SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — High School football has been a part of the local landscape since South Dakota was admitted to the Union as the 40th state in 1889.
However, it wasn’t until 1981 that the South Dakota High School Activities Association implemented a playoff format to determine its football champions.
South Dakota is celebrating a milestone, 40 years of high school playoff football.
The idea of not having a postseason seems almost unthinkable now, but that was reality prior to 1981, with fans settling for ‘mythical champions’ for more than 50 years.
It wasn’t until the 1970’s that the state’s push for the playoffs started to gain steam.
“Every state around us was bringing in playoffs for football and we were kind of being left behind and I think that got us motivated a little bit,” Roosevelt Head Coach Kim Nelson said.
“It had been brought up several times between 1970 and 1981 to implement the football playoffs and at the time there was a threshold of a two-thirds majority of the membership voting to approve it and they could never get to that threshold. They’d get to 58, 59, 60-percent, but could not get to that two-thirds percentage,” SDHSAA Executive Director Dan Swartos said.
“There was a clause in the Activities Association constitution that said there will not be football playoffs. Why that was ever in there, I don’t know, but they worked really hard to get rid of that clause and get them going, and it was a lawsuit that eventually ended up and the judge demanded that you remove that clause and move forward with playoffs,” O’Gorman Activities Director Steve Kueter said.
The lawsuit was filed in February 1981 by Sioux Falls attorney and O’Gorman parent, Tony Weisensee.
“He was frustrated, like we all were, with all the other efforts we tried to get this through and being an attorney, he said there is one more thing we can try and that’s simply file a lawsuit. We thought it was a long shot when he did it, but it turned out to be very successful,” Kueter said.
The judge ruled in favor of Weisensee. Votes no longer required a two-thirds majority, simply 50% plus one vote, paving the way for the playoffs. The Activities Association dropped all appeals in April 1981.
“Some separate groups involved that were supportive and opposed to it for a long time and it wasn’t really going anywhere and once they got that interpretation that you can move forward on this with a majority vote I think that was hey, we’ve got a direction here, this is obviously something that a majority of our schools want to do, let’s take it and run,” Swartos said.
The priorities of every football team changed that fall.
“The end of the season is the most exciting part of the year instead of the beginning. I felt like when I first started coaching the beginning of the season was the exciting time,” Nelson said.
Kim Nelson is South Dakota’s all-time winningest football coach. He was the head coach in Milbank in 1981.
“The goals have changed, and the expectations have changed. I think it’s been great for football; I think it’s been great for kids in South Dakota, I think it’s made football a bigger deal and getting to the dome has been a goal for every team for a long time,” Nelson said.
O’Gorman earned the first of its nine championships that fall.
“The first playoff in ’81 was undefeated Yankton against us in the finals which would have been the first time we played in a long time so there was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm,” Kueter said.
Steve Kueter was the Knights’ defensive coordinator in ’81. He also won 289 games and seven titles as a head coach and has seen the game grow over the past four decades.
“It’s a more exciting game. There’s more spread offenses, obviously more throwing the ball, really good athletes now. We have athletes going to the D1 level consistently now out of these schools in South Dakota,” Kueter said.
Helping South Dakota climb the football ladder.
“The teams I see here in South Dakota could compete well with the Minneapolis teams or the Omaha teams, so I think that speaks well for what’s happening in South Dakota,” Kueter said.
“Our population is going to continue to rise, and I think that the schools in the Sioux Falls area are going to become the bigger schools. I see Tea growing faster, I’m expecting West Central to start really growing, Harrisburg’s obviously another example, Brandon Valley,” Nelson said.
As the big get bigger, some of the state’s smallest teams may have to get even smaller.
“We looked at a 6-man option a few years ago and didn’t have enough schools that were interested to really make it viable, but that might be something to look at and be flexible in the future with schools,” Swartos said.
As it currently stands, South Dakota has seven classes of football and each will crown a champion before the end of the weekend.
“Really thankful that it got going back in ’81 and now 40 years later we hope to keep continuing to build on our football programs that we have and the state championships that we do,” Dan Swartos said.
The South Dakota football championships kick off at 10:00 Thursday morning with the class “9B” championship game featuring Potter County and Dell Rapids St. Mary. Click HERE for a complete list of championship games, including matchups, dates, and times.