What the heck is the multiplier and why do you care so much about it?

If you got through my first blog post, some readers, my friends who don’t follow Illinois high school sports, are probably asking what the heck is the multiplier and why do you care about it?  Part two would be, what happened to make things different now—or not?

Six years ago the Illinois High School Association, which administrates over high school sports competition in Illinois, instituted a new rule for classifying schools in Illinois high school sports—what has come to be called the multiplier.  The IHSA establishes standardized rules for all kinds of matters for Illinois high school sports, including academic eligibility, amateur standing, recruiting rules and practices, drug testing, and seasonal practice schedules and coaching rules for different sports.  But all of this really results from the end goal: The IHSA organizes 751 high schools into different classes for state tournament competition—eight classes for football, four for basketball, three for soccer, cross country, and track, and so on.  The classes are based upon official enrollment numbers for each school.  Girls-only and boys-only schools have their enrollments doubled to make a common standardized number to compare with the co-ed schools.  But there are other differences when it comes to enrollment.

The IHSA includes both public schools that enroll students according to their strictly defined geographical school districts or “boundary schools,” on the one side, as well as, on the other side, private schools and other public schools that do not have a designated geographic district for enrollment—so-called “non-boundary schools.”  These non-boundary schools include private schools like Francis Parker, Latin, and University High in Chicago.  They include the Chicago Public League magnet schools that bring students together from all over the city—Whitney Young, Lane Tech, and Northside College Prep.  But the biggest group among the non-boundary schools are the Catholic high schools from around the state, including, of course, my own school, Saint Ignatius College Prep.

There are many natural tensions that already exist between the school district schools and the non-boundary schools, especially the private schools—and especially Catholic schools.  These include the conflicts between the interests of publicly funded schools and privately financed tuition schools that arise, for example, in political discussions about vouchers and school choice; teachers in public schools generally get paid a lot more than those in Catholic and private schools–and parents of students in private schools pay to send their children to school.  There is a natural conflict between schools with a religious orientation, especially those in the big Catholic parochial school system, and public schools which might be said to have a much different political or social agenda.  There is a conflict between city schools, where most of the non-boundary schools are based, and suburban schools, which are largely geographic school district schools.   These tensions arguably make for interesting rivalries and carry over into competition on the sports field.

In football, in particular, now with eight classes in the state tournament, rivalries between public schools on one side and private and Catholic schools on the other are particularly heated.  The city of Chicago still has an annual end of season game between a public school champion and a Catholic school champion.   Football was the last major IHSA sport to get a formal state tournament.  In 1974 the Chicago Catholic League, a last hold-out, agreed to join a state football playoff, initially organized with five different classes based on enrollment.  With good reason, perhaps, up until that point the CCL had basically considered its champion as the best team in the state.  The CCL has subsequently produced 22 state champion football teams, including ten by Mt. Carmel and nine by Providence Catholic.  Another Catholic school, Joliet Catholic, has been even more successful with thirteen state titles.

Currently there are about 180 non-boundaried schools and 570 boundaried schools in the state.   Although no one seems to have done a definitive study, it seems perfectly clear to many people that the Catholic schools have a success rate disproportionate to their numbers—in football, but also in other sports.  And for these people, the explanation for Catholic school success is simple:  recruiting.  Catholic schools like Mt. Carmel can find athletes all over the Chicago metropolitan area and bring them to the South Side campus to play football—athletes like NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb and likely future NFL Hall-of-Famer Simeon Rice who played at Mt. Carmel.

After a  period of several years in which he had top-ranked and even undefeated teams lose to Joliet Catholic in the class 5A state tournament, in 2005 the coach of the Riverside-Brookfield High School football team, Otto Zeman, apparently had had enough.  As a member of the IHSA’s Football Advisory Committee, Zeman advocated for a proposal to level the playing field for public schools by multiplying the enrollments of private and Catholic schools; the first proposal from this committee was to double them.  This would force smaller Catholic schools to play against larger public schools—and presumably move Joliet Catholic into a different classification than Riverside-Brookfield.

