The WIAA began sponsoring a playoff for football in 1976, which was comprised of four divisions and a total of 16 teams in 1976 and 1977. The championship finals have been conducted annually except in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the reduction of the playoffs to two levels with no champions crowned.
It was expanded to five divisions and a total of 20 teams for 1978 and 1979. Division 5 (smallest schools) was given eight playoff participants, making a total of 24, in 1980.
Beginning in 1981, the playoff program was changed to six divisions with eight teams in each, a total of 48; so all conference champions could be incorporated into the system. That plan was expanded in 1987 to 96 teams with conference runners-up, as well as champions qualifying. In the first five years, participants were determined on a system, ranking schools on basis of fewest losses and other factors. In 1996, the field was expanded to 192 teams, including all teams with conference records above .500 and other schools chosen from those who were .500 in conference games. In 2002, a seventh division was added, expanding the playoff field to 224 teams. In 2020, the reduction of teams because of the COVID-19 pandemic reduced the qualifying field six divisions that season.
When playoffs began in 1976, divisions of competition were based on average enrollment of conferences. But effective with the 1984 season, competition was based on enrollment of participants--largest schools in Division 1, next largest in Division 2, etc.
Championship games were played at many sites through the first six years of the playoffs. But in 1982, all championship games were played at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison in a two-day event. That format remains in existence.
St. Mary's Springs has won the most football championships with nine. Edgar, Kimberly, Lancaster, and Stratford are second on the list of titles won with seven. Arrowhead, Homestead and Waunakee are next in line with six. D.C. Everest, Menomonie, Monroe and Osseo-Fairchild have each won five. Amherst, Ashwaubenon, Brillion, Catholic Memorial, Darlington and Wisconsin Lutheran have won four. Schools with three titles are Antigo, Colby, De Soto, Gilman, Hilbert, Kenosha Tremper, Manitowoc Lincoln, Marshfield, Monona Grove, Owen-Withee, Shell Lake, Somerset, Spring Valley, Stanley-Boyd, Two Rivers, Westby and Wrightstown.
Arrowhead and Edgar have appeared in the most championship games with 13. Darlington and St. Mary's Springs are next with 12, Lancaster and Waunakee have appeared in 11 finals. Kimberly and Stratford are next with nine. Menomonie and Monroe have played in eight, while Catholic Memorial, Hilbert, Homestead, Kenosha Tremper and Osseo-Fairchild have appeared in seven. Ashwaubenon, D.C. Everest, De Soto, Regis, Rice Lake, Somerset, Stanley-Boyd and Wisconsin Lutheran have been in six. Amherst, Brookfield Central, Colby, Kewaunee, Marshfield, Monona Grove, Mosinee and New Berlin Eisenhower have played in five finals.
State championships have been won by 125 different programs.
Stratford (2003-08) is the only program to win six straight championships. Kimberly is the only program other than Stratford to win five titles in succession (2013-17). Amherst (2015-17), Lancaster (2000-02), Manitowoc (1984-86), Monroe (1990-92), Two Rivers (1980-82) and Waunakee (2009-11) are the other schools to win three consecutive State championships.
De Soto has qualified for the most number of playoffs with 35. Stratford is second in the number of appearances in the playoffs with 34. Edgar and Menomonie have qualified 33 times, and Darlington, Howards Grove and Milwaukee Bradley, not including one appearance in a co-op with Carmen South, have qualified 31 times. DeForest, Lancaster, Peshtigo and Waupaca are next on the list of playoff appearances with 30.
In 2012, the reinstatement of a reduced-player option for member schools became available as 16 teams opted for the eight-player format. The top four teams in two separate regions met for a four-game jamboree at the end of the season. In 2018, the first sanctioned eight-player State tournament was held with eight teams qualifying for the playoffs.
Sevastopol was the first eight-player champion with a 38-30 win over Luck in the championship game, which was held at Stanley-Boyd High School on the same weekend as Level 3 of the 11-player playoffs. There was only one level of playoffs and no championship in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.