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State Football Celebrates 40 Years In South Dakota

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University of South Dakota

The state football championships will return to the Dakota Dome in Vermillion this week. This year is special, however, as the event will celebrate its 40th anniversary.

While it’s remarkable to think that the state high school football championships have been at the Dakota Dome every year, except one, it’s also hard to believe that before 1981, state champions for football in South Dakota were decided quite differently.

In 1927, the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls decided who the state champion was. There were no playoff games. Instead, teams would play a regular season slate of games and then the Argus would decide who the state champion was. Eventually, the South Dakota Sportswriters took over the task of deciding the state champ.

In 1981, though, this all changed. Post-season football in South Dakota was born.

“That first playoffs year, there were five classifications for football and they took eight teams from each classification,” explained Dan Swartos, South Dakota High School Activities Association executive director. “The playoff system looked quite a bit different back then and the power point system looked quite a bit different.”

Until the Dakota Dome was built in 1979, South Dakota didn’t have an indoor football facility.


“One of the big reasons why they hadn’t had playoffs in the past was weather, and people not knowing if the championship would be worth playing outside in mid-November in South Dakota,” Swartos said. “Are you going to get people there? Is it going to be a miserable experience if it’s raining, sleeting, or snowing? The [Dakota Dome] really solidified the push that we could do this.”

Before the Dakota Dome was built, the member schools of the South Dakota High School Activities Association voted five times on a playoff format for high school football. But they all failed. A majority of the schools were in favor of the proposal, but the constitution of the SDHSAA required a two-thirds majority vote – or so it was thought.

In a 1981 article entitled “History of the Playoffs” by John Egan of the Argus Leader, it's explained that a court suit was filed in an effort to give football the same championship experience as the other prep sports at the time. Judge Rob Heege of Sioux Falls ruled that a policy prohibiting high school football playoffs could be overturned with a simple majority, not a two-thirds majority. The schools voted again in 1980, and this time a 58% approval was enough to make the change.

For its first year of the high school football playoffs and championships, South Dakota had five classes – 11AAA, 11AA, 11A, 9AA, and 9A. Each class had eight teams qualify for the playoffs.