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1977…The Playoff Controversy Continues

When I last wrote there were problems with the start of the football playoffs by the WIAA in 1976. Undefeated teams were expecting to make the playoffs. Six schools on the final AP Large School poll were undefeated. The Middle School poll had eight undefeated teams while the Small School list also had eight undefeated schools. That totaled 24 teams playing for 16 spots in the AA, A, B and C classes. However, the WIAA, based on the computer ranking, added two game loser Menomonee Falls East into the Class A schedule and now not just eight teams were on the outside looking in but there were nine. Schools knew this could happen going into the season but 24 undefeated teams in a season was a record. Going back to 1945 the most undefeated teams in a season with teams playing at least seven games occurred in 1949 when there were 21 undefeated teams but five made that list with at least one tie. Ties were now a thing of the past so 1976 really stood out.

1977 rolled around and teams looked forward to the playoffs again but some teams were destined to be disappointed. First there was DeSoto, the 1976 Class C champion who ended the 1977 regular season undefeated and possessing a 27-game winning streak. Future Wisconsin High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame member Robert Schulz was not a happy camper when he learned that the WIAA’s $5,000 computer program ranked the Pirates #6 in Class C and out of the playoffs. How could this happen? Well, the WIAA in the off season moved DeSoto from the Northern Division of the Scenic Central Conference to the Southern Division and removed Westby, Royall and Cashton to different conferences. While the three schools were not a sure win, they did have much better records overall in 1977 than the two-win replacement teams, Itasca and Wauzeka. Remember that opponent records were part of the computer’s playoff equation. Beating tougher opponents gave a team more points. Now, with a big win streak, being the previous season’s state champion and possessing a powerful offense and defense, DeSoto was sitting out the rest of the season with their hopes of a second consecutive title dashed.

As Dan Lindstrum of the Wisconsin State Journal put things into perspective in his November 5, 1977 story, the playoffs were full of problems and under attack from all over. Other members of the press from towns that didn’t even have a nearby team with a capable record to be considered for the playoffs recognized the problems. Besides DeSoto in Class C, there were problems in Class AA. Madison West was acknowledged throughout the state as the top school in the biggest class. They had defeated Madison East 22-14 earlier in the season as they stormed through the tough Big Eight Conference schedule. Now, in the first round they were matched up with East again. Yes, two schools from the same conference, one with a single loss, were pitted against each other in the first round of the four-team Class AA playoffs. West would win 22-6 and set up a title game with Stevens Point. The Madison West Regents would win that game 19-14 and take home the trophy. However, how could two teams from the same conference make the playoffs? Was the computer crazy? Surely another school should have been matched against Madison West in the first round. East was a good team but unlike today where it isn’t unusual for two teams in the same conference, in a field of 32, to play each other, even in the first round, this shouldn’t have happened when there were only four teams in the class.

Poynette had a similar situation as DeSoto. They were moved out of the Capitol Conference and placed in the weaker Dual County Conference. Poynette scored 314 points and only gave up 53 on the season. Yes, they had a 9-0 record but the problem was, like DeSoto, their conference opponents didn’t win enough games. Only Dual County Conference teams Rio, Westfield and Pardeeville had winning records so the bonus points they would have gotten from the six winning teams in the Capitol Conference were lost. DeSoto coach Schulz, Poynette coach Larry Thurston and Prairie du Chien coach Paul Bedbow all commented in Lindstrom’s article about the playoffs and Bedbow was very especially vocal about how the WIAA in 1976 had dropped Plymouth down from Class A to Class B and deprived a 10-0 Prairie du Chien team from even participating in the playoffs in their own class. The WIAA’s associate director, Matt Otte, even admitted that there were problems but no solutions were immediately offered.

The WIAA was taking baby steps with the introduction of the playoff system. The WISAA also started small with only one class/division in 1969, with four schools participating. But the WISAA was a newer outfit and they were looking ahead even then to adding more schools to the playoff picture. In 1976 they added a second division to their playoffs and this brought in four additional schools. They stayed with this format until 1989 when a third division was added and a total of 12 schools would enjoy post-season play. You also have to remember that there were only about 32 WISAA members in 1969 and about 45 in 1989 while the WIAA had as many as eight times the 1989 WISAA number of schools playing football.

In 1978 and 1979 a fifth division was added and now 20 teams were part of the playoffs. Division 5 which was the smallest division was given eight playoff spots and that made it 24 teams in the title hunt. But in 1981 the field was expanded to six divisions and eight teams in each, 48 overall teams, were incorporated into the system, allowing conference champions and some runners-up to participate. Eventually in 1996 the field was expanded to 192 schools, 32 in each division. In 2000, the WIAA allowed the WISAA teams to join the association as WISAA disbanded and this allowed even more schools to fight for a playoff spot. A seventh division was added in 2002 adding another 32 schools in search of a gold trophy. And, finally, in 2018, a separate 8-player championship was added to the schedule with eight schools participating in the run for the title. It should be noted that today many Wisconsin schools have a co-op program or have opted to play 8-player football because of low school numbers.

In comparison to the WIAA, Indiana started playoffs in 1973 with three divisions and eight schools in each division and included all high schools in their association, be it public schools or private ones. In 1983 they moved to four divisions with 32 teams in each. The state added a fifth division in 1985 and in 2013 they moved to six divisions with 32 teams in each. Illinois started fast in 1974 with 5 divisions and added a sixth in 1980 and in 2001 they added a seventh and eighth division, and that state has always had 32 teams in each division. That state organization has also included the private schools as well as the public in their playoff program. As you can see, the WIAA’s progress in prep football expansion was sort of in the middle of Indiana and Illinois but still moved Forward, just like the state moto.

It is interesting that DeSoto has participated 36 times in the playoffs, more than any other school. More about them in a future blog.

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