The multiplier proposal struck a nerve.  Because enrollment number changes would have to be applied according to IHSA standard practice across all sports—and because the multiplier proposal sounded good to schools with basketball, baseball, softball, and volleyball teams and other sports that lost to Catholic school teams–that football-based proposal quickly moved through the IHSA administrative process, overseen ultimately by the state’s high school principals.  The final approved rule reduced the multiplier to 1.65.  Instituted with much controversy in the fall of 2005, the multiplier was set aside temporarily for the winter and spring sports seasons that school year during a court challenge by a group of 32 private schools.  The courts never ruled—but the arguments were interesting.

If you have more interest in the multiplier and the details of the Illinois story, as well as its history in other states, try this law journal article, available online:   Timothy Lian Epstein, “Prep Plus: Evaluating the Motivations for and Effects of Enrollment Multipliers and Other Measures in High School Sports,” University of Texas, Texas Review of Entertainment and Sports Law, Vol. 10, Spring 2009: http://www.salawus.com/Pubsevents/pubs/Epstein_Final_Edit.pdf.  As Epstein explains after reading the court discussion, “Regarding the necessity for a multiplier, private schools challenging the decision have received the following common explanations: (1) recruiting, (2) lack of enrollment boundaries, and (3) an un-level playing field as evidenced by the success of the private schools in state tournaments.”  But officially the IHSA has never acknowledged that the non-boundary schools are cheating:  “ However, the private schools’ complaint alleges that these explanations are simply pretext and quotes news articles in which IHSA officials have stated ‘We’re not trying to, in any way, say that non-boundaried schools are cheating, that they’re recruiting, that they’re doing anything against our rules.’”  The real reason for the multiplier, according to the non-boundary schools’ complaint, was simply to legislate victories for the boundary schools.  The multiplier was “a deliberate effort to dictate wins and losses.”

In part because they were worried that the public schools which dominate the IHSA democracy could vote in an even bigger multiplier if they wanted to do so, the private schools finally settled and accepted the 1.65 multiplier.  Since the public schools outnumber the non-boundary schools, a state-wide vote of principals, not surprisingly, overwhelmingly supported the multiplier proposal of 1.65 for non-boundaried when it was brought to a vote.   It has been the law of the land in Illinois high school sports since 2006.

And now, some results of the multiplier are becoming clear.

In the six years that the multiplier has been used to calculate enrollments for the football playoff process, Elmhurst Immaculate Conception, Addison Driscoll Catholic, Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin, Bloomington Central Catholic, Wheaton St. Francis, Lombard Montini, St. Rita, and Joliet Catholic—all schools with multiplied enrollments—have won state football championships.   And even with the multiplier, Riverside-Brookfield has been competing in the same class as Joliet Catholic.   Riverside-Brookfield had about a .500 record during this period, and Otto Zeman retired after the 2009 season, never having won a state championship.

In my eight years as a cross country and track and field coach at Saint Ignatius College Prep, we have competed under three different sets of IHSA classification rules.   The first years we were classified as a AA school.  Cross country and track were two-class sports—A and AA, small schools and big schools.  In this simple picture, Ignatius was easily a big school—even though our enrollment of 1,350 did not really compare with the really big schools of the state, like Lane Tech (4100+), Naperville Neuqua Valley (4200+), Wilmette New Trier (4100+), LaGrange Lyons Township (3800+), Chicago Whitney Young (3200+), Wilmette Loyola (2000+), Oak Park-River Forest (3100+}, Elmhurst York (2600+), and Evanston (2800+).  The IHSA organizes the preliminary rounds of its tournaments with a geographic plan, technically emphasizing the importance of regional representation in its state championship tournament finals.  In cross country, we competed in our regional and sectional meets against state powerhouse teams like York, Lyons Township, Oak Park-River Forest, and, recently, our Catholic League rival Loyola.  We had minimal success as a AA school, generally finishing in the second division, worse than tenth, at the twenty team sectional championship each year.

But in track we were placed in a sectional championship meet of mainly city-area schools.  Our team, a middle-level team in the Chicago Catholic League, competed frantically to win our sectional meets on points; Ignatius had never won a sectional championship.  We still haven’t won one; we narrowly lost to St. Patrick’s and then to Lane Tech in different years with second place finishes.  The top two finishers in each event of this meet qualify for the state championship meet, and we did take a fairly big group of boys to the state meet in Charleston each year–sometimes two relays, as well as runners in the 800, 1600, and 3200, and often in a field event or two.   Comparing the performances at our sectional meet with those of other sectionals around the state, ours was one of the weakest in the state.  Our qualifiers were generally at the bottom of the state meet lists.

