Brilliance soared into the spotlight Friday night at NIU-Rockford along with an important plea to…
Sometimes the cool-as-cucumbers teens press their buzzers and answer before host Nick Toma can complete the question.
And, darn it all, their haste usually doesn’t matter.
More often than not, they’re right – no matter if the topic is science, art, history, math, government, pop culture or whatever else is likely to stump most adult viewers of the Rockford area’s Stateline Quiz Bowl by Bergstrom.
Toma, nightly news anchor at WTVO-Channel 17 and WQRF Fox 39, confirms the correct response, shakes his head in amused disbelief and reads the rest of the question anyway – maybe because that’s his job, maybe because it reaffirms just how smart these kids are.
Lori Fanello, the regional superintendent of schools in Boone and Winnebago counties, understands how Toma must feel.
“I can’t even keep up with the students when they’re giving their answers,” says Fanello, who took on the “very humbling” role of judge for a few episodes. “They really know their information and can retrieve it so quickly. It’s unbelievable.”
After nearly 21 weeks of questions and answers, the first season of the Stateline Quiz Bowl will air its live finale at 7 p.m. Friday, May 29, pitting Rockford Auburn High School against the winner of this weekend’s bout between Belvidere North and Oregon.
To the winner goes not only bragging rights but $40,000 in NIU scholarships.
To loyal viewers, on the other hand, will go withdrawal from what now-familiar face Wes Cotton calls “ ‘Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader’ on steroids.”
“We’re all struck by the intelligence of our scholastic students at the high school level. This has gone far beyond our wildest expectations. We have such an enlightened group of students dedicated to expanding their knowledge base beyond what’s required,” says Cotton, general manager for sales and customer technical services at tournament sponsor Bergstrom.
Cotton, who has attended many tapings the last few months, is often seen on TV asking the bonus question that rewards a Giordano’s pizza party to the team that answers correctly.
“These kids are exciting to watch. They are the future leaders of our Rockford stateline area and, quite honestly, at some point I may be reporting to one of them,” he says. “I’m very comfortable with the future of Rockford lying in the hands of these Quiz Bowl competitors.”
Debuting Jan. 17, Stateline Quiz Bowl blossomed in response to a Transform Rockford plank: to shine a spotlight on providing quality education, thereby improving workforce readiness and providing better opportunities to young people. (Transform Rockford’s mission is to facilitate the creation and implementation of a strategic plan by the community for the purposes of dramatically improving the social and economic well-being of the community and its residents.)
Teams from 22 schools – public and private, small and large, close and far – have come to the NIU-Rockford auditorium to tussle with their minds. Each school can field only four players at one time, but their teammates can rotate in and out between rounds.
Home viewers can see how it all transpired at 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 29, during a 30-minute special called “The Road to the Finals.”
Shawn Anderson, creative services director at WTVO/WQRF, is the man who turned a concept into a local phenomenon.
“I’m the executive producer, which means that once the concept was sold, it was dropped onto my lap to make it into a half-hour show that makes sense,” Anderson says. “I think it works. It plays well. The response from viewers, the response from the kids who are involved, the response from the coaches – they all seem to think it’s pretty cool.”
Anderson began by creating the format. Each half-hour begins and ends with “buzz-in rounds” surrounding a “volleyball round” where the questions go back and forth and a brisk, 10-question “lightning round” for each team alone.
He then bought questions from National Academic Quiz Tournaments, LLC, adapting them to fit the Stateline Quiz Bowl format. He also changed the wording to prevent mimicking questions used by the Illinois High School Association in its scholastic bowl events.
The level of competitiveness between – and within – the teams amazes him.
“What’s surprised me the most, and what’s impressed me the most, is the wealth of knowledge that these kids have,” he says, remembering one match where a teen correctly answered a tough science question and then immediately followed that by accurately identifying classic heavy metal band Black Sabbath.
“But what makes me laugh every week,” Anderson adds, “is that they’re competing for scholarship money but they get more excited when they get the pizza question right. Food is the currency.”
Rena Cotsones, associate vice president of Engagement and Innovation Partnerships at NIU, agrees that, like any teenagers, the quiz bowl participants get excited about pizza. “But I assure you,” she says, “these are college-bound students who are very excited about the NIU scholarships, too!”
NIU’s participation in the Stateline Quiz Bowl goes far beyond awarding scholarships, she adds.
“The competition takes place in the NIU-Rockford auditorium, so we have the opportunity to interact with the students and their families and coaches on production days,” Cotsones says. “In the Rockford region, we are focused on growing our own workforce. We want these students to come to NIU and stay in the region to begin their careers.”
For Bergstrom, a Rockford-based designer and manufacturer of cab climate systems for commercial trucks, off-highway machines and military and other specialty vehicles, the enhanced name recognition has produced “a phenomenal public relations windfall.”
That wasn’t the goal, Cotton says.
“We didn’t take on the challenge of sponsoring the Quiz Bowl for the purpose of general acceptance in Rockford as much as we did for the appreciation of the schools,” he says.
Nonetheless, “we’ve been in this community for 65 years. Our owner, Dave Rydell, is very philanthropic, and always has been with Rockford charities,” Cotton adds, “but it seems like the Quiz Bowl has put us on the map. We are communicating to a much-broader audience in a way that no one here has done before.”
For the TV station, the community-boosting endeavor has lived up to lofty expectations.
“It’s good local programming. It’s something you can watch with your family,” Anderson says. “I have an 8- and 11-year-old, and we watch it every week. It’s safe. It’s fun.”
Anderson attributes the show’s popularity to its true mission, though.
“We’re basically showing that education matters. We’re shining a light on smart kids doing smart-kid things,” he says. “There’s so much focus on negative behavior; this is good stuff. This is positive.”
“Our hope is that this isn’t a one-shot deal,” he says. “I’m excited to close this chapter and move onto whatever Year 2, 3 or 4 might bring. We can start planning for something bigger and better next year.”
Count Fanello among the fans ready for more.
Given any community’s love for and attention to high school sports, the regional superintendent has appreciated this spotlight on academics. She draws a direct line between a sports team’s practice for a game to the reading, studying and mastery of knowledge required of Quiz Bowl squads.
Meanwhile, she says, the collegial teamwork demonstrated on the Quiz Bowl set illustrates “what businesses want when they start to hire.”
“This has been such a wonderful opportunity for students in this area,” Fanello says. “Any time you pay attention to academics, it excites the kids. And if the ultimate prize is scholarship money? Wow. Their parents are pretty excited, too.”