From Newfound Optimism to Potential 'Disaster': Inside the Conversation Around College Football's Return

SI asked the game's 11 most important decision-makers about the fate of the 2020 season. Their answers suggest everything's still on the table.
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Jon Steinbrecher normally finds himself weaving through crowds to reach the headquarters of the Mid-American Conference, high atop the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Cleveland. Lately, that’s changed. “I think it’s just me, some hotel staff and Delta flight crews in the entire building here,” says Steinbrecher, commissioner of the MAC.

In Birmingham, home to the Southeastern Conference, commissioner Greg Sankey starts his day with a 6 a.m. jog around the neighborhood before heading into the league’s new headquarters: his home office. The American Athletic Conference, meanwhile, is on wheels. Commissioner Mike Aresco worked last week from a remote area out west with his family. “An undisclosed location,” he playfully describes in an interview. “That’s what I tell people.”

No matter their locale, the 10 commissioners of the college sports world's highest tier, the Football Bowl Subdivision, are in daily deliberations about how to save the 2020 football season in light of the pandemic. While that's a trivial matter in the big picture, it is paramount to the United States economy and to sports fans across the country. This is a huge task that none of the sport's leaders were prepared to face, because nobody saw it coming. “There is no playbook for this,” says Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott.

College football season status 2020

Commissioners from the Power 5 conferences—Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, ACC and SEC—have met over conference calls each day for more than two months, they say, and those from the Group of Five talk at least once each week. As a full group of 10, they hold bi-weekly meetings. At its core, they’re attempting to salvage college athletics—namely their cash cow, the billion-dollar industry of football—amid a national shutdown. To date, there are more questions than answers. “I feel like I’m at Grand Central Station,” says Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson, “and there are 10 trains leaving in different directions, and we don't know which one to get on.”

This week marks the two-month anniversary of the coronavirus stalling the sports world, and yet here we sit. The football season—even practice—remains in limbo. Most coaching staffs are still operating remotely, athletic directors are bracing for a financial catastrophe and school presidents preside over empty campuses. Taken as a whole, the nation continues to give off conflicting signals about what is to come. The California State University system, which has 23 campuses and includes Mountain West Conference members Fresno State, San Diego State and San Jose State, announced Tuesday that it does not plan to have in-person classes in the fall semester. The rest of the nation's most populous state could also be on a conservative return-to-school timetable, which would assuredly impact football.

Yet in many other locales, there is a dim light glowing at the end of this very dark tunnel. Over the last week, Sports Illustrated brought together the 11 most important voices in deciding the fate of college football in 2020: the 10 conference commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick. They expressed more optimism in a fall football season than ever before. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” says Aresco, “and I am growing more optimistic daily that we are going to have a season and that we might even be able to start on time in the fall under certain conditions.”

Their optimism stems from medical experts’ expectations for more widespread and sophisticated testing; pro leagues like the NFL moving forward with plans to play; and three-fourths of their universities announcing intentions to have at least some in-person classes this fall. As states begin reopening, some commissioners, working with their school presidents, predict that players will return to voluntary on-campus work in June. “I would say I’m a little more optimistic today than I was two weeks ago,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby says. “Some of that is having been on the calls with the White House. One of the things we heard is that it’s expected that testing nationally is going to double every month from now on.”

More long-term plans are coming into view, too. There is consensus in a six-week training camp that begins in mid-July and elevates in physicality from Week 1 to Week 6, slowly acclimating players who will have gone as much as four months without supervised training. Anticipating this, some schools are even exploring the purchase of testing equipment for their training rooms, as commissioners agree that every athlete and staff member needs testing.

Contingency models for a season that can’t start on time still include a delayed and truncated season or one that unfolds during the spring, though the latter is on the “backburner,” one commissioner says. Meanwhile, a deadline closes in on conference leaders.

