Prior to the 1974 Illinois high school football season, the first to implement an IHSA playoff, there were always claims to the state championship and they were ... well, mythical.
Football had been a staple on the East Coast for many years before it began to become more popular at the Illinois prep level in the early 1900s. Quickly, more schools all across the state started programs, and it didn't take long — 1902 to be exact — for teams to look for ways to claim to be the best of the best.
You know, bragging rights.
Hyde Park High School, which was 4-2 in 1902 with its only losses to college teams from the Big Ten, claimed the Cook County championship and then played Poly Tech from Brooklyn, N.Y. — one of the top teams in the Long Island Interscholastic League. Eastern U.S. high school football was believed to be technically superior than that in any other area of the country, but the December game played in a snowstorm in front of 6,000 fans at Marshall Field on the campus of the University of Chicago changed those perceptions.
Final score: Hyde Park 105, Poly Tech 0.
The game sparked talks of which teams were the best in Illinois year in and year out. There had been claims before of "mythical championships" by Champaign (1898) and Bloomington (1899), but neither had beaten a team from Chicago, so those claims were at question to many. The debates as to who was the state's best football team would take place until the IHSA started the playoffs we have today in 1974.
The mythical title was a championship that any club could declare was theirs, and many times over the years one "champion" would challenge another "champion" to one final contest, but I could not find one instance where the challenge was ever actually taken to the gridiron.
When it came to claiming state titles, it didn't matter how big the school was, what opponents it had played, where it played in the state or what the team's final record ended up being. In fact, there were seasons that came to a close with two or three schools claiming mythical titles.
Heck, without a playoff system, even figuring out who was the top dog at the collegiate and professional level was left to speculation. The same claims to mythical championships at the college level were still done until 2014 when the College Football Playoffs began. In the early years of the National Football League, owners voted on champions, with disputes occurring in 1920, '21, '25. Finally, in 1932, two teams tied in the standings and played a one-game playoff to determine the champ.
Starting in the late 1950s, the Associated Press and the United Press International news services used polls to proclaim their own mythical champs as well — but in the end almost every season had some teams making their own claims to the title.
Using a Google search, one will not find a comprehensive list of Illinois High School mythical state champions (at least I couldn't find one), but here are the claims I've found so far in my research in one media outlet or another, though I'm certain there were many, many more:
1898 — Champaign (4-1)
1899 — Bloomington (7-0)
1904 — Moline (9-0)
1907 — Moline (8-1)
Only loss of the season was to Monmouth College
1911 — Oak Park (10-0)
Under legendary coach Bob Zuppke, Oak Park outscored its opponents 331-12, including an intersectional win over St. Johns High School of Massachusetts.
1912 — Oak Park 10-0)
It was another fine season under Zuppke, posting 431 points to just 17 and defeating Everett High School of Massachusetts.
1913 — Oak Park (10-1)
Under new coach Glenn Thistlewaite, Oak Park's only loss was to Morgan Park, but they went on to claim another "national title" with a 32-7 win at Scott High School in Toledo, Ohio.
1914 — East Aurora (10-0)
East's toughest game of the year came at Hurd's Island Park by the Fox River. East Aurora was led by head coach Honey Stuart and came into their game with West Aurora 7-0 and had only allowed 10 points. West had only suffered one loss in the past three seasons. In front of an estimated 9,000 fans, East picked up a 14-7 victory. East players Frank Hanney and Elliot Risley would go on to play in the early days of the National Football League.
1915 — East Aurora
New head coach Roy Davis took his undefeated team to Hamilton, New York for what was billed in the newspapers as the "Prep School Championship of the U.S., but East fell 13-12 after missing a pair of extra-point kicks.
1920 — Oak Park (10-0)
Coach Thistlewaite, who would go on to coach at Northwestern and Wisconsin, leads his team to another undefeated season.
1927 — Proviso (8-0)
1931 — Spring Valley Hall (9-0)
Quarterback Adolph Andreoni, running back Eddie Wilkaitis, ends John Yerly and Arthur Mason, as well as linemen Charles Zemaitis, John Theodore, John Guidorni and Antone Doszkuz lead head coach Richard Nesti to the clean slate, including a season finale 13-6 win over powerful La Salle-Peru.
