Thanksgiving weekend is a big deal for high school students in Illinois: in addition to the traditional festivities associated with the holiday, Thanksgiving weekend is when the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) holds the state high school football championships. Drive and Dish doesn't usually cover high school football, but this year the IHSA football championships are worth mentioning because of the relatively limited success of Chicago-area Catholic schools, which have drawn significant ire over the years for "dominating" high school football in Illinois.
The results of Thanksgiving weekend's IHSA football championships are as follows:
8A: Maine South 28
Mount Carmel 7 [Chicago Tribune Photos]
7A: Wheaton Warrenville South 28
Lake Zurich 17 [Chicago Tribune Photos ]
6A: Rockford Boylan 48
Marmion 19 [Chicago Tribune Photos ]
5A: Montini 34
Chatham Glenwood 21 [Chicago Tribune Photos ]
4A: Rochester 24
Rock Island Alleman 7 [Chicago Tribune Photos ]
3A: Illini West 22
Stillman Valley 20
2A: Sterling Newman 48
1A: Lena-Winslow 47
Frequently Heard Complaint: "Those damned Catholic schools have an unfair advantage!"
Historically, several Chicago-area Catholic high schools -- including quite a few members of the Chicago Catholic League (CCL) -- have fielded powerhouse football programs. Many of those programs have won multiple state championships. Longtime football power Joliet Catholic has won the most state championships of any school in Illinois: since the 1974 inception of the IHSA, the Hilltoppers have taken home an impressive thirteen state titles. Fellow longtime football power Chicago Mount Carmel has won ten. Providence Catholic emerged as a football power in the 1990's (it had previously been known as a basketball and baseball power), and has now won nine state football titles (all having come after 1987). And aside from the aforementioned "big three," many other Chicago-area Catholic football powers have won football championships over the last 20-30 years. Those schools include Chicago St. Rita, Chicago Brother Rice, Loyola Academy, Carmel (Mundelein), Gordon Tech, Bishop McNamara (Kankakee) and the now-defunct Driscoll Catholic (Addison).
Much of the animosity toward Chicago-area Catholic high schools comes from the fact that as private institutions, Catholic schools' enrollments are not limited by the boundaries of school districts (as public schools' enrollments are). Thus, since Catholic schools are able to attract students from several school districts, the perception exists that the Catholic schools have an unfair advantage because they have a larger pool from which to draw athletic talent. That argument is not entirely without merit, but it can't sufficiently account for for all the Catholic schools' football success. Plenty of public schools draw also students from multiple towns. And most of those public schools have significantly larger enrollments than any Catholic high school. As it happens, most Catholic schools have relatively small enrollments. So while they may be unconfined by the boundaries of school districts, they're not actually "stealing" that many students away from the public schools, if for no other reason than the fact that they don't enroll that many students in the first place. And while Catholic schools don't limit their enrollment to practicing Catholics, relatively few of their students come from non-Catholic families. Thus, with a few exceptions, the talent pool from which the Catholic schools draw tends to be more or less limited to Catholic students (this is especially the case in the suburbs: Mt. Carmel has historically attracted more non-Catholics than most of its Catholic League rivals).
Critics of the Catholic schools also overlook the fairly obvious fact that although Catholic schools with strong football traditions can be something of a draw for matriculating freshmen who intend to participate in high school football, that doesn't automatically equate to a scenario in which Catholic schools sweep up all the good football players. There's a lot of development that has to take place from ages 13 to 18 in order for an 8th grader to grow into a successful varsity high school football player. There's simply no guarantee that a kid who, as an 8th grader, looks like he could possibly become a good football player someday will actually become one in high school. And since nearly all Catholic schools have restrictive transfer policies, they're generally limited to students who matriculate from junior high schools and middle schools. In other words, the Catholic high schools are not poaching football players from other high schools' football programs (as is often implied by the Catholic schools' detractors). It's instructive to remember that if the Catholic schools have good football players -- which many of them obviously do -- those players have developed within the schools' football programs.
Just as the Catholic schools' detractors usually overlook the fact that Catholic schools aren't the only high schools that draw students from multiple municipalities, they also frequently overlook the fact that nearly as many public football powerhouses win multiple state championships (especially in suburban Chicago) as Catholic powerhouses which do the same. A few Catholic schools -- namely, Joliet Catholic, Mt. Carmel, Providence, St. Rita, Bishop McNamara and Montini -- are responsible for much of the perception that Catholic schools dominate IHSA football. But public schools like Wheaton Warrenville South (which won the 7A state title in 2009 and 2010), Maine South (which won 8A this year), Downers Grove North, Downers Grove South, Naperville Central, Naperville North, Lincoln Way East (Frankfort), Hinsdale Central, Homewood-Flossmoor and Oak Lawn Richards have won multiple state championships and field powerhouse football teams year after year.
Talent alone doesn't win championships. A number of elements need to be present in order for a school to have a successful football program, and the power programs all have them in place. Coaching plays an enormous role in the power programs' success. Not surprisingly, schools that have good coaches tend to have good teams. And good coaches who stay at their schools for a number of years tend to build winning football programs. Moreover, the athletic culture at schools that have sustained success for a number of years on the football field usually creates an environment that promotes more winning: athletic success tends to breed athletic success. Most of the traditional high school football powers -- whether public or private -- exhibit the kind of athletic culture that allows them to field class after class of self-starter student-athletes: athletes in state's most successful high school football programs expect to play for state championships, and they dedicate themselves to doing what it takes to achieve their goals.
