Let’s bring back the Big 32

Lines were so long coming out of the parking lots and the side streets where others left their cars that plenty of time existed to rehash the game.

Whether you watched the game or played in it, the game was absolutely worth the conversation. All of those boys’ basketball games were that good then and the girls’ contests probably would have been, too, if high school girls’ basketball had existed in Montana in the 1960s.

The gyms were packed and the competition was intense. Large crowds often viewed the preceding “B-Squad” or junior varsity games, too, because the fans needed to arrive that early to have a parking spot, much less a seat.

A quick referral to Google revealed not much, except that little if anything about the Big 32 Conference has been mentioned around the state, publicly, since prep sports expert Ed West retired from the Billings Gazette a few years ago. Eddie always wanted to see the alignment reborn and I hope he is still, in some way, championing the cause. I’m guessing that not a lot of us remember the league. It was 50 years ago the Big 32 came to be.

The Big 32 was only for basketball and it involved the 32 larger schools in Montana. It began as the Big 30, but a couple schools were added when Missoula County split into Sentinel and Hellgate (before Big Sky) and Great Falls opened C.M. Russell.

Essentially, it comprised the Class AA and A schools, divided into four eight-team divisions. The top two teams from each division advanced to the state AA-A championship tournament.

The separate divisions constituted a set-up that matched natural rivals in regular-season league games nearly every weekend. So, fans flocked to the game and none had to travel a long way to be there. Consequently, the joints were jumping.

Fans liked it because the competition was so spirited and the travel wasn’t so tough on taxpayers’ budgets. Criticism, though, from within was that the smaller schools weren’t successful enough in the competition to inspire the dedication sought, and some of the bigger schools grew nervous about losing to smaller neighborhood rivals.

At Missoula Sentinel, we not only had the fun of competing with Hellgate and Kalispell, but were forced to guard against losing to my cousins’ school in Columbia Falls or being hassled by my mother’s relatives in Hamilton.

In these parts, I can only imagine how that kind of friendly feuding ratcheted up on those winter weekends with Butte High, Butte Central, Anaconda High, Anaconda Central, Dillon, etc., involved.

The divisiveness in the various offices instead of the gyms, however, brought an end to the alignment after just six years. In those years, Class A teams played AA teams four times in the championship game of the state Big 32 tournament and won three of them. So, Class AA had three crowns and Class A had three. It worked out pretty well, interest held.

Championship game scores proved the worthiness of the competition. The 1964 game saw Missoula County defeat Billings West 79-72 in an all-AA matchup. Then Class AA Great Falls High edged Class A Columbia Falls 62-61 in 1965, Class A Libby tumbled Class AA Missoula Hellgate 72-70 in the 1966 title tilt thriller, and an all-Billings final saw Senior shade West 69-67 in 1967. Both were and remain AA schools. Wolf Point returned the glory to Class A in 1968 with a 71-55 shellacking of Kalispell (Flathead). Another Class A win in 1969 finished the alignment’s run, Laurel nicking Kalispell 57-54.

The Montana High School Association (MHSA) membership voted to return to separate competitions for AA and A the following year and saw, interestingly, Kalispell finally achieve its championship, 80-63 over Helena High, and Whitefish grab the Class A throne with a 54-44 victory over Laurel.

Some of the state’s best-ever athletes performed during the Big 32 era, as it was a part of a decade when several from Montana progressed on to college athletics, pro sports and the Olympics. So, they played on a lot of stages and a lot of fans were able to see them before they progressed on to the big arenas.

Let’s bring it back.

The divisionals will give the Class AA the divisional tourney experience the players and fans have been missing out on for more than 20 years, and meshing the two classes will recreate that rivalry-spiced schedule that honed the skills of so many half a century ago. Their grandfathers will be proud.

Transportations costs will be cut with shorter travel (except for the ones having to play Sidney and Glendive, which won’t be cost-saving endeavors no matter how you cut it). Midway-site scheduling might be worth a look in some cases, such as when Hardin and Whitefish played football at Montana Tech one of the more recent falls.

Conversation enlivens each season with how great smaller-school teams might fare against the squads from the larger enrollments. This will give us another look at it.

Also, the girls’ teams would play a similar plan and it should provide a wider audience for them with larger crowds to play before as one finds in rivalry games.

The 32 schools would be the current 14 Class AA members and then 18 of the 22 in Class A. However, Libby and Anaconda agreeing to move to Class B in 2015 will bring Class A membership to 20. Billings Central, Butte Central and Glendive have also been questioned as to whether they might to move to Class B because of the lower enrollment numbers, but, for now, have expressed desires to stay in Class A. Dillon is likely to also stay in A with the success it has enjoyed at the level. Declining attendance at Lewistown and Stevensville might, though, cause officials there to accept reassignment to Class B. Growing attendance in Class B members Ronan, Wolf Point and Shepherd, however, are being watched, too, and might be another consideration to mull.

However, if the maybes and possibles all fall into place, following is a proposed alignment for competition and maybe an MHSA member school can forward it or improve upon it for, at least, conversation purposes, trying to equally mix the enrollment ratios and geographical elements in division assignments:

Northern Division — Helena High, Great Falls C.M. Russell, Great Falls High, Helena Capital, Havre, Browning, Sidney and Glendive.

Eastern Division — Billings West, Billings Senior, Billings Skyview, Laurel, Miles City, Hardin, Livingston, Billings Central.

Southern Division — Bozeman, Butte High, Missoula Hellgate, Belgrade, Hamilton, Corvallis, Dillon, Butte Central.

