The WIAA began sponsoring a football playoff program in 1976. The playoff program involved four divisions and a total of 16 teams in 1976 and 1977.
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 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.
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.
Edgar, Kimberly, Lancaster, St. Mary's Springs and Stratford have won the most championships with seven. Arrowhead and Waunakee are next in line with six. D.C. Everest, Homestead, Menomonie, Monroe and Osseo-Fairchild have each won five. Amherst, Ashwaubenon, Brillion, 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 has appeared in the most championship games with 13. Darlington is next with 12, and Edgar and Lancaster have appeared in 11 finals. St. Mary's Springs follows with 10 appearances, with Waunakee having played in nine. Kimberly, Menomonie and Monroe have played in eight. Hilbert, Kenosha Tremper, Osseo-Fairchild and Stratford have appeared in seven, while Ashwaubenon, D.C. Everest, De Soto, Homestead, Rice Lake Somerset, Stanley-Boyd and Wisconsin Lutheran have been in six. Amherst, Catholic Memorial. Colby, Kewaunee, Marshfield, Monona Grove, Mosinee, New Berlin Eisenhower and Regis have played in five finals.
State championships have been won by 120 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). 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 33. Stratford is second in the number of appearances in the playoffs with 32. Edgar, Menomonie and Milwaukee Bradley, not including one appearance in a co-op with Carmen South, has qualified 31 times. Darlington, Howards Grove and Waupaca have qualified 29 times.