In a normal year, Thursday would be a day of celebration. College football returns in 100 days! It would be a time to debate Trevor Lawrence vs. Justin Fields, to ask whether Oregon offensive lineman Penei Sewell is actually the game’s best player and to wonder what Lane Kiffin will do when he faces off against Nick Saban.
But given the coronavirus pandemic, the questions today are different. When will players be allowed back on campus? What kind of environments await them when they return? And what kind of season will they play?
We spoke to dozens of key decision-makers, including school presidents, conference commissioners, athletic directors, coaches and medical experts, to get the latest information in a rapidly changing world. Expect a lot more answers over the next couple of weeks, as pro sports attempt comebacks, politicians open up their states and universities make plans for the fall semester.
But with 100 days to go until the scheduled kickoff on Aug. 29, here’s where things stand:
When will players return to campus?
Gordon Gee has logged nearly 39 years as a university president, including six terms at schools with FBS programs. He loves football, and his commentary on the sport is almost as famous as his bow tie.
Last week, Gee, who’s in his second stint as West Virginia’s president, delivered another memorable line about football.
Speaking at a town hall event organized by WOWK-TV, Gee said he believes the 2020 season will take place, despite the ongoing pandemic.
“Even if I have to suit up,” said Gee, 76. “I’ve got my ankles taped. I’m ready to go in.”
Gee’s quip reflects a growing optimism among presidents at FBS schools that their campuses soon will reopen and games will be played in the fall. Auburn president Jay Gogue, in a message to incoming freshmen last week, said, “We’re going to have football this fall.” Presidents at Alabama, Georgia and elsewhere have said they expect a season, even if it needs to be modified.
Despite the optimism, the uncertainty hasn’t disappeared. Last week, the chancellor of the California State University system announced that CSU schools would remain primarily in a virtual learning model for the fall academic term. Three FBS programs — San Diego State, Fresno State and San Jose State — are in the CSU system, and their ability to play a season when campuses are essentially empty is unknown.
Most decision-makers oppose having football players on campus if other students stay home.
“I would be shocked if we played football and we weren’t open for in-person classes,” Northwestern president Morton Schapiro said.
Added ACC commissioner John Swofford: “That’s a foreign thought to most of us.”
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, however, said that as long as athletes are enrolled and taking classes, even online, they could still compete if their school chooses to do so. Several commissioners are discussing the impact of hybrid academic models — some in-person classes, some online — that would likely clear the way for athletic competitions.
“If there are some students on campus but not the entire student body, our league would absolutely be inclined to play,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said.
Most university leaders seem focused on when and how, not if, campuses will reopen. They note improvements in testing and are formulating protocols for reintegrating the student body, including the possibility of isolation and quarantine.
As schools try to solve these problems, the timeline for decisions draws closer.
On Wednesday, the NCAA Division I Council voted to lift its moratorium on on-campus activities for football and basketball effective June 1. SEC presidents and chancellors will vote Friday on whether schools can reopen their athletic facilities for voluntary workouts as early as June 1. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, meanwhile, called a rush to open by June 1 “ridiculous.” Bowlsby, the commissioner of Riley’s league, said on Wednesday that the Big 12 needs to be “up and running” by mid-July in order to start the season on time. The Big Ten presidents and chancellors meet June 7.
“June 1, in everybody’s mind, is a critical date,” TCU athletic director Jeremiah Donati said. “It puts you five, six weeks out from potentially returning to campus under that six-week [practice] plan everyone is talking about. … Early June is when you’ve got to have a plan, I think, and you’ve got to be going full steam ahead on it, subject to change and having some flexibility built in there. But at that point, the countdown is officially on because you’re less than 90 days to kickoff.”
Some officials preach patience with decisions about formal activities, including practices. There will be social distancing rules in locker rooms and training areas, frequent sanitization of facilities and other measures to limit outbreaks. The University of Florida’s medical staff has told Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin it would prefer to have athletes return in phases rather than all at once.
Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer noted that even when a return date is set, athletes returning to campus would need to be tested for COVID-19 and possibly quarantined before beginning activities.
“I’ve been there as a coach, but to me, the decision really comes down to the professionals in the medical field,” said Fulmer, a Hall of Fame coach for the Vols from 1992 to 2008.
“This is bigger than a few practices. As long as we all have the same opportunity to practice and work out the same number of days, in the end it’s not going to matter as long as you have time to get the kids in shape. And I think we’ll be able to do that as long as we get them back on campus by the middle of June or first of July.”
A head team physician for a Power 5 program told ESPN he was worried about being too hasty with making a decision.
“The world has to reengage,” the physician said, “but bringing back 130 participants [from] a football team in the next week or so, when we still have nearly three months before the season opener, if the season opens Sept. 1, isn’t smart. I don’t see the value in that.” — Chris Low and Adam Rittenberg
Heather Dinich analyzes comments by Ohio State AD Gene Smith about the possibility of playing in front of smaller crowds with fans following social distancing guidelines.
What will things look like when players return?
While officials continue to figure out when and how college football players will be able to safely return to campus, everyone is going to have to get accustomed to a new normal. From weight rooms to practice fields to dining halls, things will be different. And, upon arrival, coronavirus testing will be key.
“First, when they get here, they’re quarantined for 48 hours, and then tested,” Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos said. “If there’s a positive, there’s a dorm provided to quarantine them, and then [take] all the precautions in regards to where they are training, what they are doing, how they are doing, how they get access to our food and our nutrition piece. All very well thought out. All superbly managed with the safety and well-being of those young people uppermost in our thinking.”
One SEC coach told ESPN this week that his athletic department’s plan for players returning to campus, which remains a work in progress, includes testing all players when they come back and keeping them quarantined until the results are known.
The first month would include only strength and conditioning, with coaches dividing players into perhaps 10 to 15 pods. The pods would be determined by the players’ living arrangements; roommates in apartments and players living in the same dorms would be placed in pods together to mitigate the potential spread of the coronavirus.
Workouts would begin at about 7 a.m. and wouldn’t end until around 6 p.m., as the groups rotated through the weight room each day. Players would enter through the same entrance in the football building, where medical staff would take their temperatures. Players would be required to practice social distancing in the weight room, and staff would sanitize the room after every workout before the next group arrived.
Players wouldn’t be allowed to shower in the locker room. They would be required to turn in their used clothing the next day to be washed by staff.
The coaching staff would continue to have virtual meetings with position groups, and no meetings would be conducted inside the football facility through at least June.
The SEC coach said the first month of workouts would not include passing drills and other activities that would require a ball or other equipment. During a live Twitter interview Friday, NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline referenced the NCAA medical panel’s guidelines for the first two phases of returning to play, which would each last two weeks.
“We recommend that shared balls not be a part of phase 1 and phase 2,” Hainline said. “There certainly is that possibility — perhaps even a probability — that the virus can be transmitted by a shared ball.”
The SEC coach stressed that the first month of workouts was strictly voluntarily, and players did not have to return to campus if they weren’t comfortable doing so. He said SEC programs were hoping to build to NFL-type organized team activities in July, but there wasn’t currently a plan in place to do so.
“Eventually, we’re going to have to get in the huddle and meeting rooms,” the SEC coach said. “We don’t have many answers for how that is going to happen right now.”
The SEC team doctors are scheduled to speak with athletic directors on Thursday, and then SEC presidents and chancellors will make the final call on Friday, when they vote on whether to allow athletes back on campus June 1 or push that date back to mid-June or the first of July.
“There’s a theory out there that we need to wait until everybody can do it,” Florida’s Stricklin said. “There’s another theory that if you have some states opening up gyms, would kids be safer in environments controlled by the schools? It’s pretty easy to understand all the different sides of this issue whether you agree or not.
“We all want to do what’s right for the kids and do what is as fair as possible.”
One Power 5 head team physician told ESPN he’s in favor of bringing players back to campus in smaller groups and not all at once.