A decision on whether to continue the season as scheduled or delay its start must be made over the next five to seven weeks, they say—a move contingent on state governors lifting sheltering orders. In all likelihood, those will happen at different times, throwing another wrench into the situation—not every school will be starting at the same time, even those within the same conference. Contingency plans are being made in order to complete schedules, including leagues with divisions playing only division games and conference teams playing twice in a year.

In short, it’s a mess. “As we got into this, I had some acquaintances who joked, ‘I guess you don’t have much to do now since you don’t have any games!’” Steinbrecher says from his Cleveland office. “I’m not sure I’ve ever been busier.”

Of dozens of questions that conference commissioners wrangle over daily, Sports Illustrated selected nine to explore.

College football 2020 season NCAA

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1) Who’s going to make the decision to restart on-campus training?

Commissioners agree that at the very top of the decision-making flowchart are state governors who control state-wide shelter-at-home orders, which in turn impact decisions from college presidents on campus activity, which of course affects any return of football training or practice.

From there, the NCAA Board of Governors, a 25-person all-powerful governing body made up primarily of school presidents and chancellors, will rely upon recommendations from the NCAA Football Oversight Committee, many of its members FBS athletic directors, to determine a restart date for mandatory, on-campus athletic work. However, commissioners say, each conference could ultimately go its own way.

Bob Bowlsby (Big 12): Athletic administrators aren’t going to decide this stuff. It’s going to be university presidents empowered by their boards, and their board is typically powered by the governor and public health director. Until we get a green flag, we can do all the planning we want to, but none of it is worth the paper it’s written on until we start to see a little bit of a timeframe.

Mike Aresco (AAC): We’re hopeful the governors have a consensus reached so you don’t have a situation where you have football in Texas but not in California. Or you have it in Michigan but don’t have it in Pennsylvania. And that’s a definite possibility at this point.

I think the NCAA Board [of Governors] will have a huge say in what we’re doing and they’ll take the best medical advice. I think there will be national guidance from the Board and the Board may leave it up to conferences about certain things, but say there are serious health issues and serious concerns about safety, the Board might say, ‘We don’t feel we can go ahead.’ At that point, I’m not sure any conference will necessarily go off on its own.

Keith Gill (Sun Belt): There is a patchwork of various entities that have got to work together in a way that at times might seem clunky but is operating fairly well right now in terms of our frequency and smoothness of our communication.

Jon Steinbrecher (MAC): I’d like to hope we’d all work as collaboratively as we can to get to a start date. We’ve got to have people to play, right?

2) When must decisions be made to begin on-campus athletic training and on whether to delay the season’s start?

Commissioners plan to push such dates as far into the summer as they can in order to continue collecting data, but there is of course a deadline. To start the season on time, players need to return to campus for training at or around July 15, commissioners say, to begin what is being described as a six-week training camp.

Greg Sankey (SEC): One of the really helpful pieces of guidance provided me was from a biostatistician. It was that we’re learning more and more every day and if you look back 30 days of what you knew then and 30 days to what you’ll know down the road ... if you can be patient in making major decisions, you’ll be able to gather more and more information to inform better decision making at a later time.

Steinbrecher (MAC): If you wanted to start the season on time and wanted to be kicking off on Labor Day, it would seem we’d need to have a decision somewhere near the end of June or early July. Most of the protocols we’ve all been talking about revolve around a six-week ramp-up period.

Larry Scott (Pac-12): [The six-week training camp] would follow the concept of walk, jog and then run. It would start at conditioning and getting them to a baseline level of conditioning and then [work] in small groups, which is following all the medical advice we’re getting: keep small groups and distancing. Then at the latter stages of the training camp, it’s the full team and the contact. There will be a universal date on when the six weeks starts.

Bowlsby (Big 12): If we don’t start until the first of August, it is likely to delay the beginning of the football season. I think we have to see evidence that we can start practicing in earnest by the 15th of July or in that ballpark.

However, players in states reopening early could conceivably return to campus for voluntary workouts if conferences lift the ban on in-person contact that, for now, runs through May 31. Many commissioners expect players to return to some campuses as soon as June.

