Frenzy Feature: The Future of NUIC Football

The conference has seen the number of 11-player teams decline over the past decade
Published: Aug. 26, 2023 at 12:01 AM CDT
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ILLINOIS (WIFR) - In 2013, the NUIC was bursting at the seams with 18 11-player teams split across two divisions (however, Pecatonica did sit out the 2013 season). A decade later, the conference is down to nine 11-player teams heading into 2023.

So why is that?

“If you look at the numbers of just how many people are leaving the state of Illinois, it’s a high number,” Forreston head coach Keynon Janicke said.

“A combination of declining enrollment and maybe some competitive advantage or disadvantage,” Stockton head coach Sean Downey said.

“You know it’s not always easy to put 11 guys on the field and it’s not always easy to put eight guys on the field and there’s a lot of alternatives,” Du-Pec head coach Tyler Hoffman said.

“I think it’s just a sign of the times, I think school enrollment’s going down and somethings gotta give,” Lena-Winslow head coach Ric Arand said.

And all four coaches covered the big points of why the participation has decreased.

According to US Census estimate, the state of Illinois’ population has decreased 1.8% from 2020 to 2022. Next according to IHSA data, the NUIC schools with 11-player teams in 2013 have seen an overall decline in enrollment by 11.6%. And finally, football participation in the state has fallen each year since 2013, as the state is down 24% from 2013 to the most recent data set in 2021. As for solutions, the answers aren’t clear.

“The conference is going to have to expand and some point and then you’re going to have to start talking about districts and traveling a little longer to play some games,” Janicke said.

Other solutions include co-oping or moving to 8-player football. Durand and Pecatonica began co-oping in 2017.

“It wasn’t an easy transition,” Hoffman said. “It’s hard to ask any school to lose its identity whether it’s Durand who had a rich tradition or Pecatonica, so for both communities to kind of give up their identity and become Du-Pec, it took a few years, we took our lumps a little bit.”

“For us it’s been a great decision,” Hoffman added. “I can’t say that’s for every school district but with our young junior tackle program that’s always been Du-Pec I think made the transition for us.”

Former NUIC schools have found success in switching over to 8-player. Three out of the last four state finalists are former NUIC 11-player members.

“It’s tough to ask a program to lose their identity, and if the option is to lose your identity, maybe the co-op is not available and you have the opportunity to go play 8-player football which has shown to be quality football, for a lot of those schools it’s an easy decision to make,” Hoffman said.

Another big factor to staying in 11-player according to Arand is to avoid consecutive small turnouts. Lena-Winslow current junior class only has seven players.

“You don’t want to end up having two small classes in a row and we’ve avoided that for 27 years and this year with this group of juniors you definitely don’t want to get into that rotation of things because you just never quite know,” Arand said.

But even with all the changes, the conference has been as successful as ever, winning nine state titles in the past decade and claiming all four spots in the northside of the 1A quarterfinals in last year’s playoffs.

“I think we’ll be ok for a while,” Janicke said. “I think there’s still a lot of passionate coaches that are just great guys outside of football to that care about their programs for kids.”