BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — It was beautiful in Bloomington early on Saturday morning. When the sun came up, it wasn't even 60 degrees and — dare we say — there was a hint of fall in the air. Football weather, indeed.
An hour or so later, Indiana started its third football practice of fall camp, and it was the first one in full pads. There was hitting, lots of drills and plenty of work to get prepared for a 2020 football season that is supposed to start in 27 days against Wisconsin up in Madison.
Instead, the Hoosiers couldn't get through that first practice in full pads before the presidents of all 14 Big Ten schools, in a scheduled conference call, slammed the brakes on this football season. They released a statement that says— for now — teams cannot have padded practices and everyone must shift back to wait-and-see mode.
It sucked all the excitement from earlier in the week right out of that brisk morning air. It was just three days ago that the Big Ten released its revised 10-game conference-only schedule for the fall. The season was going to start on time, the league said, and teams were allowed to begin practicing.
Indiana did just that, working out in helmets and shorts on Thursday and Friday, and then getting after it in full pads early Saturday morning.
But no more, at least for now
“Based on the advice and counsel of the Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, that, until further notice, all institutions will remain in the first two days of the acclimatization period in football (i.e., helmets shall be the only piece of protective equipment student-athletes may wear) as we continue to transition prudently through preseason practice,” the Big Ten statement released Saturday reads. “All other fall sports will continue to work locally with team physicians and athletic trainers to adjust practices to the appropriate level of activity, as necessary, based on current medical protocols.”
And that wasn't even the worst of it. The first massive domino of the fall came an hour later when the Mid-American Conference became the first FBS league to cancel its fall football season.
There's a huge fear now that there is more to come. The Big Ten presidents didn't pull the plug on Saturday, but that doesn't mean they won't sometime next week. The Pac-12 presidents are meeting Tuesday, and with positive COVID-19 tests skyrocketing up and down the West Coast, there is growing sentiment that the Pac-12 doesn't want to play in the fall either.
If one Power 5 conference goes down, won't they all? Won't they HAVE TO?
This is such a trying time, with every decision that gets made having epic repercussions. Every college executive, from league bosses to school presidents and athletic directors, have sung the same tune in unison, that player health and safety must always come first, no matter what.
And, of course, is should.
But there are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake too, and the future of college football — and all college sports, for that matter — sits in the balance.
It's all so very confusing.
It's no different at Indiana either. For the coaches and players, until they are told otherwise, they are preparing to play a football game in 27 days. The players, they really do want to play. So do the coaches. But all of them only want to do it safely. Many think they can, but there are others in decision-making positions who think the risk far exceeds the reward right now.
So what do we do? For Indiana defensive coordinator Kane Wommack, it's all about staying in total-preparation mode. That's what he's been doing, as have all his colleagues. The players, too. But he also knows all this indecision is hard on the players, and communication is the key.
"I told the whole defense, we are not going to avoid tough conversations, and we're not going to avoid tough questions, either,'' Wommack said during a conference call after practice on Saturday. "I think, to just say our mindset should be to just put our head down and work is not the right way to do it. It's the way these kids want to operate, and we want them to ask tough questions of their coaches.
"As much as we demand out of them, we ought to be able to demand enough of ourselves to look them in the eye and listen to their questions, and listen to what they're feeling.''
Making it all work now will pay dividends in making it work later, too. Tom Allen has always believed that, and everyone has bought in.
"I think our guys have done such a good job of communicating in the right way, and organizationally I think we've got a great structure,'' Wommack said. "Coach Allen, he has implemented a structure where guys feel comfortable about talking, and they can talk to their coaches and bring things up.
"In meetings and in practice, our guys are so locked in during those periods that you wouldn't think there's nothing else going on in the word. I'm not trying to give lip service here, but I give a credit to Tom. The way in which we've communicated and navigated this with our team. And as we navigate through this season, that can be a huge advantage. Honestly, I think that's what will keep us close.''
The Hoosiers have the day off on Sunday, and they'll return to practice on Monday in just shells and helmets. Maybe more news will come Monday, or Tuesday. We don't know. We've never really known, all the way back to March, about what comes next.
So what really does come next? We don't know yet, but the sense is it's not going to be very good.