John Swofford (ACC): We’re looking at June 1 from an NCAA standpoint and collective standpoint as a day to reconsider everything and get everybody on the same page as much as we can. I think there will be a framework of ‘Here’s what’s allowable from an NCAA standpoint.’

Steinbrecher (MAC): The hope is to have as much as possible a universal ‘This is the day that preseason practice can start and you’ve got X weeks from there,’ recognizing that some communities or states may not be ready at that time.

Aresco (AAC): We think if campuses start opening in the summer, some of our schools are going to be able to bring athletes back on campus and they can get into the weight rooms [for voluntary workouts]. We’re not going to micromanage that. We realize there are going to be some inequities. Some campuses will open a little later than others when it comes to that sort of thing.

Craig Thompson (Mountain West): It's not going to be equitable. There are no equal solutions. I still laugh—there are pockets of coaches saying, 'Wait a minute, I didn't get 12 spring football practices.' Give me a break.

Kevin Warren (Big Ten): We've been dealing with this pandemic for about 50 days. I think after these next 50 days we'll know so much more. The next 45–50 days will be critical.

College football line up scrimmage

3) Can you have on-campus athletic activities without students attending classes in person?

According to a recent survey in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 74% of colleges across the country are preparing for in-person classes in the fall. Many commissioners agree that if a portion of students are taking in-person classes, then on-campus athletic events should be allowed. But the debate is not necessarily over.

Aresco (AAC): Let’s assume there are only a small group of students on campus and the rest of the students are taking virtual classes. Well, can the football players or soccer players come on campus? Is that going to be acceptable? I myself think it would be acceptable.

Bowlsby (Big 12): If in the main students are taking classes online, I don't think it's a problem that student-athletes take classes online and participate in athletics. However, if the university is closed and nobody is taking classes in-person or online in any way, I don't think you can have sports because these are student-athletes and they need to be enrolled and going to college to participate in the program.

Not all agree on this issue.

Jack Swarbrick (Notre Dame): I hate talking in absolutes, but I can't see doing it. The students have to be on campus.

Scott (Pac-12): A lot of universities have declared their intention to open up and have students on campus, which for me and a lot of my colleagues across the country has been a gating issue. We’ve felt that if our campuses are uncomfortable having students back on campus, we could not envision having student-athletes back on campus competing.

Meanwhile, one Mountain West school plans to use a hybrid model for its third summer semester starting July 10, in which 20% of students take in-person classes while the other 80% are online.

Thompson (Mountain West): Maybe that works. But if it doesn't work for that tier of students in July and August, how can it work for a full enrollment in August and September? ... I understand these presidents saying, 'We expect to be on campus, in person.' You have to say that—these guys are losing tens of millions of dollars.

Judy MacLeod (Conference USA): Early on it was all online or all in-person. Now there are so many hybrid models and phasing-in opportunities. We'll see how those plans develop, but now it looks like we'll have enough activity on campus to have athletics be part of it.

4) What if some schools can open and others, because of state governing orders, cannot?

Many commissioners are not expecting all 130 FBS programs to open their campuses at the same time. In fact, commissioners say a real possibility exists that some schools will start practice before others or even begin playing the season before others.

MacLeod (C-USA): That’s the million-dollar question. I think we'd be crazy to think everyone will be ready at the same time.

Aresco (AAC): I think the sense I have is most conferences are moving toward, ‘If a few can’t play, the rest probably would play.’ We haven’t made that final decision, but we’ve talked it over and I get the sense that there’s an inclination to play. [The AAC] has 11 teams this year. Let’s say nine or 10 can play and one or two can’t. I think the one or two that can’t play don’t want to hold back the other nine or 10.

And the question is how few teams can you have [and play]? Let’s say you only have six or seven that can open up? Do you wait? But what if only six or seven could play? Do you wait two weeks to start the season at a different time than others?

What if you have 40 states open and 10 are closed? Do you start playing football without the 10?

