South Dakota high school football spent many decades (and countless prep football careers) determining its state champions by polling rather than on the field. It wasn’t until the debut of the DakotaDome at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion did the state finally adopt a playoff system in the early 1980s.
There was a reason for that wait (or, perhaps there were two if you count the lawsuit that eventually forced the issue), and we may well be remembering it next week.
This year’s title games have been moved to Brookings due to construction work at the DakotaDome. (This hasn’t stopped the USD football team from playing there … but whatever.) The games will be squeezed into two days at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium on the campus of South Dakota State University up in Brookings. The games will return next year to the DakotaDome, which has a contract with the South Dakota High School Activities Association to host the title games until 2026.
However, there remains “That Reason” why South Dakota didn’t offer playoffs until 1981.
“That Reason,” of course, is the weather.
According to the National Weather Service (NWS), a major cold front is expected to sweep across the state early next week that will deliver some of the coldest weather of what’s already been a chilly autumn to the area. A forecast map that the NWS posted on Twitter the other day looked like someone had spilled a bottle of deep-blue ink across the center of the nation. The highs in Brookings on the two days of the football championships (Nov. 14-15) are only expected to be about 30 degrees, and any breeze at all will make it feel even colder.
That will be a far cry from the 72-degree indoor climate of the DakotaDome.
We’re so accustomed to having the dome’s indoor luxuries available that we often forget what a tremendous shelter it can be when the weather outside turns frightful.
I do recall a few times back in my days as a sports journalist when the weather the day of a championship game in Vermillion was seasonably pleasant and probably would have been great for an outdoor autumn game.
But I also remember many more years that were otherwise; it was sometimes downright cold, and I recall a few snow events. In those years, covering a championship game at the dome meant getting inside and — here’s the important part — throwing off our jackets and taking in a pleasantly climate-controlled event.
It wasn’t always so ideal, though. One year, back in the days of the inflatable roof and concerns about collapses due to weather, it was snowing quite heavily outside, so dome officials decided the best approach was to crank up the heat indoors to the low 80s in order to prevent any snow from accumulating on the rooftop. It was miserably warm, especially up by the press boxes. But it sure beat being outdoors trying to cover a game in all that.
The ultimate test of the dome’s all-weather value probably occurred in 1991 when the region was smothered by a Halloween blizzard that was then followed by several days of bitterly cold temperatures. At least 17 games — both high school and college; and from South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa — that were not originally scheduled in the DakotaDome were moved to Vermillion. The schedule was stacked; on a couple days, the contests ran until well after midnight. One day saw five games played. Then-USD Athletic Director Jack Doyle told me the phone was always ringing and they had never been so busy fielding reservation inquiries. Vermillion had not missed out on the storm — it received 15 inches of snow — but local officials made it possible to play.
The ability to offer indoor football finally ushered in the playoff era in South Dakota. It may not have been the only reason for the delay, but the arrival of the dome certainly rendered any remaining resistance moot.
I understand that there is a big cost savings by moving the games this year out of the DakotaDome, where the rental fee for the playoffs is $50,000. But a lot is done in Vermillion to accommodate the games. The dome also happens to be THE most comfortable place in South Dakota to watch a football game on a typical mid-November night, and that comfort is a bankable thing that’s guaranteed year after year.
I’m sure Dykhouse Stadium or, for that matter, Howard Wood Stadium in Sioux Falls are great football venues, but that’s not the point. It’s never been the point.
Weather trumps all, and with wintry uncertainty always in the air in November, there really is no place like the dome.
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