Frequently Heard Complaint: "Those damned Chicago Catholic schools cheat win all their championships!"
The most ludicrous claim made by the Catholic school detractors is that the Catholic schools cheat by paying players and their families to get them to enroll. This allegation is especially persistent in downstate Illinois, where Chicago -- and just about everything associated with it -- is generally reviled. People actually think that Catholic schools in Chicagoland pay students from all over the country to play for them, just so that they can win IHSA football state championships. Seriously. This allegation was, at one time, especially popular on the football message board at the old Illini Board (now known as Scout.com's Inside Illini), although it's also occasionally been voiced by a prominent on-air personality at Chicago's top-rated sports talk radio station, the Score 670 AM (Chicagoan and Homewood-Flossmoor H.S. alum Laurence Holmes). The claim is that Mt. Carmel, Joliet Catholic and Providence have rosters that are stocked with players from football breeding grounds like Florida, Texas and California.
Aside from being preposterously absurd, this claim is (and has always been) abjectly false. Chicagoland Catholic schools do not pay students, or students' families, to play football, and they most certainly don't bring players in from out of the Chicago region, much less bring them in from Florida, Texas and California. To illustrate how ridiculous that claim is, consider the following: even if the Catholic schools were inclined to cheat in player procurement, there would be little reason for them to recruit players from outside of the Chicago area. Chicagoland, after all, is itself something of a hotbed for football talent. Why would Catholic schools, which are notorious for operating on VERY tight budgets, go to all the trouble and expense of bringing players in from sunbelt states when there are plenty of talented athletes in Chicagoland? What kinds of recruiting and travel budgets would the Catholic schools need to wield in order for them to scour southern and southwestern states for upcoming football talent? And what kinds of "sweeteners" would they have to offer in order to convince kids and their families to leave their lives in Florida, Texas and California and start over in Chicagoland?
The idea that Chicago Catholic schools travel to Florida, Texas and California to procure players -- or even could afford to if they wanted to -- is so ridiculous that it's almost not even worth bothering to refute. Yet the rumor persists. Thus, as long as people on internet message boards, in downstate, small town diners and on sports radio talk shows complain about the unfair advantage that those "cheating" Catholic schools have because they bring players in from all over the country, the rumor must be refuted. What's more, if downstaters who like to traffic in conspiracy theories about Chicago-area Catholic schools improperly recruiting players are truly sincere in their distaste for high school football programs that illegally recruit players, they might do well to turn their attention to their own back yard.
Anticipated Indignant Objection: "How can you say that Catholic schools didn't dominate this year when a bunch of them played for state championships!?!"
So you say, we're off-base with our argument that it was a relatively quiet year for Catholic schools in the IHSA playoffs because five Catholic schools played for state championships this past weekend in Champaign. How can we hold our position? The easy/quick answer is that nobody's complaining about Catholic school domination this year, so you know that Catholic schools didn't do that well. But that's probably a bit trite. It's true that several Catholic high schools did play for 2010 state championships, but aside from Montini Academy's (Lombard) championship in class 5A, no catholic school from Chicagoland won a state title. Chicago Mount Carmel -- one of the usual targets of anti-Chicago Catholic school ire, and the school that produced past and present NFL stars like Donovan McNabb, Matt Cushing, Simeon Rice and Greg McMurtry -- came up short against North Suburban (Park Ridge) public powerhouse Maine South (perhaps best known for producing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) in 8A. Rockford Boylan hammered Marmion Academy to take home the 6A championship, but despite being Catholic, Boylan's Rockford location makes it immune to the argument that Chicago-area Catholic schools win all the state titles. Rockford is still decidedly not part of Chicagoland, no matter how far to the northwest the suburbs continue to sprawl.
The same applies to tiny Sterling Newman High School, which won the class 2A state title. Newman is a Catholic school, but rural Sterling is a long way from Chicago, both geographically and culturally.
Rock Island Alleman lost to Rochester in class 4A. Alleman is a small Catholic school on the Illinois side of the Quad Cities -- it sits atop a hill overlooking the Mississippi River Valley, right across the river from Davenport, Iowa. Alleman's Rock Island campus is slightly over 150 miles west of Chicago. The Quad Cities cannot go "toe-to-toe" with the Chicago area when it comes to producing IHSA champions, but that doesn't change the fact that the Quad Cities area has produced many good football teams over the years, as there's a strong high school football tradition in that part of the state. Rock Island, Moline and East Moline have traditionally field strong football programs, even though they rarely have the opportunity play for state championships. Alleman has also had some good teams through the years, but with the school's small enrollment, the football program is a long way off from being a dominant football power that can seriously challenge Chicago area Catholic schools on an annual basis.
So in the wake of Thanksgiving weekend 2010, the anti-Catholic school contingent is keeping a low profile, for Catholic schools from Chicagoland failed to dominate this year's addition of the IHSA football playoffs. Montini's state title in class 5A notwithstanding, Chicago-area Catholic schools were relatively quiet in '10. Sure, Mt. Carmel was the runner-up in 8A, and that's certainly nothing to disregard. But the old wives' tale that public schools don't have a fighting chance in the IHSA football playoffs because the unscrupulous, "cheating" Chicago-area Catholic schools dominate high school football in Illinois appears to have been put to rest over Thanksgiving weekend.
At least for this year.