Fresh off a ruling this week to allow on-campus workouts in June, NCAA leaders are now turning their attention to the latter portion of the summer calendar. Decision-makers are exploring a preseason practice proposal that includes NFL-style OTAs and a four-week camp that would be required before schools can begin their season.
While this approach may put some early-season games in jeopardy—state orders could prevent some schools from starting practice by early August—officials believe it is necessary for the health and safety of athletes. Though still in the early stages of consideration, the plan is another sign that leaders are moving college football further along the path to an on-time kickoff. In the most optimistic week since the coronavirus pandemic shut down college athletics, officials continue to make strides toward a Labor Day start. “If you’d a told me a month ago that we would start voluntary workouts in June, I wouldn’t have believed you,” says West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons, one of the most prominent figures at the center of football’s return.
Friday marks the 70th day of the shutdown, and while the first 60 painted a somewhat dire portrait of college football’s immediate existence, the last 10 have generated significant positive steps. Still, the trend could turn negative quickly if virus cases spike in response to what has become a multi-staged nationwide reopening. “If these states start reopening and we have an uptick, states may go back to quarantining,” Lyons says in an interview Thursday with Sports Illustrated. “What we’ve learned through this: be adaptable to change and be fluid.”
Lyons sits on two decision-making bodies: the NCAA DI Council, more of a policy-approving group, and the DI Football Oversight Committee, a policy-creating group that he chairs. The Oversight Committee’s recommendations Wednesday turned into the Council paving the way for football and basketball players to return to campus starting June 1. There is much more work to be done, however. As soon as Friday, the Council will rule on the return date for other fall sports, Lyons says. In the coming weeks, other return-to-play measures are expected to be studied and approved.
For example, Oversight Committee members are discussing the potential to grant programs in early July the freedom to resume normal summer activities, referred to as “required” training in which coaches can interact with players. That would lead into a six-week program starting in mid-to-late July that would incorporate two weeks of NFL-style OTA practices before a four-week camp in August. Teams kicking off on Week 0, Aug. 29, would begin OTA practices July 18. For those kicking off on Labor Day, they’d start July 25. OTA-style practices—glorified walk-throughs with a football—would give coaches time with players outside of the film room, at least partially making up for the loss of spring practice. A whopping 52 of 130 FBS programs never started spring practice before the virus froze the nation.
The camp in August is the most essential part of the six-week plan. The proposal requires schools to practice four weeks before their first game. “Six weeks could be optimal, but four could be the minimum,” says Lyons. “Some might just do four, but can’t get back in time to do six. If somebody is not allowed to practice until Aug. 15 and their first game is Sept. 5, they might miss the first two weeks because their state might not allow them to return in time.”
And what happens then? “There is a feeling that we can’t wait for everybody,” Lyons says. “What’s the percentage? That may be left up to conference to conference. If 80% are ready to go, are we going to delay two weeks? The feeling I’m getting out there is, ‘Sorry, we’re starting without you.’ Now, if it’s 40%, I see conferences saying we’re delaying the start of the season by two weeks.”
Because states are at varying stages of reopening, conference commissioners expect schools to begin practices at different times. Some may start at the earliest possible date, June 1, which Wyoming has already announced. Others may not start until deep into July or even August. Three states—Illinois, New Jersey and Delaware—remain completely closed, according to latest figures compiled by The New York Times. Ten other states are only opening by region or county, including four of the most populated in the U.S.: California, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, a foursome that incorporates 15 FBS programs.
Seven of those FBS schools are in California, a state that some have feared will hold college football back because of its more cautious reopening plan. In a story published last week on SI, one conference commissioner targeted the state. “If California is not playing football but everyone else is, do we still play? My guess is: We would play,” said American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco. In the same story, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby suggested that if 40 of the 50 states were cleared to play, everyone would probably play. However, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said he was holding out hope that all 130 FBS programs would come to a universal playing date.
Much of what’s been written about California lately has been “off base,” USC athletic director Mike Bohn said in an interview this week with SI. “The Pac-12 isn’t a lone wolf. Larry Scott participates in daily calls with other Autonomy 5 commissioners,” Bohn says. “We want to ensure we make all the right decisions and not just open on some arbitrary date. … Rather than get wrapped up in trying to manage narratives that are out of our control, we’ve kept our nose and head down working.”
Some conferences, like the Pac-12 and SEC, have their own restrictions that must be lifted before schools welcome back athletes this June. Meanwhile, schools in the Group of 5’s AAC, Sun Belt and MAC are free to start voluntary workouts any time after June 1. Many Power 5 conferences are targeting June 15 as the date to allow their members to reopen facilities to athletes, officials say. Lyons expects as many as three-fourths of 130 FBS programs to have started workouts by that date. A spike in the virus, of course, could change everything.
The recent optimism brewing about an on-time start is mostly connected to the expected increase in widespread and sophisticated testing. On calls with the White House, Bowlsby says officials have told him that testing nationally will double every month from now on. The Big 12 commissioner estimates that players and staff will need to be tested every two to three days during the season. “The question a month ago was, ‘Are we going to have enough tests?’” Lyons says. “Now we’re getting info that there’s a (quick) strep throat-like test. There are more and more answers as we go. But these are still times of uncertainty. Still questions out there about fan attendance.”
The NCAA governing bodies have not yet explored any limited attendance models, but dozens of schools have started to study ways to make their campuses and stadiums friendly to social distancing. Meanwhile, the signs of football’s fall return continue, this one from Lyons’ boss, West Virginia President Gordon Gee.
“We are going to play football in the fall,” the 76-year-old said in a recent radio interview. “I really do believe that. Even if I have to suit up.”