TERRE HAUTE —
Though far from universal, a sense of optimism existed in November 1996 when Terre Haute North and Terre Haute South high schools were accepted as members of the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference.
Principals and athletic directors at the two Vigo County schools hailed the move as “a catalyst for change in terms of not only athletics but academics as well,” and “the most significant step athletically and academically that either school has taken” in their then-26-year histories. Some coaches, more skeptical, wondered if the locals would be equipped to match the other MIC schools’ number of coaches and middle-school feeder systems. With that mix of excitement and wariness, North and South joined the “super conference.”
Sixteen years later, the two schools are searching for a new league. Why?
Geography and numbers are two primary factors. The MIC wants to expand from its current size of eight teams (North, South, and six large Indianapolis-area schools — Ben Davis, Warren Central, Center Grove, Carmel, North Central and Lawrence North) to perhaps as many as 16. Since ’96, suburban schools in Indy have grown in enrollment and athletic prowess, and MIC officials are soliciting membership interest from the best of that crop. Those prospective members, already affiliated with other conferences, would be more inclined to break long-standing ties with their present leagues and jump to an enhanced MIC if the two Terre Haute schools dropped out. The 75-mile bus rides back and forth on I-70 are not appealing in the age of $3.90-a-gallon gas.
The other half of that “Why?” connects to the timing of this debate. Reports about a possible conference shakeup emerged at the outset of the MIC’s marquee sports season — football. That is no coincidence. In a league that excels in many sports, football still stands out. Since 1999, MIC teams have won all but two Class 5A state football championships. When North and South entered the conference, Ben Davis, Carmel and Warren Central already had multiple football championship trophies, and Center Grove eventually won its own. Defeating established powerhouse programs has remained an uphill battle for the Terre Haute schools. Since their first full season as members in 1998, North and South have never won more than three games in a season against MIC foes.
Not surprisingly, most schools reportedly being wooed by the MIC are now perennial football powers. All are near Indianapolis, too. And, with the school-age population in Vigo County declining, North and South have the MIC’s smallest enrollments. The MIC and suburban Indy schools are growing.
The remedy is difficult. There are no similarly sized schools within 50 miles of the Terre Haute schools. No ideal alternative exists, and the best-case scenario — soldiering on in the MIC — appears to be fading. Conferences that do match up size-wise (around Bloomington and south of Indianapolis) may see little upside in adding distant members like North and South, even if the MIC cherry-picks those leagues’ top football schools.
Still, the Vigo County School Corp. is pro-actively seeking options if the local schools’ MIC affiliation ends within the next two years. Thankfully, competing as independents (with no conference link) is not being considered. North and South did that for two decades, leaving teams and individual student-athletes off the radar maps in terms of college recruiting, statewide rankings and recognition; those situations improved through MIC competition, as has the strength of the North and South sports teams across the board.
Superintendent Danny Tanoos told the Tribune-Star the corporation is interested in aligning North and South with the Southern Indiana Athletic Conference, now comprised of eight Evansville schools. The two Terre Haute schools were SIAC members from 1971-79, and the two-hour bus ride up and down U.S. 41 has not gotten any shorter since. Another complication: Evansville is on Central Time, and Terre Haute is on Eastern Time.
Ultimately, the decision should boil down to the best option as of right now — academically, athletically and financially — rather than future expectations. Pragmatism must win out.