News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 19, 2012

TODD GOLDEN: IHSAA debate interrupts more pressing issues

Todd Golden
The Tribune-Star

PLAINFIELD — State Senator Mike Delph has sowed a 15-year-old wind and put the emotional class basketball debate back on the public’s mind. A decade and a half after multi-class basketball was implemented, single-class advocate Delph and the IHSAA have joined forces to conduct 11 public meetings on the topic of class basketball.

I went to high school in Indiana. I’ve covered Indiana high school basketball for most of my career and I’m proud of it. I understand and care about its unique place in our state’s culture.

I was also a single-class basketball advocate. I still am — I guess — so much as I think about it anymore ... which is next to never.

Nonetheless I pressed play on Huey Lewis & The News “Back In Time,” jumped into my DeLorean time machine, selected “1996” and attended the meetings in Vincennes on Monday and in Plainfield on Tuesday.

What I found out is that in sowing the wind, Delph has reaped a whirlwind of chirping crickets.

A grand total of 46 people attended the Vincennes session. Ohhh-kay. Vincennes isn’t very big, but maybe the meeting in Plainfield — the only one of the 11 scheduled for the Indianapolis area — will draw more of a crowd.

It did. There were 57 people in the Plainfield High School auditorium. Some weren't even media or IHSAA staff.

The Indianapolis metro area has a population of 1,756,241. That means 0.0032 percent of denizens in Indiana’s largest metropolis took the time to let their voices be heard on a topic that is allegedly the fabric of what our state is all about.

But wait — there’s more.

More than half of the crowd at Vincennes was comprised of small-school administrators who came to protect their multi-class turf and give Hosannas to the highest as to how wonderful the multi-class system is for their schools. Which is fine, but the potential ticket-buying public who came to wax poetic could almost literally be boiled down to a handful.

The mix was better at Plainfield — there were as many actual fans there as there were school officials who came to trumpet their own agendas.

But that’s not what stuck out. What tied both sites together — other than the masses of empty seats — was that most of the folks long ago qualified for AARP status. Between the two sites, a grand total of one speaker (a former North Knox athlete) was under the age of 25.

I bring this up only because, with respect to people of a certain age, the demographic there wasn’t exactly the stuff that future growth is culled from.

So far as I could tell, there were no student-athletes whatsoever at either gathering. Student-athletes — you know — the people who actually take part in whatever system is being discussed. Not a soul.

I talked to some of the folks who came — some of whom do care and who did speak passionately and eloquently one way or another. But I came away with the feeling that this retro debate was a needless distraction from a larger issue.

Delph is a nice, well-mannered man. I talked to him and I think his passion for the single-class system is geunine. But let's not go nuts with the altruism. He also attached a single-class basketball proposal to an education bill and effectively told the IHSAA to re-address this issue or else. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to surmise that these meetings were taken up at the point of a political gun.

It’s Political Grandstanding 101 on Delph’s part, but given the lack of turnout, it hasn't worked in his favor so far.

It could be surmised that maybe these meetings were part of some Star Trek-style, three-dimensional chess play by the IHSAA to show Delph that grassroots passion for this issue doesn’t exist as it did in 1996.

But the IHSAA has been played too. While the turnout at these dog-and-pony shows shouldn't be overemphasized, it does lay bare the fact that a significant portion of this state shrugs its collective shoulders and no longer has the passion it once did for Hoosier Hysteria -- no matter what system is used.

And that’s sad.

The IHSAA’s arcane ways have made its state tournaments in all sports staid. Almost nothing new is tried and what is tried isn't introduced/marketed to the public in any meaningful way. What few innovations are implemented can only be done for the benefit of a school-administrator voting bloc whose ideas are often at odds with the tax-paying and ticket-buying public that funds high school athletics to begin with.

No matter how you feel about multi-class sports, it’s undeniable it has killed the local rivalry component in all but a few of the 64 sectionals. The sectionals were the lifeblood of the old tournament, not the state tournament. Nothing has been done to infuse that lifeblood back into the format since.

The public has, in large part, responded to the lack of receptiveness to their desires by the IHSAA by voting with its feet as it has walked away from its state tournaments in droves. Aside from the participating communities and schools, the statewide buzz surrounding Hoosier Hysteria has come perilously close to nonexistent.

The IHSAA doesn’t need to be distracted by a single-class or multi-class basketball debate. It’s a red herring sideshow. The IHSAA must innovate and must take a hard look at everything it does. It has to find a way out of its deep-seated torpor before interest (and money) begins to erode at the community level instead of merely at the state tournament level.

Everything needs to be on the table and assessed in an effort to re-engage the public interest. Proportional enrollment (lose it), postseason seeding (implement it), the number of classes (I prefer two), the way sectionals are assigned (to re-establish local matchups), the amount of teams that go to the state championship itself -- my personal opinion is that the semistates are a waste of time and that regional champions should advance into a four-team-per-class, multi-day state championship that will get more corners of the state engaged in it.

The good news is that IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox does seem more willing than past IHSAA brass to listen to new ideas. He trumpeted his own, a “success factor” that would, in effect, introduce a rough version of European-style promotion and relegation between the classes for schools that come to dominate a sport in a certain class. It is a fascinating idea, though a bit flawed in scope and execution. I'll detail Cox's idea in a later space.

But that's just one idea among many that need to be considered. Pining for the good old days of single-class basketball is all well and good, but it won't be enough to keep the public engaged in high school athletics in the future.

Turning over a new, receptive, proactive leaf is what will keep the IHSAA relevant. Not turning back the clock.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.