teams back into their enrollment class to play out the rest of the tourney.
Charles Hart proposed dividing the state into 64 conferences with each league making up a sectional at the end of the season. That would guarantee a number of small and medium-sized schools in the regional.
Ned Lee brought forward the idea of playing the four-class sectionals as they are now, then filter the 64 winners into a single-class tournament.
“There were several formats that had some intrigue, speaking from a personal perspective,” Cox said. “But there are a couple of different issues you are trying to address: If local flavor at the sectional level is important, that’s one thing. If you think it’s important to allow the small schools to have a champion, that’s another thing. That’s the breadth of what was presented at these meetings. It’s whatever our membership feels comfortable with, if they feel like something needs to change.”
Leigh Evans, a Greenwood resident and owner and publisher of the high school basketball website HickoryHusker.com, first submitted his “Hickory Compromise” to the IHSAA in 1999.
The four-class structure would be maintained through the sectional and regional rounds, then combine for a single-class final sixteen for the semistate and beyond.
Though his idea generated some buzz 13 years ago, it eventually faded away. Each March on his website, one reader posts a simulated draw of regional championship teams based on the Hickory Compromise. “It’s always good for conversations and has fantastic matchups,” Evans said.
But Evans and others believe a recent IHSAA move may have been a checkmate for any compromise ideas.
In late June, about two weeks prior to releasing the study on the basketball format, the IHSAA unveiled a two-year tournament success factor for all team sports. Should a program accumulate six points in a sport (a state championship is four points, semistate three and regional two) over a two-year period, it moves up a class for the next two-year cycle.
Though the new rule does address teams that have dominated in the smaller classes, it does not alter the tournament format. For those in favor of a change — citing the 2012 boys basketball state finals attendance as the lowest in the class basketball era as evidence — it’s not enough.
“High school basketball in Indiana is simply becoming less relevant,” said Rob Curry, a former small school coach who submitted his own proposal at a town hall meeting. “It bothers me that people in favor of multiclass think people like me are just living in the past. I’m trying to be forward-thinking. What can we do to rejuvenate the tournament?”
If any change is forthcoming in the near future, it will likely start with the IBCA. After IBCA meetings begin again next month, Witty said the organization will have a better idea as to the interest in a compromise idea. If there is, Witty would like to give a committee two or three ideas to study.
“It’s in its early stages for us, but it’s a good time to get some ideas out there,” Witty said. “The bottom line is that we are concerned about the direction our tournament is going. But how do the principals feel about it? They are the ones that will have to accept a change.”
5 alternatives to class basketball
Since the IHSAA scrapped the single-class basketball tournament for a four-class version in 1997-98, several compromise ideas have been put forward. Others were presented at the 11 town hall meetings throughout the state this spring. Here are five ideas:
» The Kentucky plan: Kentucky has kept its single-class tournament — the “Sweet Sixteen” — and also incorporated a small-school tournament, called the All “A” Classic, during the season, for the 130 lowest-enrollment schools in the state. A similar format was considered by the class sports study committee in the mid-1990s. The All “A” Classic operates outside of the KHSAA’s control, but many credit it with preserving the Sweet Sixteen.
» Hickory Compromise: Leigh Evans, publisher of HickoryHusker.com, put together a proposal in 1999 that would keep the four-class format through the sectional and regional rounds, then combine the remaining 16 teams into a single-class tournament.
» Big Dance Compromise: Andy Graham of the Bloomington Herald-Times proposed splitting the 64 sectionals into two classes. The sectional championship squads would then congregate at 16 regionals and play the rest of the way as a single, 64-team tournament. This format would address the sectional rivalries at the sectional level, which have been hurt by the four-class system.
» A 4-2-1 Compromise: Former high school coach Rob Curry proposed a tournament that starts with four classes in the sectional, two classes in the regional and one from the regional finals through the state championship. There would be 128 teams in Class A and 2A, 88 teams in 3A and 64 teams in 4A. At the regional level, the Class A team would play the 2A team in the semifinals, with 3A vs. 4A in the opposite semifinal. That would guarantee 16 small schools would advance to the regional championship game every year.
» Combining the two: A proposal by Brian Tibbs, pastor of a Charlestown church, called for a single-class tournament with the opportunity for Class A, 2A and 3A teams to drop to their respective enrollment class after losing in the single-class tourney and play it out through the state finals.