“It makes no sense that some coaches are worried about bringing back players on June 1,” the team physician said. “A lot of that is coaches getting ahead of themselves and thinking they’ve got to have them back to train and to control them. Why not wait and see what we learn over the next few months and shoot for July 1?
“I’m more interested in when they do come back that there’s a plan to effectively assess their COVID-19 status and have adequate ability to test and get those results back and then have a plan outlined on how they go about their day. All we can control is when they’re in the facility. We can’t control after hours.”
Andrea Adelson lays out the roadblocks college administrators are facing when trying to coordinate the logistics of having students on campus during the pandemic.
For fans, college football’s return could mean watching the games on television only, at least early on. In some cases, stadiums might mandate certain restrictions, such as how many people could be in the stands, where they would sit and that those who choose to come to games be required to wear masks.
Those are all scenarios that will need to be taken into account before adding an even more complicated variable: What liability do schools have to provide a safe environment for fans? And, again, that landscape is unclear.
“I know whenever I go to a baseball game, you turn over the ticket and it says, ‘If you get hit by a foul ball, that’s on you,” Schapiro said. “I also know that whenever someone gets hit by a foul ball and, God forbid, gets hurt, there’s a big financial settlement. I guess accepting a ticket, what it says on the back, is that legally binding?”
Perhaps the most surreal scenario would be games played without any fans, to which one Power 5 coach told ESPN: “College football without fans is like having a wedding ceremony with no bride.”
Even then, a stadium without fans would hardly be empty.
According to one SEC administrator, when you count players and coaching staffs from both teams, game officials, medical personnel, equipment managers and other staff members, there could still be more than 500 people in the stadium for a game.
And the financial hit for teams playing games without fans would be massive.
Texas A&M, for example, generated around $85 million last year in ticket sales and donations tied to those tickets, according to athletic director Ross Bjork. And when you factor in all game-day revenue, including concessions and sponsorships, that figure was a little more than $100 million. The Aggies’ total football revenue for the year, including SEC revenue sharing and television money, was about $140 million.
Stricklin said Florida’s ticket sales and donations associated with tickets produce around $56 million. And like most other SEC schools, Florida generates about 85% of its entire athletic department budget through football.
Stricklin winces at the thought of football games without any fans, and he’s not alone.
“College football is a reflection of society,” Stricklin said. “Sports in general is a reflection of society, and because of that, where we end up is probably going to be driven by how comfortable people are going to be in the next couple of months going to restaurants, going to bars and going to churches as states start opening back up.
“This week, they may not be very comfortable. In three weeks, they may be more comfortable. Two months from now, it may be old hat again, in which case that’s going to bode well for college football. But if people in July are still cautious about doing these things, then it’s going to be a different story.” — Chris Low and Mark Schlabach
What will the 2020 schedule look like?
As college administrators, athletic directors and coaches ponder a 2020 season unlike any in recent memory, questions that once seemed unthinkable are now at the forefront. What if the SEC is ready to play but the Pac-12 isn’t? What if only 12 of the ACC’s 14 teams are ready to play?
Unlike the NFL, NBA or other professional sports, college football lacks a single governing body that can make one-size-fits-all decisions. The NCAA has been clear that it doesn’t want that role, deferring to conferences and local authorities. FBS football consists of 130 school presidents in 43 states, plus 10 conferences (and independents), not to mention countless municipalities where the extent of the virus could be different within state lines.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, for one, has been studying the latest data on the spread of the coronavirus, hoping for signs that the worst is over. In Pittsburgh, the news has been encouraging. Cases are down; deaths have slowed. But while Pittsburgh’s response during the lockdown has yielded promising results, there’s a different scene east, down the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
“Western Pennsylvania is in great shape but Eastern Pennsylvania, it’s still a nightmare,” Narduzzi said last week. “They’re in some rough shape there, and I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
(According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, as of Wednesday evening, Philadelphia County had 16,340 cases, or 1,032 per 100,000 residents. Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, had 1,641 cases, or 135 per 100,000 residents.)