Bowlsby (Big 12): I think you probably start playing. That could actually happen within leagues as well. It’s almost a more difficult question within leagues than on a national basis. There are places that are hotspots. The numbers in Dallas are continuing to climb. Our governor [in Texas] has proclaimed we’re going to start opening up business and society and he even acknowledges that there is a bit of a gamble with it and that they’ll have to watch it carefully. We’re going to have to watch it, too. We go back to practice and all a sudden we have somebody test positive, we’re going to be out of business.

Western states seem to be approaching reopening more cautiously, especially considering recent comments from governors in Oregon and California. In fact, early-season games involving Los Angeles-based teams, like USC and UCLA, could be in jeopardy. LA County officials on Tuesday announced that they are recommending its stay-at-home order currently in place be extended another three months, moving it into August.

Aresco (AAC): If California is not playing football but everyone else is, do we still play? My guess is: we would play, but that would create a real problem for the Pac-12 and Mountain West, which have teams in California. I can’t speak for them. But I don’t think that would necessarily inhibit people playing in the rest of the country, but it might mean not playing a game with a California team. It could get uncomfortable and it could get messy if the governors can’t get on the same page, and that’s what you’re hoping happens.

Thompson (Mountain West): The sense I get, we would trend toward this: If states and universities are open and ready to play, we'll play with whoever is available. But that's not a final answer. I can't imagine a scenario, from a Mountain West perspective, where 12 different institutions in eight different states come to the same conclusions on when to reopen. We're all over the map.

Scott (Pac-12): I’m hopeful and optimistic that if our universities and conferences, with the benefit of medical expertise, determine it’s safe for training camp to open in July and season open in August, we’re going to be able to do that nationally in a coordinated way.

You’re in the school of thought that all 130 FBS schools need to start on time for everyone to play?

Scott (Pac-12): Yes. I’m cautiously optimistic that’s what’s going to happen. 

5) Once football teams return to campus, what does pre-season football training look like—in terms of testing, practice schedules, etc.?

Outside of the previously mentioned six-week training camp, the preseason will look much different than it has in the past, including a potential reinstitution of two-a-days, says one commissioner, along with a half-million dollars worth of testing equipment within a school’s training room.

Swarbrick (Notre Dame): The first 48 hours after arrival will be testing, quarantining and getting a whole lot of policies and procedures implemented. I really think the testing and tracing will be vital. If we don't have tracing in place, I'm not sure how you can make any informed decisions on dealing with a team. I believe students will feel an obligation to be socially responsible. But are they still going to go to the bars? Are they still going to have house parties? I don't see those behaviors disappearing from college life.

Gill (Sun Belt): It’s something the Football Oversight Committee is studying right now—what is the best and safest way to construct football preseason and the time in the summer? You have to have some sort of acclimation time. They’ve been off for a while. You’ve got to help them adjust to getting back to campus.

Aresco (AAC): Would two-a-days come back for at least this year? Because you’ve got a constrictive season, you want to make sure you don’t have catastrophic injuries, want to make sure students-athletes are in the kind of shape they need to be in to play a sport like football.

But the biggest issue is going to be testing. I don’t think there’s much doubt that you are probably not going to play if you don’t have testing.

Will a school have to test every player and staff member once back on campus? A Power 5 commissioner was granted anonymity to answer this question.

My intuition is we’re going to have to have readily available testing equipment. The White House advised us that we might want to think about getting diagnostic equipment in our training rooms so we can process our own tests. Our institutions are looking into that. I don’t know how expensive that may be, but I know some of the pro leagues are looking at it as well. You can do things with temperature testing and antibody testing, some more reliable than others, but I suspect we’re going to have to be prepared to use them all. It isn’t going to be just test them once when they come in the front door because they're going to be out around campus and out at night. You could have a positive test at any point.

Meanwhile, Thompson says a prominent medical expert told commissioners on a conference call that it could cost $1,000 per athlete to do all required testing.

