Here’s how quickly the vibe around college football can change: By the time you read this, the level of optimism might have swung again.
In late March, comments by ESPN/ABC analyst Kirk Herbstreit about the sport’s status amid the coronavirus pandemic reflected the wider view: “I don’t know how you let these guys go into locker rooms and let stadiums be filled up and how you can play ball.”
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly shot those comments down, and Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby expressed optimism for a season. Then the presidents of Auburn and West Virginia essentially said: Don’t be silly, of course there will be football.
Since then, we’ve heard pessimism from Michigan President Mark Schlissel and on Thursday, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta declared he won’t rule out games being played before a full house at Kinnick Stadium. Say what?
With the NCAA ruling that athletes can return to campus Monday for voluntary workouts, the Tribune spoke to several coaches, players and athletic directors in an attempt to answer an array of questions. Here’s what we know:
Will the season start on time?
Athletic directors Jim Phillips (Northwestern) and Sean Frazier (Northern Illinois) both expressed some doubt. Frazier envisions a “modified” season, and Phillips said there have been discussions about moving the Big Ten title game back from the first Saturday in December.
Why the hesitancy?
Because lives are at stake. Illinois has had the third-most coronavirus cases (more than 115,000) and only five states have had more deaths (more than 5,200). To pull this off, colleges will have figure out: testing and its execution and cost, where and how to quarantine, how to address the concerns of players, parents and coaches older than 60, how to master the best practices for sanitizing equipment, how to follow state guidelines for group sizes in meetings and workouts, how to figure out who can attend the games, how to travel and what to do about cramped visitors’ locker rooms.
It’s no wonder athletic directors say these last 10 weeks have been the most hectic of their lives.
When will athletes return to campus?
Nebraska already has 150-175 athletes on campus and they will start workouts next week. Athletic director Bill Moos said on his Sports Nightly radio show: “The safest place for our student-athletes is Lincoln, Nebraska, and the safest place in Lincoln is our facilities.”
Nebraska will provide a test case to its Big Ten brethren.
Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman is targeting June 11 for voluntary workouts — but with precautions: “Especially during the month of June, there won’t be any workouts that involve ball activities, whether it’s throwing passes or getting shots up (for basketball players). But we recognize that our student-athletes are going to want to do those things. We’ve charged our sports medicine group with developing protocols around how to safely handle a basketball or a football.”
Notre Dame reportedly is eyeing the weekend of June 6.
Phillips and Frazier said they are looking at the second or third week of June.
“It’s not about being the fastest out of the gate, it should be about who is the safest,” Phillips said. “Everyone says it shouldn’t be about competition … and then it’s heavily influenced by competition.”
Do students have to be back on campus for there to be football?
Michigan and Notre Dame officials have said yes. So does Frazier: “There have to be some classes on campus. That is an absolute for me.”
Bowlsby, the Big 12 chief, said he believes online classes are “satisfactory.”
Big Ten leaders might say more after presidents and chancellors meet June 7.
Other questions to be answered: Will all students be tested for COVID-19, or just student-athletes? If dorms are open, will there be temperature checks? How about outside academic buildings or classrooms? Will students be required to wear masks in common areas?
Will all the players be willing to suit up?
Tough to say. Northwestern made three available for zoom media calls this week, and none expressed reluctance to play.
“Everyone might have a different answer to this,” said receiver Riley Lees, a senior from Libertyville. “but I personally have faith in our university and the health professionals to put us in a position of minimal risk.”
Added offensive tackle Rashawn Slater: “I really trust the staff to do the research … most of the guys, if not all of the guys, are really excited to be back with each other.”
What if a player refuses to participate over health concerns?
Frazier said players who opt out of participating would retain their scholarships: “Absolutely. Absolutely. No hands down. No ambiguity.”
Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said he “would support our guys 100% in whatever happens.”
Phillips said that extends to any of Northwestern’s 523 student-athletes in 19 sports.
What is driving these decisions?
Publicly, all you will hear is: The safety and well-being of the student-athletes.
The reality is it’s money. Universities want to offer at least some in-person learning so parents will write tuition checks by June 1, the pushed-back deadline at many schools.
College football accounts for 70-75% of the revenue that fuels most athletic departments. For some Southeastern Conference schools, that figure is as high as 85%.
“If we don’t have football,” one athletic director put it, “the whole house of cards will collapse.”
Appalachian State already has cut three men’s sports — soccer, tennis and indoor track & field — in anticipation of revenue losses. Connecticut, already running a $40 million athletic department deficit, is bracing for “deep cuts” to sports and academics.
A school such as Northwestern could tap its $11.1 billion endowment.
What would a modified schedule look like?
Tough to say. Northwestern is slated to open at Michigan State on Sept. 5 and then host Tulane and Central Michigan. The Spartans game could be moved but Northwestern would have to buy out the other games. Paying $1 million or more not to play would be unappetizing.
NIU is set to receive $1.1 million — about 3.7% of the entire annual athletic department budget — for traveling to Iowa on Sept. 26. Would the Huskies accept some compensation in exchange for pushing the game to a future season?
Notre Dame has a Week Zero game against Navy in Dublin on Aug. 29 that would seem to be in serious jeopardy. Traveling to Europe to play football in this climate?
That said, Notre Dame’s plan is to have students return two weeks early, Aug. 10, and then to skip fall break and end the semester before Thanksgiving. The idea is to limit coronavirus exposure with back-and-forth travel.
Illinois opens with home games against Illinois State, UConn and Bowling Green.
Who gets to attend the games?
This will be huge issue at Notre Dame, where the 80,795-seat stadium might only accommodate 15,000-20,000, at least in the early weeks. The school has to please donors, alums, students, faculty and staff who live for fall Saturdays.
“We’ll start,” athletic director Jack Swarbrick pledged, “with the students.”
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