1943 — Taylorville (8-1)
Only loss of the season came in the final game of the season, 7-0, to Champaign (now Champaign Central) which finished 8-0-1.
1948 — Naperville (8-0-1)
All-State quarterback Elry Falkenstein (who went on to play at the University of Illinois) led head coach John Harshbarger's team to the unbeaten season.
1957 — Bloom (9-0)
Head coach Cecil Sarff's club outscored its opponents 265-128. The team was led by running back Leroy Jackson and end Homer Thurman. Jackson won the state title in the 100-yard dash three straight years, went on to Western Illinois University and was selected by the Washington Redskins as the 11th pick in the 1962 NFL draft. Thurman was an all-stater in football, basketball and track.
1959 — Lane Tech (9-0-1)
Head coach Al Manasin's group defeated Fenwick 19-0 — Lane Tech QB George Bunda was named MVP —in a snow storm during the Prep Bowl in front of 54,000 fans at Soldier Field, this after tying Vocational 6-6 in the Public League title game. The triumph over Fenwick snapped its 12-game winning streak and was also was the seventh shutout of the year for Lane Tech, which also featured strong runners in Pete Stamison and Lou Gatta.
1959 — Freeport (8-0-1)
Under head coach Nate Johnson, Freeport, which was 2-6-1 the previous year, had its first winning season in 16 years and won the Big Eight Conference title. Leading the way was fullback Gary Stearns (677 rushing yards, 10 TDs) and quarterback Harry Kent (1,024 passing yards, 19 TDs). Freeport outscored its foes 272-34 and recorded six shutouts.
1960 — Evanston (7-0-1)
The only blemish was a 7-7 tie to Niles in the season's final game. Evanston won the Suburban League title and outscored its opponents 205-41. The club featured all-staters Toby Wilt (RB), Sam Ward (RB) and Bob Genenz (E), as well as Doug Holcomb (QB) and Dick Morris (RB).
1960 — Hinsdale Central (7-0-1)
Quarterback Harold Brandt won the Fielding H. Yost Memorial Trophy given to the most outstanding football player in the Chicago prep leagues.
1961 — Evanston (8-0)
Behind all-state performances from quarterback Doug Holcomb and tackle Bob Pickens, Evanston won its third consecutive Suburban League championship.
1963 — St. Rita (9-0)
Head coach Ed Buckley's squad defeated Vocational 42-7 as running back Jon Byrne (went on to play at Indiana) ran for 231 yards and four TDs in the Prep Bowl in front of 81,270 fans at Soldier Field. St. Rita — which was named national champion by the National Sports News Service — also boasted a roster with future Division I players which included Larry Smith (OL), Joe Kosiak (OL) and All-State quarterback Jim Klutcharch.
1965 — Thornton (9-0)
Running back LaMarr Thomas, who was an all-stater in football and basketball, went on to play at Michigan State. Thornton — coached by Frank Bauman — also featured standouts Larry Snoddy (RB), Butch Mech (QB), Mark Callanan (RB), Ray Jakubiak (DE), Jenkins Davis (LB) and linemen Clarence Kennedy, Joe Banasiak, Rick Jones, William Murphy. Thornton's closest games were a pair of 27-7 wins over Thornridge and Joilet.
1967 — Hinsdale Central (8-0)
All-state and Knute Rockne Award winner running back Ken Koranada helped lead head coach Harvey Dickinson's club to its 10th consecutive West Suburban Conference title. In seven perfect league games, Hinsdale Central outscored its opponents 139-20.
1969 — Peoria Richwoods (10-0)
Head coach Tom Peeler's team outscored its foes 371-39, allowing just six touchdowns on the season and recording five shutouts. The MId-State Nine Conference champs were led by all-state fullback Bob Hoftiezer.
1970 — Geneseo (9-0)
Chicago Daily News all-state selections Rick Penney (QB) and Vic Boblett (RB) helped head coach Bob Reade's team outscore its opponents 352-72 and extend Geneseo's winning streak to 49 games.
1970 — Thornridge (9-0)
Head coach Wayne Lunack's club won the South Suburban League title, outscoring its opponents 224-38, as lineman Art Riley was named to the all-state team.
There were talks of a playoff system in Illinois for many years prior to it being voted in for the 1974 season — and with that the banter of mythical champions died.
It's now decided on the field.