We had no success in Charleston at the state meet.  We understood we were fortunate, really, to get the chance to run there at all.  But just qualifying boys to the state championship still qualified as success.  The trip to state was fun—and inspiring.   We used that success to promote our team and to give our boys confidence to improve and aspire compete at a higher level.  In other words, it helped us to build our program.

In the first years of the multiplier, our situation did not change.  Our new enrollment number—about 2,200 with the multiplier—made us a big school, but we were already a big school.  So we competed in AA, basically against the same competition in track and cross country as previous years.

But in 2009 the IHSA made another change.  Cross country and track were re-organized into three classes.  In the three-class system our multiplied number made us a big school—a really big 3A school. We were competing against the schools with enrollments of 2,000 and more, even though there was another class for schools like us—around 1,000.   The IHSA had made new classifications to give another whole group of schools, with enrollments from 750-1,500, more opportunities to compete and have success in the state championship meets—except our teams were not given that opportunity.

The multiplier got our attention because now it did matter.   In the re-organized three class state tournament for track and field, we were placed in a stronger and more competitive sectional meet—really a meet that combined many of the Chicago-area schools that had previously competed in two weaker sectional meets.  Our competition included Oak Park-River Forest, a strong suburban team, but it also included some of our Catholic League (also multiplied) rivals from the city, as well as many city public schools—including strong city teams like Lane Tech and Whitney Young.   Still, we had some success, continuing to qualify a solid group of boys to run at the state meet and placing near the top of the “also rans” when Oak Park ran away with most of the points at the meet.

But the multiplier had a bigger effect in cross country.  As it happened, the 2A cross country sectional meet for our area took place at the same Niles West High School location as our 3A sectional cross country meet.  We competed against the top 3A teams in the state—York, Oak Park, Loyola—and we were clearly overmatched.   We watched from the outside as 2A schools we had defeated in other meets qualified for the state meet—and because we had run on the same course, we could compare performances and even calculate where we would have finished in that meet.  To be honest, we did not do so in any careful way—why bother?  But it was clear that we would have easily qualified for state as a 2A school.

But a funny thing happened over the three years that we have been re-classified as a really big 3A school.  In both cross country and track, our teams have gotten better and better.  In order to compete in 3A, our boys realized how hard they would have to work and they started to put in that work.  Their coach realized he would have to push them harder and harder—and we worked a lot harder in practice.  In cross country, we won our regional championship easily the last two years.  This was really the equivalent of our track success in those weaker sectional meets, because our regions were comparatively weak; the city of Chicago, where our region was based, is not a strong area for cross country.

Then in the fall of 2010 our cross country team accomplished what we had almost thought would be impossible.  We placed high in some big early invitationals at the Leavey in St. Charles and at the Woodruff in Peoria.  We found ourselves ranked as high as 13th in the state according to informal polls like ESPN Rise/Dyestat’s.  We won the Chicago Catholic League championship for the first time in 12 years, defeating Loyola.  Then for the first time since 1982 we qualified for the state championship meet with a fifth place finish at the Niles West 3A sectional—behind York, Oak Park, and Loyola, but within shouting distance, at least.  We finished 20th at the state meet—and we found that finish a little bit disappointing.

Maybe being in 3A made us better.

Still, the question remains:  In this 3-class system, is the multiplier really fair?

According to the news about the multiplier this week, the answer, as it turns out, is that it is not fair for everybody who gets multiplied.  But it is apparently fair for us, because we did too good a job at competing against the bigger schools.

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1 Comment

Filed under coaching, IHSA

One response to “What the heck is the multiplier and why do you care so much about it?

  1. The new system seems even more unfair than the multiplier in the first place. Your success, ironically, only means to have to continue to compete against much larger schools. Because you are an amazing coach, I suppose your teams will still experience success, but still, it seems that the IHSA needs to once again examine its rationale for the multiplier and its consequences, intended and not.

    Congratulations on the blog!

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