In 2019 we celebrated the 150th anniversary of college football in the United States. And in that span the game has survived some significant challenges:
**--In 1905 President Teddy Roosevelt summoned the head coaches of Harvard, Princeton and Yale to the White House and told them to clean up the unchecked violence in the game or he would shut it down. The game changed, survived, and ultimately prospered.
**--In 1918 The Spanish Flu killed 675,000 people in the United States. College football marched on. While many schools played reduced schedules, only 18 schools shut down their programs completely.
**--While some colleges did not play during World War II, many did and the game survived and came back stronger than ever when the war was over.
**--There was the challenge of what to do after Sept. 11, 2001. College football took a week off and resumed play. The game became part of our national healing process.
But it is no exaggeration to say that the challenge of the COVID-19 virus which threatens to delay the start of the 2020 season at best and cancel it at worst, represents the most serious threat to college football in our lifetime.
“Next week will be an important milestone for our conference,” SEC Commissioner told ESPN’s Rece Davis last week.
Here’s why: After months of study and planning and working on every possible contingency plan to play the season while safeguarding the health of the players, the Power Five conferences have arrived at crunch time. The Go/No Go decision on the start of the season must be made. And what the Power Five conference (ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12) ultimately decide will send a rippling effect through the rest of college football.
The athletics directors of the Power Five conferences have met (virtually) on a regular basis since March, when college sports were shut down, and have been working non-stop towards this moment. It has been an unpredictable ride.
“The other day somebody asked me how I felt,” said Ross Bjork, the director of athletics at Texas A&M. “I told them about this old ride at the county fair where everything is fine and suddenly the floor goes out beneath you. That’s the virus. It’s not a linear path that takes you to an absolute answer.”
So here’s where we are as July comes to a close:
**--The Big Ten and Pac-12 have already announced that if there is a college football season in 2020 they will play a conference-only schedule. The San Jose Mercury-News has reported that the Pac-12 intends to start its season on Sept. 12. The Big Ten has not announced a start date.
**--The ACC presidents are scheduled to meet on Wednesday. If they give the 2020 season a green light, the coaches could get their schedules that same day.
**-- The SEC presidents will meet on Friday. The SEC athletics directors have meetings scheduled for Tuesday and Friday. We don't know if a decision will come out of those meetings.
**--Scott Woodward, the director of athletics at LSU, told Scott Rabalais of the Baton Rouge Advocate that he expects this week’s meetings to continue to the following week.
**--So we may not get a decision from the SEC until early August. The real deadline for a decision is the official start of training camp on or around Aug. 5. It is an agreed upon standard that the teams need four weeks to prepare for the first game. So if you plan to play on Sept. 5, a decision needs to be made by Aug. 5.
Here is another interesting point of view. Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek told Tom Murphy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that his players told him they want to play this season. But they also said: “Don’t put us through Fall camp and then pull the plug on us. Make the decision before Fall camp.” Fall camp at Arkansas starts Aug. 5.
Another complicating factor to starting the season on time is the desire by some athletics directors to see what the landscape looks like when students return to campus. Right now all 14 SEC schools are scheduled to start the semester with students taking classes in person. But the students don’t return until mid-August. So if the athletics directors want that piece of data to be a part of their decision, then the season will not start on Sept. 5.
The ADs have also said they want to watch Major League Baseball (which started last week), the NBA (which starts Thursday), and the start of NFL training camp (on Tuesday) to judge how those franchises are handling the virus. So that data comes too late for a Sept. 5 start.
There is a belief by some that this is all a lost cause—that it is inevitable that college football cannot be played safely in this environment. And that may be the ultimate decision.
Yes, there is a lot of money involved and the schools will suffer financially if there is no football. Of course that is a factor.
But it’s not the only factor.
“Our players have to have some hope,” said Bjork. “If that means you delay until you can get more information on the table then that is what you do.”