This was the day my smart-aleck colleagues and I would have asked Jim Harbaugh about the progress Michigan has made against Ohio State, limiting the Buckeyes to 56 points last year after surrendering 62 in 2018.
We would have asked Lovie Smith if Brandon Peters has an NFL-caliber arm, whether Paddy Fisher can live up to Pat Fitzgerald’s legacy, whether Minnesota can row to Pasadena, whether Michigan State can thrive without Mark Dantonio and whether Iowa can heal its racial divide.
Every year Big Ten media days are like returning to school. If school was awesome. Because college football sure is.
But two months ago the Big Ten canceled media days, and now the whole season is in jeopardy. How much so?
“Hanging by a thread,” one knowledgeable source said.
The source participates in high-level conference calls with Dr. Chris Kratochvil, who chairs the Big Ten’s task force on infectious disease. An associate vice president at Nebraska’s medical center, Kratochvil is the conference’s most trusted medical adviser.
Based on the latest information from Kratochvil, what is the percentage chance we will see Big Ten football this fall?
“I’ll say 15%,” the source replied.
Here are five thoughts on the situation.
1. Things looked promising on June 1.
COVID-19 cases were on the decline in the United States, dipping from more than 40,000 a day to fewer than 15,000. But then we failed, collectively. We caved to the “LIBERATE!” movement, bought into “don’t let the cure be worse than the disease” and flocked to Lake of the Ozarks. Wear a mask in public? Make me.
The most pertinent issue in college football is testing. It is on the “brink of paralysis” in some areas. Washington Post reporter Ashley Parker tweeted Wednesday that she’s still waiting for a test result from 10 days ago.
Four months into the pandemic, confusion reigns. As one official at a Big Ten school put it: “We still don’t have rapid testing. We want to test kids two to three times a week, but we’re inundating the labs. It’s an ethical problem: Shouldn’t our resources go to hot spots? Shouldn’t the first results go to the 70-year-old with emphysema?”
2. If you talked only to coaches, you would remain optimistic.
Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly promised football would be played, saying last week on ESPN’s “Get Up”: “We’re going to play football this year, it just depends when.”
Coaches are bullish because many have an entire roster of players who either have the antibodies or have tested negative all along. They also see the low rates of hospitalization for those younger than 24. They see players determined to play: wearing masks at workouts, washing their hands, staying in their apartments after dark.
Now for the sobering news: Indiana and Ohio State paused voluntary workouts. And those workouts were non-contact activities — no players breathing or sweating on one another. (The Buckeyes resumed July 14; the Hoosiers have not.)
Organized team activities began Monday, with masked coaches six feet from players. Starting Friday, teams can meet for 20 hours a week of weight training, conditioning and film review.
Coaches are excited. Athletic directors are wary.
“We’re still trying to learn about this virus,” Ohio State AD Gene Smith said Wednesday on the “Bishop & Laurinaitis” radio show in Columbus, Ohio. “How do we handle the psychological issue of being quarantined? Imagine being locked up for 14 days. Think about that.”
3. Don’t shoot the messenger.
College football is a big part of my livelihood, and this would have been an epic season with Notre Dame-Navy in Dublin, Wisconsin-Notre Dame at Lambeau Field, an attempt to cover both Wisconsin-Northwestern at Wrigley Field and Clemson-Notre Dame on Nov. 7 and Chapter 117 in the Ohio State-Michigan series.
You want college football. We want college football. Administrators want college football.
But here’s what one told me: “If we lose $50 million to $60 million, so be it. I’d rather have a financial crisis than a bunch of kids getting really sick.”
And this: “This decision cannot be made by football coaches or ADs or the commissioner or even school presidents. It has to be the medical experts.”
None has signed off on Big Ten football, at least not yet. The conference was wise to scrap nonconference games because, really, can you count on UConn or Morgan State to enact rigorous testing protocols? And now the Big Ten has total control of its schedule. So if that 15% hits and some games can be played, the conference can determine when and where.
4. The latest updates are, to use the ‘Mad Men’ GIF, ‘Not great, Bob!’
Northern Illinois is down to nine games after its Sept. 5 opener against Rhode Island was canceled Wednesday. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has asked the two state universities to suspend fall sports amid “escalating danger.” Toledo’s Jason Candle became the first FBS head coach to announce he has tested positive for the coronavirus. (He said he has no symptoms.) Teams are constructing depth charts for coaches.
North Carolina coach Mack Brown, 68, is rightfully concerned after 37 members of the Tar Heels athletic program — coaches, staff and players for all of the teams — tested positive in early July. He and his assistant coaches will use face shields and sticks to maintain a six-foot distance from players.
“We’re seeing prominent people get positives all over the world,” he said. “Let’s figure out how it happened, try to make sure it doesn’t happen again and not (be) part of the spread.”
If that’s a challenge now, what happens when 19,000 students return to campus in early August?
The NBA spent a reported $170 million on its Orlando bubble. The NHL says only two of its 800 players have tested positive, and the league will complete its season in Canada.
Golf has successfully returned, though its finances are out of whack with no spectators or chalet sales. Baseball is on the verge of opening day 2.0. The NFL has a bottomless pit of money for testing and should do whatever it takes to entertain America. Its players and coaches should agree to spend all of their time in the football complex or their homes. No games, no paychecks.
Hate to break this to people, but some/many/most players are actual students who live in dorms or apartments and (should) go to class. They cannot be bubbled, especially not for four to five months. They are well-compensated when you take into account tuition, housing, books, food, clothing and a stipend, but they are non-salaried. They do not exist for our entertainment.
“I am 110% comfortable that we can manage them in our space,” Smith said on the Ohio radio show. “The challenge is (when) they have to go back to their crib. That’s a whole new ballgame. Fortunately our athletes have embraced policing one another.”
They want to play. We want them to play.
But at what cost?
5. Coaches do not want the season to be canceled.
They would rather delay, delay, delay. That way their players will continue practicing, masking and turning down offers to party.
The first day of actual football practice is Aug. 7. How will that go?
The season theoretically starts Aug. 29 with a handful of scheduled games, and the first full Saturday slate is Sept. 5. There was talk of 10 games in 10 weeks, but conference officials favor 10 games over 13 weeks to satisfy TV partners and add buffers for canceled games.
Smith spoke of being able to “slide the schedule.”
“We have the flexibility,” he said. “Hopefully we can play ‘X’ number of games.”
Can they somehow squeeze in four? Six? Athletic directors still are putting their eggs in the fall basket and have barely spoken of spring football, a concept that is preposterous to me. All of the top players would sit out to prepare for the NFL draft. A torn ACL would knock a player out for, what, two seasons?
College basketball has slightly more promise. The Big Ten is talking about starting around Jan. 1 and playing conference games only. And just as baseball debated expanding the playoffs, there’s an appetite to create a one-time, 96-team NCAA Tournament.
Normally we’d hate the idea. But normal left the building long ago.
©2020 the Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.