Checking in with IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson

It’s time for a year-end check-in with IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson, the man who’s been at the helm of the association since 2016.

The following Q&A was conducted through email. Some of the answers have been edited for clarity and length reasons.

As the school year ends, what areas of improvement are you targeting with the IHSA?

The IHSA completed a five-year strategic plan in 2019, but much of what we had hoped to achieve from that was derailed by the pandemic and the turbulence it created the past few years. With the pandemic fully in the rearview, we need to start to refocus on long-term goals and planning for the association, as opposed to looking at things season-to-season and year-to-year. I know some of the key areas we want to target internally include building on our momentum with officials licensing amid the shortage, studying football to see if we can find answers to help our member schools, and continuing to look at the overall equity within (the) association and how we can address that through classifications and beyond. In addition, we are acknowledging the significant number of transfers of students for a variety of reasons.

How will the IHSA address the shortage of officials?

For the first time in almost a decade, we are excited to report that we have seen increases in the number of officiating licenses in each of the past two school years. We think that is due to a number of different initiatives, which include cutting costs for officials licensing in multiple sports, starting the Provisional Licensing programs for 15- and 16-year olds to work lower level contests, and partnering with groups like Officially Human and RefReps to better support and prepare our officials. The shortage is not going away, especially in certain sports and parts of the state, but we need to continue to stem the tide.

Has the IHSA experienced any ramifications from high school athletes participating in NIL arrangements?

NIL is obviously still very new at the high school level, so I can’t say that any of the few deals that we are aware of have necessarily been viewed as a positive or negative from the perspective of our office. I do sense in talking to member school administrators and coaches there is some anxiety that exist around the concept and how it could potentially impact the core of high school athletics in the future.

The back and forth about how to address private schools in the state series is constant. How do you feel about the current system? Do you envision changes in the future?

We have meetings and conversations with other state associations around the country and it is (a) topic that many states are dealing with and have for many years. There is no magic-bullet solution, but we are always open to new ideas and feedback. We recently started an equity committee to help delve deeper into how we can have greater equity as an association, and how we classify public and private schools has and will continue to be a part of that committee’s conversations. During the IHSA’s annual legislative process in the fall of 2023, there was a bylaw proposal that would have, in my opinion, significantly hamstrung private schools. That proposal failed despite the IHSA membership being overwhelmingly public schools. That tells me that while things may not be perfect, our 815 member schools believe it is in the best interest of our schools and student-athletes to compete as a unified association.

State football shifted from Champaign to Bloomington-Normal, and boys basketball from Peoria to Champaign. How do you feel about the transition to the new sites in both sports?

I think both changes have been overwhelmingly successful. The IHSA has deep roots in the Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana and Peoria committees. Their geography, facilities and community passion for high school sports have made them logical places to host IHSA State Finals for many years. So despite there being changes to the state basketball and football hosts, it’s no surprise that they were both homecomings of sorts. We treasure the relationships we have in each community and the volunteers within each event, so it’s always difficult to move on from a host site, but it felt like the appropriate time for each. Memorial Stadium in Champaign and Huskie Stadium in DeKalb both had redeeming qualities, but the yearly rotation felt a bit cumbersome.

Nearly every year a proposal for a new football playoff system is brought before the member schools. Do you feel a new system is needed? Do you envision a successful proposal in the future?

The IHSA surveyed every football coach in the state this spring in advance of our new football ad hoc committee meeting for the first time. We want to see if there is any common ground that might exist on how we can improve football and hopefully put an end to the annual proposals. Most of the these proposals had splintered support, so it is our hope that having this committee may lead to a top-down unified proposal that has unanimous support. I could be wrong, but I think the advent of eight-player football and other changing dynamics within the Illinois high school football community have brought an end to the district conversation, and the focus is now shifting more toward ways the playoffs could be tweaked to help with regular-season scheduling.

Girls flag football is becoming an official IHSA sport. What is the potential for other emerging sports eventually becoming sanctioned?

The IHSA uses an Emerging Sports List to help monitor what sports or activities may be coming next. IHSA schools use the Emerging Sports List to let us know the sports or activities they are currently offering that the IHSA is not. The IHSA Policy essentially says that when we get approximately 70 schools competing in a sport or activity, then the IHSA Board will consider adding a state series and making it an official IHSA sport or activity. There aren’t many sports or activities on the Emerging Sports List right now that are close to 70 competing schools, so I am not sure we have anything new on the horizon.

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