Thompson (Mountain West): We're going through the most challenging time in intercollegiate history, financially, and you're looking at $400,000 to test your student-athletes.

6) During the season, if/when someone tests positive, what happens?

Commissioners believe it is an inevitability that, among the FBS’s 5,000-plus football players, one will contract the virus during the season. That situation poses a great threat and could result in an interrupted season that is either discontinued or restarts after winter.

Swarbrick (Notre Dame): I think that's the nightmare. That's the worst case. We've got to do all we can to avoid that scenario. Statistically, if you have 20,000 students on campus, chances are pretty good that some are coming back with the virus. We'll be testing like crazy.

Bowlsby (Big 12): This virus isn’t going away. It’s like chicken pox or HIV or SARS or MERS. You learn how to co-exist with it and mitigate the severity with a vaccine. We’re going to have to find the new normal and like we did after 9/11: air travel changed forever. There are going to be components of this that will change forever.

The other thing we’re spending time on is what do you do if Institution A is supposed to play Institution B on Saturday and Institution B gets a positive test on their team. If Institution A says we’re not going there because we don’t want to risk our kids’ health, do they receive a forfeit? Is it declared a ‘no contest’?”

Aresco (AAC): That could mean a checkerboard kind of season where some teams miss some games. Let’s say you have a team miss a game and it was 6–1 and your other team was 7-1, if you play eight conference games. But the 6–1 beat the 7-1. Who gets the tie-breaker? You’re going to have to put tie-breakers in place to anticipate these types of situations.

College football attendance fans

7) Will fans be allowed to attend?

Attendance is likely to be limited in any football season this fall, especially one that begins on time. The amount of fans allowed into a stadium will vary by school, state and even region, commissioners say. Several commissioners cited a limited-attendance model that the Miami Dolphins released last week, which includes a bevy of safety precautions.

Aresco (AAC): The argument has been, how could you assure the safety of your players, coaches, event staff, officials, if you can’t protect fans? There is a difference. Trying to deal with 10–20,000 fans is quite a bit different than dealing with 300–400 people. That’s going to be a real issue. Now, could you do what restaurants are doing—have 25% capacity or half capacity? I know we’re looking at that and schools are looking at that.

Gill (Sun Belt): I’m optimistic that when we open up and start playing college football that we’ll do it with fans. Now, they may be sitting six feet apart and the stadium experience may be a little different, but I’m optimistic that we’ll have fans there. Do you have staggered entrance times? Is it every other seat? How do you manage the concessions so there aren't lines?

Scott (Pac-12): I fully expect that there will be regional differences, state-by-state, in terms of policies affecting fans. It’s our hope and plan that the football season starts on time, we have a full football season, but I would expect there are differences state-by-state in terms of when fans are allowed to attend games.

Swarbrick (Notre Dame): The early models we're looking at are pretty restrictive (for attendance). The Dolphins model was really well done. So I think we're going to start with a plan to be very limited. I'm not interested in a no-spectator model.

But then, who gets tickets?

Swarbrick (Notre Dame): We have 11,000 student season-ticket holders, and I would start with the students. They should be first. Second is maybe faculty and staff. Third is season-ticket holders.

Bowlsby (Big 12): I think the most fascinating part of it for me is pondering the psychology of it all. Are people, even good sports fans, going to want to go in and sit cheek by jowl with people they don’t know in a traditional stadium setting? You could certainly see a stadium that goes from having an 80,000 capacity to having a 20,000 capacity in order to get the necessary separation.

There was a survey from Seton Hall saying 72% of the people they surveyed wouldn’t go back to public assembly events until there is a vaccine. You could be a really big fan, but if you had some underlying health issues, I don’t know that you want to risk going into a stadium.

The Oregon governor recently said that all events through September with large gatherings, including sports events, should be modified or canceled. The Pac-12 has two schools in that state, Oregon and Oregon State, scheduled to host September marquee home games against Ohio State and Oklahoma State, respectively.

