CEDAR RAPIDS — Rick Wulkow is a basketball guy.
The Executive Director of the Iowa High School Athletic Association played the sport in high school and college and was a referee at the Division I college level for many years. He loves hoops and wants it to be all it can be at the prep level in Iowa.
“This is about the kids, about the game,” he said Monday. “I really think high school basketball needs something right now. I don’t know if this is it or not.”
What Wulkow has in mind is a “Final Four” concept for the state tournament. Instead of eight teams qualifying in each class, there would be four. A six-day event at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines would be chopped in half to three.
The theory is to create more visibility and interest for a postseason that Wulkow said has become stale and is suffering from a “downward spiral” in attendance at every level, district and substate included. The tournament (district through state) drew a record 319,350 fans in 1999, with those numbers falling by an average of about 80,000 in each of the past five tournaments.
That’s the only sport the IHSAA sponsors that has seen such a dramatic decrease.
“Right now, we have a pretty boring tournament, honestly,” Wulkow said, pointing out how everything is seeded. “It is my job to think outside the box. This is something I’ve thought about for some time, but I’ve kept to myself. This year, I thought I’d bring it up and see what kind of pushback I’d get.”
Wulkow discussed his final four idea recently with a coach’s advisory board and got anticipated stunned silence. Change is difficult, he acknowledged, as is bucking tradition. But he challenged the coaches to resist the status quo and come up with ideas to move their sport forward.
“I told them ‘You are the caretakers of your sport,’” Wulkow said. “I want them to go and talk about this. I want them to start thinking about their game and how to get that spark back we had a few years ago.”
Wulkow doesn’t expect any major changes in the next couple of years. He doesn’t have in-depth specifics worked out, other than wanting to keep classifications and breaking up the state into four regions.
He mentioned how Indiana has a blind draw for its entire postseason, which annually gets a ton of publicity. Wisconsin and Illinois are neighboring states that have a state tournament final four. Nebraska has six postseason substates in each class, with those six winners advancing with two “at-large” teams determined by record and strength of schedule.
“I’ve grown up with it this way, and I like it,” said Iowa City West coach Steve Bergman. “But I think there are some good points (Wulkow) is making. You look at our quarterfinal game this year, for instance, which was at 8:15 on a Wednesday night. You’re not going to get people to go to that game.”
“I think basketball in our state is in fine shape,” said Bob Fontana, who is leaving Cedar Rapids Kennedy to coach at Ankeny Centennial next year. “If anything changes, I’d like it to go from four classes to three.”
That is the kind of discussion Wulkow wants. He feels something is missing, and he wants everyone to find it.
“Let’s just get out of the mode we’re in right now,” he said.