AMBOY – Should Amboy High School switch to 8-man football? That was the topic of an informative presentation held during the Feb. 19 Amboy School Board meeting.
What is 8-man football?
AHS Athletic Director George Schwamberger said 8-man is not really much different than 11-man football. “With 8-man, you take off two tackles and one receiver/running back and the field is a little narrower,” he explained.
Schwamberger also invited Polo High School Athletic Director Ted Alston to attend the meeting to present his school’s recent experience switching to 8-man football and to answer questions. Alston agreed that the differences are minor. “There are about five rules that are different, everything else is identical,” he said. “The average person wouldn’t even notice anything.”
Schwamberger said the reason for considering 8-man football is the shrinking number of players coming out for the team. Ideally, he would want teams of 25 freshman/sophomore players and 25 varsity players to be competitive. “Both could have a full schedule and that would be great,” he explained. “This year, we had a total of 30 to start [both teams combined], and we ended with about 27. Total.”
When freshmen come in, Schamberger said they want to know if there will be a frosh/soph schedule, which is understandable. “Having a freshman scrimmage and play in varsity games, that doesn’t work,” he told the board. “I coached football a long time, loved the way it’s always been but now because of numbers, last year we couldn’t do a frosh/soph schedule. It’s not fair to the freshmen and sophomores. They have to come in and practice with varsity all week and even have to play in varsity games. Physically, freshmen and sophomores are not ready to play varsity ball. That’s what we had to do this year because of numbers.”
Looking ahead a couple years, Schamberger estimated the number of potential players who might come out for football is anywhere between 35 and 29. “If you have to play sophomores and freshman in varsity games, you’re not going to be successful,” he emphasized. “So, we’ve been discussing 8-man football on and off for a year or two.”
What Polo did
Alston, whose first coaching/teaching job was in Amboy working with Schamberger, went on to be a head football coach for 16 years, at Polo for 11, before becoming athletic director. “Football is extremely important to me and it was extremely important growing up,” he noted.
Alston admitted that when Polo made the decision to switch to 8-man, it was very difficult and challenging. After the 2017 football season, they were in the same situation Amboy is facing. Their numbers were down so they were looking at the possibility of either changing to 8-man or doing a coop. When Alston started coaching in 1999, he recalled having 65 students come out for football. By 2017, Polo was having 20-some players in their whole program. “The big thing was, we put freshmen on the varsity squad and I did not feel comfortable doing that,” he said. “I was dead set against it, and our coach and principal were very nervous. We knew we had to do something.”
The first step in the process was to survey their football players and ask their opinion of a coop versus 8-man. “Overwhelmingly, they wanted to play 8-man rather than coop,” he said. “They just wanted to keep their own identity as Polo.”
In doing research, Alston said they learned that 8-man football had been played in Iowa for a long time and has now become huge there.
It is also growing in Wisconsin and Michigan, and other states such as Nebraska and Colorado have had it for a long time. So, Polo decided to meet with the Illinois 8-Man Association (I8FA), which was started by a group of schools, many in Central Illinois, who also had a lack of numbers. In addition, Alston said they read newspaper articles from all over the country and watched videos to see if this was something they could possibly do. “When we decided it was a viable alternative, we showed the kids videos and it looked like football to them,” he said.
The decision was made to change to 8-man for the 2019 varsity season, and to play all junior varsity games as 8-man in 2018. Alston said the kids had the easiest time adapting to the change. “They didn’t care at all,” he emphasized. “It was new and interesting and they were still tackling, still running, all those things. The field just had to change a little bit.”
Another important component was the effort made by Polo’s coaches. Alston said in 2018, the coaches attended conferences and clinics, mostly in Iowa. “If your coaches aren’t willing to do some homework and learn the game, it won’t work,” he noted. “You have to have coaches with an open mind and who are willing to do this.”
To help with the transition, Polo also invited a football coach from Iowa to come and present to the coaches and administrators. After a four-hour presentation, Polo felt reassured. “We all felt this would be pretty easy because he told us you don’t really change anything. That was probably the smartest thing we did,” Alston said. “He really made us feel at ease about the transition. We were all 11-man football people and not feeling 100 percent great about this - it could be a disaster - so that helped tremendously.”
Some in the community were not so agreeable to the change, however, and Alston said some people are still against it. “Selling it to the community was probably the biggest issue,” he admitted. “They will say ‘this is stupid, you ruined football’ and my response is, we’re not doing this for you. We’re doing this for these kids. And they’re excited, so we’re excited.”
Once the fans started watching the games, Alston said most realized it really wasn’t such a big deal. “It was a challenge to sell but we were just as open as we could be. We said if you want football, we have to do this.”
In Polo’s first season playing 8-man football, they ended their season with a 12-0 record and were the I8FA State Champs. Even more important to Alston has been the interest in football generated among students. “Our numbers got higher. We had about six kids go out that wouldn’t have but they wanted to try this,” he noted. “For some reason, they were excited about it, it’s something new and we noticed a different attitude among the kids. The last year of 11-man we ended the season with 23 on the roster and we started this season with over 30 and ended with 27.”
Although there were some sleepless nights in the beginning, Alston feels it was a positive experience overall. “Football is an important sport for our community and your community,” he said. “We really took a chance but we were doing this for the kids and they overwhelmingly supported it and wanted to do it and the numbers went up. For us, it’s a no brainer.”
There are currently 23 committed 8-man teams for the 2020 football season and as rural school enrollments keep declining, both Alston and Schamberger believe the conference is likely to continue growing. Eventually, Alston predicted that the IHSA would start taking over the I8FA. “We’re OK with that,” he said. “It was nice to not send a check to the IHSA but we want the IHSA as part of this.”
Schamberger said he has talked to all of Amboy’s high school players and none of them have said it’s not football. “Everybody is excited almost to the point of wanting to do it next year, but I have to tell the seniors no,” he said.
If Amboy changes to 8-man, it will not be until the 2021 varsity season. The first step would be to let the NUIC Conference know what Amboy’s intentions are by the April meeting and then let the I8FA know by January 2021.
“If we stay 11-man, we’re stuck in the conference for three more years with that low number of players,” Schamberger said. “We have good athletes, what we lack is big guys. On 11-man you need five big guys, on 8-man you only need three. When you don’t have five, the good athletes end up getting hit a lot.”
Amboy is fortunate, Schamberger noted, “When Polo first did it, they went to Iowa. We are lucky because we can go right to Polo. They have a whole year’s worth of film and coaches we can talk to.”