Before Johnson's program, administrators used those pins, rubber bands and maps taped to cork boards to determine IHSA playoffs
Before Johnson's program, administrators used those pins, rubber bands and maps taped to cork boards to determine IHSA playoffs — Provided by the IHSA

One relic remains within the Illinois High School Association's offices in Bloomington as a reminder of a bygone era.

Many of the rubber bands used to connect the dozens of pins on the cork board have dried out and snapped over the years. The oil has soaked into the map of Illinois.

"You can barely see the city names anyway," IHSA Assistant Executive Director Scott Johnson said. "Just knowing which pin belonged to which city, and then in the cities that had more than one school. ‘Was that [Rockford] Guilford that we sent that way or was that Jefferson?’"

Johnson, who joined the IHSA full-time in 1994 and is set to retire this fall, modernized the way the organization determines postseason assignments for every high school sport in Illinois – first for football and later for every sport – by developing the first mapping program for high school sports in the country.

Before Johnson's program, administrators used those pins, rubber bands and maps taped to cork boards.

"I'm sure glad we don't do it that way anymore," Johnson said.

Johnson's mapping program has been updated throughout the years, but it is still in use today.

A graduate of Elgin High School and the University of Illinois, Johnson was already serving as a consultant to the IHSA while working for Control Data in Minneapolis.

Johnson was a natural fit when the IHSA's advisory committee recommended the IHSA transition to a system where the football playoffs were seeded beginning in the 1994 season.

"Before, there was no system other than we would put together the two closest teams and they would play each other. … even if they were two 9-0 teams," Johnson said.

In 1990, 9-0 Joliet Catholic beat 9-0 Morris, 36-10, in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs. The Hilltoppers went on to win the state championship.

"The advisory committee had recommended that they go to this system where they seed the playoffs, and they needed some tool to be able to do that," Johnson said.

"So the very first program I wrote for the IHSA, I was already working on it when I was still a consultant, was this mapping program."

Johnson's mapping system was the first of its kind, but it wasn't as simple as pulling up Google Maps and letting the technology do the work.

"When I was programming this, there was no internet," Johnson said. "You couldn’t just download a database of all the 10 million points in the United States and come up with it."

So Johnson went to work.

He first created a grid of Illinois' counties by hand using an atlas, measured out the corners of each county and then inputted the coordinates of each corner into his program. From there, he entered the data point for every high school in the state by using topographical maps.

All told, Johnson estimated the project took him more than 100 hours.

"It's hard to even put a number on it," Johnson said with a chuckle. "It was a lot of work."

'The IHSA doesn't know geography'

The mapping system doesn't do all of the work.

"In all the sports, there’s a human element to it," said IHSA Assistant Executive Director Matt Troha. "The map doesn’t do it automatically. It just gives us a guide to see where all the schools are. We put the hosts on there, but it’s up to us to assign."

The process is clear cut, for the most part. The administrator for each sport inputs the hosts for regionals, sectionals and supersectionals, and the mapping program assigns schools to the most logical geographic groupings.

Often, however, it's then up to the administrator. Schools must be evenly distributed – or at least as closely as possible – across sectional complexes.

A sample of a Class 1A boys basketball sectional map (Photo provided by the IHSA)

Let's say the northern-most sectional in Class 1A boys basketball needs 20 teams, but there are 21 in that geographic region. The administrator isn't able to simply add a 21st team to that sectional and leave the western sectional with just 18 or 19 teams.

"We get a lot of flack and I see it on Twitter all of the time," Johnson said. "‘The IHSA doesn’t know geography. Look at this crazy thing that they did.’

"But I kind of challenge folks to make a map for themselves and do something that’s better. The way our tournament is set up, if we’re going to have four classes, if we’re going to have eight sectionals or whatever, they’ve got to go somewhere and that’s the best choice."

Here's where the conspiracy theories often come in.

No, the IHSA doesn't have it out for your favorite school. And, no, the administrator isn't pouring through records to try and find the best balance.

When the mapping system shows a three-letter abbreviation, sometimes the administrator doesn't even realize which school they're dealing with.

“It happens pretty organically," Troha said. "You group them all together because they’re there. You may have one or two outliers you have decide on. People want to believe we sit down, look and check records, but half of the time, you click it, see the three letters and you don’t even know who the school is."

Class 6A football pairings (Photo provided by the IHSA)

Let's talk football

The process is similar in concept to determine the seeds for the football playoffs.

Class 7A and 8A are simple with the 32-team field seeded one through 32. In Class 1A through 6A, the 32-team fields are divided in half to create a north bracket and a south bracket. Sometimes, the break between the north and south teams is clear. On other occasions, it's up the administrator – IHSA Assistant Executive Director Sam Knox in this case – to determine which way the outliers go.

"All things being equal, we’d rather trips be shorter than longer," Johnson said.

Johnson's mapping program will take on added importance in football beginning in 2021, when the IHSA is scheduled to switch from the current conference format to a district system for the regular season.

Ideally, the IHSA would like to have 512 teams across the eight classes with each class consisting of eight eight-team districts.

The 512 teams will be ordered by enrollment and divided by eight to get 64 teams in each class. Then those 64 teams have to be grouped into eight-team districts based on geography.

“I think you’d start in the corners of the map," Johnson said. "You want them to be geographically compact. When you get to the middle and into Chicago with the larger classes, then they’re going to have some choices."

There isn't a perfect apples-to-apples comparison to use, but this spring's boys lacrosse postseason map provides a reasonable example for what the upper classes of football will look like in a district format with many of the teams concentrated within Chicago and the suburbs.

Like in other sports, it will be up to Knox to make a decision when outliers could conceivably be sent to multiple districts.

Of course, with nearly two years to go before the district system is adopted, the IHSA still has many questions to address.

Will it cap the eligible teams at 512 or include every Chicago Public League school? Will teams be allowed to petition to play up a class like Phillips and East St. Louis have done in recent seasons? Should a success formula be applied to make more competitive districts?

IHSA by-laws currently don't allow for such a formula, but it's a remedy that multiple schools are likely to consider proposing after the IHSA released its first district mock – based solely on enrollment and geography – last month.

Any proposal would go through the normal legislative process, Knox said, eventually going out to the town hall meetings in the fall and then potentially to a full member vote.

But what exactly is competitive balance? Or what constitutes success? Getting a majority of schools to agree on those answers would provide another challenge, Knox said.

"In some people's view, simply qualifying for the playoffs is a success in their minds," Knox said. "In some people's view, nothing short of a state finals appearance is a success in their minds.

"It depends on what kind of program you're coming from. ... Success is really tough to define in a lot of ways for high school football."

Even then, there would still be mapping decisions for Knox to make – and likely some unhappy schools after those decisions are made.

In any case, Johnson said the IHSA can minimize conflicts by following past precedent.

“If he sticks to purely geographical then he’ll be all right," Johnson said. "What we’ve always tried over the years with our assignments is to avoid having lines that crossed. Then you have to explain why you did that. If you don’t have lines that cross, you can always say it made the most compact geographic region."