Western Division — Kalispell Flathead, Kalispell Glacier, Missoula Sentinel, Missoula Big Sky, Columbia Falls, Frenchtown, Polson, Whitefish.

The Northern Division, obviously, has a lot of travel involved so maybe midway-site scheduling, or tournament-type, quadrangular dates might be considerations.

Hellgate was separated from the other Missoula schools so that all divisions could have eight members, and if such is found not desirable, then maybe the Missoula schools could rotate their memberships, taking turns at playing in the Southern Division.

State and conference champions will still be crowned in both Class AA and A, the higher finishing teams in each receiving the trophies and appropriately recognized.

With much population shifting happening and expecting to continue as the job market moves, both graphically and geographically, enrollments figure to show sometimes drastic changes in the next few years. Class AA could grow to 16 schools with the continued rapid population growth of the Billings and Bozeman areas, meaning suburbanites could push Laurel and Belgrade into the AA ranks, as one example of such change.

If so, we offer a companion football plan for the two classes — two divisions each, top two, three or four in each advance to the playoffs, depending on what is deemed preferable.

Class AA East — Helena High, Great Falls C.M. Russell, Great Falls High, Helena Capital, Billings West, Billings Senior, Billings Skyview, Laurel.

Class AA West — Bozeman, Butte High, Missoula Hellgate, Belgrade, Kalispell Flathead, Kalispell Glacier, Missoula Sentinel, Missoula Big Sky.

Class A East — Havre, Browning, Sidney, Glendive, Miles City, Hardin, Livingston, Billings Central.

Class A West — Hamilton, Corvallis, Dillon, Butte Central, Columbia Falls, Frenchtown, Polson, Whitefish.

Following are the MHSA members’ enrollment figures as posted by the state Office of Public Instruction for 2013-14 school year:

Class AA — Bozeman 1,961, Billings West 1,883, Billings Senior 1,730, Helena High 1,607, Billings Skyview 1,557, Great Falls C.M. Russell 1,551, Great Falls High 1,520, Kalispell Flathead 1,514, Helena Capital 1,325, Butte High 1,296, Kalispell Glacier 1,267, Missoula Hellgate 1,250, Missoula Sentinel 1,161, Missoula Big Sky 1,073.

Class A — Belgrade 854, Columbia Falls 691, Laurel 649, Havre 558, Browning 544, Hamilton 513, Polson 511, Miles City 504, Whitefish 497, Livingston 484, Corvallis 437, Hardin 427, Sidney 397, Frenchtown 389, Stevensville 385, Dillon 349, Libby 348, Lewistown 335, Billings Central 331, Glendive 329, Anaconda 323, Butte Central 136.

Class B — Ronan 350, Eureka 287, Bigfork 285, Huntley Project 258, Glasgow 254, Shepherd 254, Florence 253, Deer Lodge 236, Boulder 223, Wolf Point 221, Poplar 213, Columbus 208, Townsend 202, Colstrip 201, Manhattan 200, Roundup 194, Cut Bank 193, Missoula Loyola 177, Big Timber 174, Thompson Falls 174, Red Lodge 173, Conrad 172, Three Forks 164, Malta 161, Harlem 157, Plains 142, Choteau 138, Rocky Boy 137, St. Labre 137, Shelby 133, Baker 132, Troy 131, Whitehall 130, St. Ignatius 128, Joliet 124, Plentywood 119, Fairfield 117, Forsyth 112, Lodge Grasss 107, Lame Deer 106.

Class C — Chinook 142, Arlee 118, Victor 117, Northern Cheyenne 114, Great Falls Central 113, Broadus 111, Seeley-Swan 111, Ennis 108, Simms 103, Box Elder 101, Superior 100, Twin Bridges 98, Fairview 96, Two Eagle River 96, Cascade 95, Charlo 95, Belt 92, Park City 92, Scobey 87, Circle 85, Gardiner 85, Culbertson 84, Noxon 83, Centerville 82, Darby 82, Fort Benton 80, Absarokee 78, Harlowton 76, Shields Valley 82, Chester-Joplin-Inverness 71, Drummond 70, Sunburst 70, Missoula Valley Christian 67, Bridger 66, Jordan 66, Hot Springs 65, Manhattan Christian 65, Philipsburg 63, White Sulphur Springs 61, Lone Peak 60, Sheridan 58, North Star 57, Power 57, Wibaux 57, West Yellowstone 54, Broadview 53, Lincoln 52, Hays-Lodgepole 51, Plenty Coups 51, Big Sandy 49, Heart Butte 49, Valier 48, Alberton 46, Bainville 44, Fromberg 43, St. Regis 43, Terry 42, Harrison 40, Lambert 40, Lustre Christian 40, Moore 38, Nashua 37, Winnett 37, Medicine Lake 36, Rosebud 36, Dutton/Brady 35, Frazer 35, Ekalaka 34, Denton 33, Froid 33, Geraldine 33, Hysham 33, Savage 33, Winifred 31, Roberts 28, Custer 27, Geyser 27, Hobson 27, Augusta 26, Highwood 26, Hinsdale 26, Lima 26, Reed Point 26, Grass Range 25, Lavina 25, Westby 25, Whitewater 23, Richey 22, Stanford 22, Brockton 20, Melstone 19, Dodson 17, Saco 15, Turner 15, Willow Creek 15, Roy 14, Plevna 13, Rapelje 12, Opheim 10, Belfry 8, Montana School for the Deaf and Blind 8, Ryegate 7, Judith Gap 6.