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 to 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, Stratford and Waunakee are second on the list of titles won with seven. Arrowhead and Homestead are next in line with six. Catholic Memorial, D.C. Everest, Menomonie, Monroe and Osseo-Fairchild have each won five. Amherst, Ashwaubenon, Brillion, Colby, Darlington and Wisconsin Lutheran have won four. Schools with three titles are Antigo, De Soto, Gilman, Glenwood City, Hilbert, Kenosha Tremper, Manitowoc Lincoln, Marshfield, Monona Grove, Owen-Withee, Shell Lake, Somerset, Spring Valley, Stanley-Boyd, Two Rivers, Westby and Wrightstown.
Arrowhead, Edgar and St. Mary's Springs have appeared in the most championship games with 13. Darlington is next with 12, Lancaster and Waunakee have appeared in 11 finals. Kimberly and Stratford are next with nine. Catholic Memorial, Homestead, Menomonie and Monroe have played in eight, while Hilbert, Kenosha Tremper, Osseo-Fairchild and Rice Lake have appeared in seven. Ashwaubenon, Colby D.C. Everest, De Soto, Regis, Somerset, Stanley-Boyd and Wisconsin Lutheran have been in six. Amherst, Brookfield Central, Kewaunee, Marshfield, Mayville, Monona Grove, Mosinee and New Berlin Eisenhower have played in five finals.
State championships have been won by 127 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 37. Stratford is second in the number of appearances in the playoffs with 36. Edgar and Menomonie have qualified 35 times, and Darlington has 33 appearances in the playoffs, and Arrowhead and Plymouth have 32. DeForest, Howards Grove, Lancaster, Milwaukee Bradley – not including one appearance in a co-op with Carmen South – and Waupaca have qualified 31 times. Iola-Scandinavia, Medford, New Berlin Eisenhower, Peshtigo, Stanley-Boyd, Sun Prairie, Waunakee and Wrightstown are next on the list of playoff appearances with 30.
Edgar has compiled the most victories in the history of the football playoffs with 89 in qualifying 35 times. Waunakee is next with 80 wins in 30 playoff appearances. Next on the list is St. Mary's Springs with 79 wins in 19 playoff appearances, and then Menomonie with 77 wins in qualifying 35 times. Darlington and Stratford appear next on the list with 75 victories. Darlington compiled their total in 33 playoffs, and Stratford with their 36 appearances.
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, which expanded to 16 teams in 2019.
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.