'We Have to Have That Energy': Big Ten Teams Ready for a New Normal Without Fans

There will be no fans except family members at Big Ten football games this fall. That presents teams with an unusual challenge.
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College football will always go hand-in-hand with bustling student sections, wailing fans and blaring marching bands. However, this year looks completely different, with games ranging from no fans to a reduced-capacity crowd, and that will be especially true in the Big Ten. After announcing the reinstatement of a football season on Sept. 16, Big Ten VP for intercollegiate athletics Sandy Barbour also stated that there would be no fans (outside of players’ family members) or public ticket sales at any Big Ten football games for the entirety of the season.

Given the news, teams both in and out of the Big Ten conference have approached this change in game atmosphere differently. Some coaches and players anticipate a much-needed increase in teammate energy, others see the empty stadiums as an advantage when playing away teams, and many say they do not even notice the difference.

Northwestern, which is attempting to recover from its disappointing 1–8 record in the 2019 season after winning the Big Ten West the year prior, believes it will need all the energy and motivation it can get as it moves forward with a season that begins this weekend.

“When we make a big play, we have to have that energy. … That’s going to be more important than ever this year with the absence of the crowd,” says Northwestern linebacker Blake Gallagher, who led the team in tackles last season.

The Wildcats may have an easier time in keeping the energy up on the field and sideline than the majority of their opponents. Why? Because of their strength coach: Alex Spanos.

Known as Northwestern’s “secret sauce” according to coach Pat Fitzgerald, Spanos has accumulated mass media attention over the past few years. He is a Northwestern staple on the sideline with his hypeman antics and iconic cut-off sleeve polo outfit that he’ll wear regardless of what the temperature reads for a frigid, Midwest game day.

“As Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald & DC Mike Hankwitz are bundled up for the snow, strength coach Alex Spanos in a smedium short sleeve,” The Action Network’s Darren tweeted during a game against Minnesota in 2017, showing a picture of Spanos sporting his “smedium” on the sideline.

Take a look at Spanos bringing the energy when the ’Cats took on the Gophers in 22-degree weather:

Just as the weather never stifles Spanos’s positive influence on the team, the impacts of COVID-19 clearly have not either. Spanos has reportedly been more fired up than ever during preseason practice, despite social distancing protocols impeding his regular pregame chest bumps with his players.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met a guy like Spanos, who’s just on the go all the time, hyped up. … And he’s never not like that,” says Gallagher. “He makes everyone around him better and he’s just a great guy to have in this program.”

The Wildcats, it should be noted, have one of the smallest stadiums in the Big Ten, featuring a capacity of 47,000. That number is dwarfed by the more than 100,000 fans that can fit into the likes of Michigan Stadium (Michigan), Beaver Stadium (Penn State) and Ohio Stadium (Ohio State), creating the kind of daunting atmospheres that traditionally shape college football and favor the home side. While Spanos may be all the energy that Northwestern believes it needs, a team like Michigan State—which is set to travel to both Michigan and Penn State this fall—is looking at the lack of fans as a blessing.

An empty Ohio Stadium on the Buckeyes' campus

Typically-packed Ohio State football games will look a lot different in 2020.

“I think it will be a good advantage with away games this year. … We’re playing at stadiums usually with hundreds of thousands of people so it will be an advantage to just have a smaller crowd and be able to actually just hear our coaches with no distractions,” says Spartans fullback Max Rosenthal.

Among preseason top-10 teams, the early results playing in front of sparse or reduced-capacity home crowds have been mixed. While teams like Clemson, Alabama and Notre Dame have rolled to undefeated starts, LSU dropped its home opener with Tiger Stadium at 21% announced capacity, Oklahoma fell with Memorial Stadium at 27% and Texas was defeated with Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium at 18%. It should also be noted that all three teams have lost a second game away from home.

No. 14 North Carolina has already played against opponents both with and without fans. Teams in the ACC, unlike the Big Ten, have made individual decisions about whether their programs will allow a crowd. Notre Dame, UNC, Miami and Clemson all plan to have fans return at 20%–30% capacity, whereas teams including Duke, Boston College and Syracuse have remained closed with zero fans allowed.

UNC played both Syracuse (in Chapel Hill) and Boston College in empty stadiums and then played its first home game with fans against Virginia Tech on Oct. 10, when an announced crowd of 3,535 came to Kenan Stadium. The variance in atmospheres hasn’t seemed to overly rattle the Tar Heels, as they have a 4–1 record and climbed to as high as No. 5 in the AP poll—the program’s highest ranking since 1997—before a road loss on Saturday.

After playing their first two away games, UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo noted the initial contrast in game day atmosphere this season.

“The experience after the [opening] Syracuse game … in 31 years of coaching was as bizarre as anything I’ve ever experienced because it was just so quiet,” Longo says. He also explained that most stadiums have crowd noise playing over a speaker to distinguish the atmosphere from that of a practice.

“I think where you notice it is in big third downs in the red zone … where our stadium is rocking because they’re all pounding on the bleachers on a big down,” Longo says. He stated that despite those big moments, he does not feel the empty stadium atmosphere has overly influenced his job.

Longo says that after he makes his first play call, he tends to tune out the difference in having fans versus not having fans, and Tar Heels running back Michael Carter echoed those sentiments in a press conference this week. Carter, similar to Gallagher, emphasized team energy as a factor for both increasing and sustaining momentum during a game.

“Our energy comes from the locker room,” Carter says. “If you don’t bring your own juice, it’s hard to win a game.”

Starting with Friday night’s Illinois-Wisconsin opener, Big Ten teams will be the next to face that test for the first time. Fans will have to watch from their couch to see how the latest unusual circumstances play out in this unpredictable college football season.

More Big Ten Coverage From SI.com Sites:

Penn State RB Journey Brown Could Miss Season
Looking Back at the Only Time Indiana Beat Penn State
Previewing Illinois-Wisconsin, the Big Ten's Opening Game