While I can’t say I wish I were 15 years older, I have wondered if maybe I should have been born about 15 years earlier.
Probably would have played baseball, at least for a few years, with a wood bat. Could have seen Lou Brock and Walter Payton play in person. Might have seen R.E.M. live in their prime.
And maybe I could have experienced true Hoosier Hysteria. Class basketball had already been enacted by the time my hometown newspaper in Danville, Ill., first sent me to cover an Indiana high school basketball game. While I could still tell there was something special about the event, those who knew better were quick to tell me I had missed the glory days.
More than 15 years have passed since the decision to split Indiana’s basketball tournament into classes, but many people have not moved on. Lawmakers talk about legislating a return to an unclassed tournament, and while an IHSAA poll of athletes, coaches and school administrators showed significant support for class sports, a vocal fan base clamors for a trip back in time.
Here’s the problem: the spectacle they remember is gone forever, and it’s never coming back.
There are a number of compromise options out there. Some suggest keeping the class system through a certain point of the state tournament before merging into one bracket. Others would reduce the number of classes to two or three instead of the current four.
But I just don’t see a way any of that addresses the real issue, which is the depleted atmosphere at many of the state’s sectionals.
Many expressed concern at the record-low attendance at the most recent state championships. But championship attendance was already declining when the IHSAA adopted class sports. That trend has little to do with the dysfunction of the state tournament and more to do with the multitude of entertainment options available today when compared with the middle of the last century.
I used to favor a two-class system, like the one I grew up with in Illinois. A state crowns a big school and small school state champion, and regional rivalries are less splintered than in the four-class approach.
A two-class system only works if the IHSAA agrees to an uneven number of teams in each class. Putting the enrollment cutoff around 1,000 might satisfy small schools who don’t want to face behemoths at any point in the tournament.
Yet that doesn’t change one of the biggest problems of the current system: the potentially stale atmosphere at some big school sectionals. As someone who has driven to Kokomo and Logansport to watch McCutcheon and Harrison play on a Tuesday night, I can testify that even an intense local rivalry loses its luster in a two-thirds empty gymnasium.
It’s important to remember there are benefits to the class system. I’ve spoken with basketball players from previous generations who remember when teams like Carroll and Seeger competing for even a sectional championship was a faint once-in-a-generation possibility. Today, those athletes enter each season looking forward to a fair shot at a reward for their hard work.
A fair debate can occur over whether that reward trumps the tradition of the unclassed tournament.
But the athletes and administrators who actually play the games have demonstrated a clear preference for the status quo. It would be cruel to force a different format on them in an attempt by some to relive the past.
Or, for some of us, to experience it for the first time.