“It could be different in any part of the country,” said Bowlsby, the Big 12 commissioner. “We all like to have that elusive level playing field, but the virus will decide that.”
South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner said while conferences ideally would be aligned about the season, regional realities could make a normal, national season difficult to pull off. The SEC, whose 14 teams are clustered in a region where most states already have relaxed restrictions, seemingly could move ahead with a season even if other leagues are unsure.
“If you’re clear in certain parts of the country and others aren’t,” Tanner said, “do you think they’re not going to play?”
Regional differences also apply within certain leagues. ACC campuses line the East Coast and go as far west as Louisville, Kentucky. While Clemson and Virginia Tech are relatively isolated, the ACC also has teams in major cities like Atlanta, Boston, Pittsburgh and Miami.
“We are a country, but we’re vastly different regions,” Miami coach Manny Diaz said. “When we get on the other side of the curve and we start to make a plan for how to come out of it, there could be vastly different guidelines [from] one state to another state. So that will be the interesting part. There will have to be some leveling of the playing field so everyone can at least come back at the same time.”
A uniform return date would be ideal but might not be possible. Coaches and medical experts say players need at least six weeks to prepare for competition, but that window might begin at a vastly different time in Alabama than it does in California.
“I can’t imagine that right now we’re all going to open at the same time,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “If the SEC, for example, opens up a month earlier than the Big Ten, and the Big Ten is able to open up and 12 of the 14 schools, if two schools can’t open, I don’t see a conference — any conference — penalizing 80% or 75% of the schools because 25% of them can’t open.”
And that’s when questions arise about how an uneven playing field affects the playoff chase.
“Let’s say 36 [states] say we can go, hypothetically pick a date — July 15,” Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said. “Those other states say, ‘No, we’re not going,’ and five of those schools — half of your conference can go. What if Alabama, Nick Saban, can start practice and LSU can’t? You think that’s gonna work for your national champion?”
For the record, Schapiro, the Northwestern president and chair of the Big Ten’s council of presidents and chancellors, says he doesn’t foresee a situation where the league plays without all of its members.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh discusses protocols the team is taking to protect its players and the possibility of playing football games without fans.
But even if most schools and leagues are prepared to play, the unknowns surrounding the virus and how it spreads or spikes could make scheduling a nightmare. Even if teams play only conference opponents or don’t leave their regions, some might play 12 games, while others play eight.
“Let’s just say TCU is playing Iowa State or Oklahoma is playing Texas, and one of the schools is unable to play but the other school has multiple tests that have popped up positive, or has a concern about traveling or whatever reason and can’t play the game,” Donati said. “Is it a forfeit? Does the team that didn’t test positive, do they win the game? … Those are all going to be real things because inevitably, these are going to pop up.”
“I think we will be very, very lucky to start on Labor Day weekend and get through a football season without disruptions,” Bowlsby added. “And we will be very lucky to get through the postseason and the basketball season without disruptions. We’re gonna have a new normal, and we’re gonna have to have an idea of how we’re gonna deal with these things.”
College administrators are determined to figured it out, and all options are on the table for how it will be structured. Could the Pac-12 and Mountain West combine to try to fill out one schedule? Would the northern half of the ACC play a handful of games, while the southern schools get in a full slate? Could Georgia and Georgia Tech play a home-and-home series?
“We all want to play 12 games and have a perfect scenario where everybody can play the schedule as is, but we’re smart enough to know that may not happen,” said Blake Anderson, head coach at Arkansas State. “There’s so many unknowns about what’s going to happen when we get people back in small areas. Is there going to be a spike? We have to be realistic enough to know there’s going to be some adjustments. … How early will you know? Could it be the week of [the game] that you quarantine? We’re going to have to be smart and flexible.” — David M. Hale and Adam Rittenberg
ESPN reporters Kyle Bonagura, Sam Khan Jr. and Tom VanHaaren contributed to this report.