The four-class format for high school basketball in Illinois has been a major topic of controversy ever since the Illinois High School Association opted to give its signature event its second major face-lift in 2008.
From 1908 through 1971, the state tournament was a one-for-all and all-for-one competition involving all schools, big and small, urban and rural.
In 1972, when the IHSA began to feel that small schools were no longer competitive with larger schools, the two-class system was introduced, thanks in large part to the lobbying of the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association.
In 2008, the IHSA adopted a four-class system.
"We went from two to four classes because that's what our membership wanted," said Marty Hickman, executive director of the IHSA. "Numerous people brought it to the forefront. We talked about it for years. They felt at the very beginning of the tournament that it was very difficult for some schools to compete in their class."
Hickman pointed out that schools in Class A with enrollments of 100 to 250 and schools in Class AA with enrollments of 800 to 1,500 were particularly affected. They felt they couldn't compete with larger schools in their class. They proposed that two more classes were needed to level the playing field for one and all.
Hickman is aware of the criticism to this point, that the caliber of competition has weakened, that the tournament is too watered down and the lack of quality is reflected in declining attendance. He once said the IHSA would scuttle the four-class system if it became clear that it wasn't working. But he isn't ready to toss in the towel.
"At the end of the day, 10 to 15 years from now, people will say it was a good change," Hickman said. "At first, there will be a significant amount of controversy, as there was in 1972. But when you look at how the schools viewed that change, clearly more schools are supportive of the change now than when we went from one to two classes. In the schools, this isn't the controversy that it is in the general public and media."
But critics insist the four-class format isn't working. They call for a return to the two-class system. In fact, some still argue that the one-class system was best of all, that there never should been any change. They contend that the great tradition and historical significance of the state tournament have been wiped out.
"What we are seeing in (the girls state basketball tournament) this year is not an anomaly. This is the four-class monster that has been created," one veteran observer said.
He spoke after watching Quincy Notre Dame crush Breese Central in the girls Class 2A championship. And he re-emphasized his displeasure after Montini dumped Vernon Hills 56-38 for the Class 3A title and Whitney Young trounced Edwardsville 63-51 in the Class 4A final.
Will the boys' finals be any closer? Any more competitive? Any less embarrassing?
"It is sad when I hear adults talking about more kids having the experience of being given trophies," former La Grange coach Ron Nikcevich said. "But you never hear it from kids. They want to play the best."
Nikcevich, who guided La Grange to the Class AA championship in 1970, was opposed to the two-class system from the outset. So you can imagine how he feels about four classes.
"I always felt that the Illinois state basketball tournament was such a great and grand event," he said. "For an Illinois citizen, it might have been the greatest sporting event of any kind. He or she would look forward to that event far more than the World Series or Final Four.
"I think of old Huff Gym, the clamor for tickets during the time before television. Then television came (in 1952) and there still was a clamor for tickets. Then came the Assembly Hall (in 1963)...sellouts, ticket scalpers, brokers...it was so special.
"Illinois high school basketball is the best high school basketball I the United States because of its consistency...tradition, teams, coaches, players, customs. There was a romance to the Illinois high school tournament. You have to be a historian to appreciate Hebron and Cobden and the small schools that came to Champaign and electrified the crowd."
Then came the two-class system in 1972 and everything began to change for the worse, Nikcevich said. "The class system was sprung on us and it almost had something clandestine about the manner in which it happened. Of the total number of votes eligible to be cast, the biggest percentage was those who failed to vote," he said.
"I agree the small schools got an identity and drew big crowds. But the big-class tournament took a major hit. Since the inception of the two-class system, how many sellouts did the Assembly Hall have? What happened to the Downstate schools that used to be such a presence in the state tournament...Collinsville, Benton, Mount Vernon, Centralia, Paris?"
Instead, Nikcevich argues that the state tournament has been put into the hands of backroom politicians who exist within the structure of the Illinois educational system, the establishment, who have put together a defense mechanism anticipating an outcry against their position and have completely repudiated the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association's stand against it.
"There is only one Eiffel Tower, only one Taj Mahal, only one Mona Lisa, only one Hope diamond, only one Bible, only one Koran," Nikcevich said. "When you take things of that magnitude and majesty and say to a person: 'Don't go to Eiffel A, the Eiffel AAA is better. Don't go to Taj Mahal A, go to Taj Mahal AAA,' we've lost the majesty of what the state tournament was."
Former Pinckneyville coach Dick Corn, who won two state titles in Class A after the school won a state title in the one-class system in 1948, prefers the two-class system. "For the health of high school basketball in Illinois, we need to stay with two classes," he said.
"If you study Indiana and Missouri, people don't identify with their state champions. Missouri has five, Indiana has four. But the IHSA isn't listening to the coaches. The IBCA's board of directors voted 31-1 against the four-class format. Only one coach wanted to see change. Our former players (at Pinckneyville) would vote to stay with two classes."
Steve Goers, who retired at Rockford Boylan as the winningest coach in state history and is a former president of the IBCA, said the IHSA "is throwing tradition out the window. Why is the IHSA doing this? They want to please everybody. They want to make everybody happy, to give people who never have been to Peoria a chance to go to Peoria," he said.
Ron Ferguson, who coached Thornridge to state titles in 1971 (one class) and 1972 (two classes), said he wasn't for the two-class system originally but came to realize that it was a good idea. But four classes? He'll have to be convinced all over again.
"The two-class system allowed other teams to be competitive. It brought the South back to the state tournament," he said. "But I'm not for four classes. I could be wrong and change my opinion but I think tradition will be gone so more teams will get trophies. Going to the state tournament won't feel the same."