BY CHAD DARE firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — NORMAL — A simple conversation about a non-conference basketball game has opened the door on the possible expansion of the Big 12 Conference.
Danville athletics director B.J. Luke and Peoria Richwoods athletics director Todd Hursey were finalizing the details on a Dec. 14 boys basketball contest between the Vikings and the Knights when the conversation turned toward conference affiliation.
“All of the Big 12 Conference athletic directors have been very proactive about wanting to find new members for our league,’’ said Luke, as the Big 12 Conference lost Mattoon to the Apollo Conference at the end of the 2011-12 school year and the league is losing Decatur Eisenhower and Decatur MacArthur to the Central State Conference at the end of this school year. “I just asked Todd if he thought the Peoria schools would be interested in joining the Big 12. He was definitely open to the idea, and that’s when I contacted the president of the Mid-State Conference.’’
On Monday, the athletic directors from the two leagues met at Normal West High School. The Mid-State Conference currently only has four members, Peoria High, Peoria Manual, Peoria Notre Dame and Peoria Richwoods. While the Big 12 Conference is comprised of Bloomington, Champaign Central, Champaign Centennial, Danville, Normal Community, Normal West and Urbana.
“We had a meeting today and it seems like things are moving forward,’’ said Luke during his drive back to Danville. “We’ve had some very positive discussions.
“Right now, the Peoria schools need to take everything that we’ve discussed back to the administrations at their school.’’
According to Luke, if everything goes according to plan, the Big 12 Conference could add the four Peoria schools within the next month.
And how did we get to this point?
In the past five years, the Big 12 Conference has seen its membership dwindle from 10 down to seven with the departures of Mattoon, Decatur Eisenhower and Decatur MacArthur.
Meanwhile, the Peoria Schools have seen their Mid-State 6 Conference drop down to just four schools, as Quincy Notre Dame and Chillicothe IVC left the league this past season, while Peoria Woodruff was closed at the end of 2010-11 school year. The IHSA requires a league to have six members to qualify for an automatic playoff berth.
With that in mind, this past year was supposed to have been the first season for the Peoria schools to join the Western Big Six, a league that consists of East Moline United Township, Galesburg, Moline, Quincy, Rock Island and Rock Island Alleman, in a football-only Mid-West 10 Conference. The league hit a snag when Peoria Manual was unable to get out of a contract with Eureka for a Week 9 football contest.
While the 10 teams still played the schedule originally slated for this season, except for Manual against Moline, only the schools from the Western Big Six were playing for a conference title. The four Peoria schools were basically independent teams and ineligible for an automatic playoff berth.
Under its current alignment, the addition of the four Peoria schools would give the Big 12 Conference a total of 11 members, but with the continued growth in the Normal Community School District, a potential third high school could be built within the next 10 years. That would return the league to it’s original 12 members and could open up the possibility of returning to East/West division format.
“Those are some of the things that we’ve talked about,’’ Luke said. “But, right now, we’re still in the preliminary stages of discussion.’’
And while the Peoria schools are currently aligned with the Western Big Six schools, that agreement is football-only. Within the last month, the Western Big Six schools voted not to add the Peoria schools in all sports.
“If we’re able to add the Peoria schools, I think it would make the Big 12 Conference one of the premier leagues in the state,’’ said Luke.
Coming into this season, the 11 teams that would make up the Big 12 Conference have won 58 state titles, while also finishing second in the state 71 times.
An addition of Peoria Notre Dame would be the first-ever non-boundaried school in Big 12 Conference history.