When Sterling, Geneseo, Kaneland or any other school in the Northern Illinois Big 12 makes a deep run into the IHSA football playoffs, conference supporters boast with pride.
That football success is coming with a cost, however.
The Northern Illinois Big 12, a 12-team, two-division conference formed in 2010 as a melding of schools in the former NCIC Reagan (Dixon, Geneseo, LaSalle-Peru, Morris, Ottawa, Sterling and Streator) and Western Sun (DeKalb, Kaneland, Rochelle, Sycamore and Yorkville), is facing some serious issues.
First, Dixon announced it was leaving the conference last spring to join the Big Northern Conference. It will have one more year in the NIB-12 West.
On Tuesday, another league member announced it was jumping ship. Streator, which has not been shy about its desire to leave the NIB-12, announced it will join the Interstate Eight Conference at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year. It will replace Dwight, which announced in December it was going to the Sangamon Valley Conference.
Declining enrollments, travel issues and an inability to compete in high-profile sports are three of the main reasons schools cite when looking for new conference homes.
"It's a football-driven problem around the whole state," Sterling athletic director Greg King said. "Schools can't compete, so they go looking for a conference that they can compete in, in football as well as other sports."
When Dixon and Streator leave the NIB-12 at the conclusion of the 2013-14 school year, there will be 10 teams remaining. What will likely happen is Rochelle, currently in the East Division, will come over to the West to join Sterling, Ottawa, LaSalle-Peru and Geneseo. The East Division will consist of DeKalb, Kaneland, Morris, Sycamore and Yorkville.
Five-team conferences, however, do not receive automatic bids into the IHSA football playoffs. King noted the NIB-12 can use a 1-year waiver in the fall of 2014 so that the East and West division champions will still get an automatic bid. After that, league champs would not receive an automatic bid.
All league teams that reach at least six wins, however, would still get into the postseason, despite being in a five-team league.
King meets with fellow NIB-12 athletic directors once a month, and the next meeting is slated for sometime in early March. Rochelle moving over to the West Division, going with two five-team divisions or exploring the possibility of going with one 10-team division are ideas that will be discussed.
King acknowledged when the league was at 11 teams, before Streator's departure, there were initial talks of forming a super-conference with the Fox Valley Conference.
"When we had an odd number, it was something we looked at," he said. "That doesn't even look like a possibility at this time."
The simplest solution would be to find two schools to replace Dixon and Streator. Freeport, out on an island in the Rockford-based NIC-10, has been mentioned as a possibility. So have schools like Sandwich and Plano, which could be poached as a tandem from the Interstate Eight.
Football always comes into the equation when looking to add teams.
"We would love to find two schools to join our conference," King said. "That's the easiest solution, but it's just not that simple. We play pretty dang good football in this league, and it's not easy to find two schools that would want to join."
2014-15 NIB-12 ?
West: Sterling, Geneseo, Rochelle*, Ottawa, LaSalle-Peru
East: DeKalb, Sycamore, Kaneland, Morris, Yorkville
*Would move from East to West