Scott (Pac-12): September is a very long way away from where we are now, and we’re going to learn a lot more between now and then. I’d hope and expect the officials in Oregon will stay open-minded and let the data and the science and let the medical experts guide us.

8) If you have a truncated season, do you play just conference games?

Commissioners and athletic directors have discussed several different models for a football season, including shortening the season. That could most impact the six independents in FBS, including Notre Dame and AD Jack Swarbrick.

Swarbrick (Notre Dame): I think it's a very real possibility. There is support for a conference-only plus-one [non-conference game]. If that's the model, we'd be fine, because we would be most people's plus-one. The ACC has been a great partner for us, and we've got six ACC games scheduled this year instead of the usual five. That's a pretty good building block. The Naval Academy is adamant about playing us.

It's a little nerve-wracking. Part of the problem we're going to have that I think is unavoidable: there are different places with different rules. What is the trigger for liability for every league? It's mind-numbing. Everyone is sharing their emerging policies. Now I've got a google doc file with 8,000 policies in it. It's so much easier for Major League Baseball to say, 'This is how we're going to do it.' We can't do that [in college athletics]. This will all be a hell of a business school study module someday.

Bowlsby (Big 12): To get a viable season that would lead to some sort of appropriate postseason, seems like you got to get half of the year in or something approaching that. If we had to start the season after the middle of October, I guess at that point we’d be thinking about doing a split season or moving to a spring season.

For many, regional scheduling is an option. The Mountain West is one of the more sprawling conferences, with great distances among its programs. Thompson has raised the possibility of scheduling some Division II programs from the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference to make travel easier and complete a schedule.

Thompson (Mountain West): One president asked me, 'What happens if we're good to go and we don't have anyone to play?' We're an airplane league. We could look at the possibility of Colorado State and Wyoming, 67 miles apart, maybe they play home-and-home. They're our two closest campuses. Maybe they play twice in one season for the first time ever.

MacLeod (C-USA): We talked about even just playing within divisions, then having the two division winners play for the championship. Some of the non-conference games are really important to our schools (guarantee games). Another possibility: if things get crazy, do we need to play other schools that are close to us from other conferences, others within our footprint? Some of that maybe we should have been doing a long time ago, be a lot smarter. This gives us a chance to reset a little bit.

9) If a season can’t be played in the fall, can it be played in the spring?

Commissioners describe this as an absolute last resort and something that is increasingly growing more unlikely.

Bowlsby (Big 12): I don’t see us preemptively moving to a spring season, partly because we don’t know that it would be any safer or better than doing it in the fall. I could see us getting forced into it at some point in time or get some sort of split season.

In fact, a trend is emerging from schools, says Swarbrick to avoid a viral second wave during flu season: push the academic calendar up by starting classes in August, eliminating a fall break and completing the semester by Thanksgiving.

Swarbrick (Notre Dame): I think I'm the only one in America who thinks [a spring schedule] is a good idea. The worst thing that could happen to us is starting and stopping [from an interrupted season during a second wave]. If we get three games in and stop the college football season, that's a disaster.

Gill (Sun Belt): Some [of these models] are easier to do than others. Things get complicated when you start to move into the spring. I’m not saying it can’t be done, I just think it gets really hard.

Thompson (Mountain West): When is spring? We live in the Rocky Mountains. We don't play a lot of things outdoors in January, February and March. In the spring it could be 50 degrees one day and the next day it snows a foot.

Aresco (AAC): There are a host of problems there obviously. The TV people … ESPN and others have to protect their people too, their staff, production people. There have to be protocols in place that anybody connected to the game, their health and safety are protected. ESPN will have scheduling issues potentially in the spring.

Swofford (ACC): The longer you’d go into the spring semester the more complicated it gets in every way, including the athletes in our football programs that envision an NFL career, as well as playing a season into the spring and turning around, for those players coming back, playing another full season starting in September. It’s a huge hypothetical.

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