There hasn’t been any college football since January, but the decision to punt is becoming an offseason favorite.
Anticipation was heightened this week, as the SEC and ACC commissioners had both publicly stated the end of July is probably the time to make some important decisions regarding the college football season in the midst of a still-surging coronavirus pandemic. Even NC State’s chancellor, Randy Woodson, told ESPN he expected the ACC’s 15 presidents and chancellors to review the league’s preferred scheduling model and “finalize a plan” on Wednesday.
That was Monday — an eternity ago by current news cycle standards.
As July comes to a close this week, the biggest news might be no news at all. The 15 ACC presidents and chancellors will meet Wednesday, but they might not vote on a preferred scheduling model until their Aug. 5 meeting. Any decisions this week could simply be to push forward into preseason camp, which begins on Aug. 7, to further evaluate the impact of the pandemic after students return to campus and actual football practice begins.
“I believe a proper timeline could be a check-in point at the end of July, which is what we believe in at the SEC, and then let’s see what happens as we start training camps and fall practices,” Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork said. “It’s a lot easier to pull back than it is to ramp up. I think really you could look at the middle of August as a realistic timeline to say, ‘OK, are we ready to start on time?'”
An Aug. 4 meeting of the NCAA board of governors is also a factor in the decision-making process, as the highest-ranking governance body in the NCAA is considering canceling its 22 fall championships.
Or, the board could decide to push the decision further into August — again.
The only certainty about college football right now is the uncertainty — a daily obstacle with which even the most powerful people in college athletics continue to grapple, including the Power 5 commissioners and NCAA president Mark Emmert. The convoluted decision-making process includes layers of people — from doctors and physicians on conference medical advisory boards, to state and local government officials, and university presidents — all of whom fall behind the coronavirus in the pecking order of power.
“The university president or chancellor first and foremost in this pandemic has to take into consideration the overall health and safety of the entire university community, and college athletics cannot be the dog that is wagging the tail,” said Morgan State president David Wilson, also a member of the NCAA’s board of governors. “I take my hat off to those institutions that recognize we are just in the kind of moment the likes of which our nation and college athletics has never experienced. As such, we must make decisions in this moment so different, vastly different, than any decision that we would have made prior to Jan. 1 of 2020.”
The university presidents, who typically operate quietly on the side of academics, have been catapulted into prominent positions of power over college athletics — not only because of their influence as members of the NCAA’s board, but more because of their control over campus COVID-19 restrictions.
“We’re not using finances as the driver for the decision that we make,” NC State chancellor Woodson said. “We understand that if we’re not able to play football, that has a significant impact on the conference budget and the university’s athletic budget, but at the same time, it pales in comparison to the health and safety of the students and all of those who are around the students.
“The one thing I can guarantee you is that if we can’t open the university, we’re not going to have athletics,” he said, noting the tentative plan is a hybrid of online and in-person learning. “If we can’t open the university to students, it would be painfully obvious to people it’s all about the money if you’re playing football in that kind of environment.”
The NCAA’s board of governors has quickly and quietly morphed into a major part of the equation for determining the fate of fall sports this year. The NCAA’s role throughout the pandemic has mainly been that of adviser, issuing medical guidelines and protocols, while adjusting rules and granting waivers to provide conferences with more flexibility than usual. It has shouldered more significance recently, though, when the NCAA’s board of governors began to seriously consider the possibility of canceling fall championships.
The group, which comprises mainly university presidents representing all three divisions, has the authority to cancel or postpone 22 NCAA fall championships for sports such as soccer, women’s volleyball and FCS football. The regular-season games and schedules, though, are at the discretion of the individual schools or their conferences.
The NCAA does not oversee the College Football Playoff, but there is a concern among the sport’s decision-makers that a cancellation of other fall championships could lead to the inevitable shutdown of everything — again.
“Yes, you can continue to have the football games and all that,” football oversight committee chair Shane Lyons said, “but if you’re not playing other sports, optically, what does that look like? We’re trying to continue to play football and have our fall sports, but everybody’s striving to be in the NCAA championships. If you don’t have that, that’s the big thing you’re playing for. So what happens? Do you still play a regular season?”
While the board declined to not make a decision last Friday, Emmert said it was possible the fate of fall championships would be decided at the next meeting on Aug. 4 — which could halt any other major moves until everyone sees what the NCAA decides first. While the Power 5 waits for the NCAA, the Group of 5 is waiting for the Power 5.
“Whatever they do is going to definitely have an impact on what we’re all doing, what FBS is doing,” said American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco, whose preference remains a full schedule if possible. “We’re hoping either we start the season on time, or we have a delay, that there’s no decision over the next couple of weeks to shut things down because we think that would be premature.
“Our timetable would be roughly the same as theirs in any event,” he said, “but we realize we’re probably not driving the train, realistically on this, although we’re trying to get as much input as we can. I talk to the commissioners, but we realize a lot is going to depend on what they do. We’re realistic.”
Morgan State athletic director Ed Scott, who shut down athletic activities on his campus following 12 positive tests, said the mental health aspect of what the athletes are experiencing isn’t getting enough attention as the decision process dominates the discussions. He said the testing process begins with anxiety for anyone awaiting a result.
“The student-athletes that were positive, or those who were around them and might have been high risk, there was fear and there was some panic, to be frank as far as what’s next and what does this mean for me because right now I feel ok?” said Scott, whose program was part of the MEAC’s decision to postpone fall sports. “And not knowing the long-term effects was something that really caused concern for our student-athletes because we don’t have enough data on this virus yet to know what the potential long-term effects could be.
“So many of our young people identify with their athletic identity first, whether it’s right or wrong, and so for them not having this opportunity to compete for something they’ve trained their whole lives for, for me is something I’m really concerned about,” he said, “the mental health of our young men and women as we move forward – regardless of positive or negative results. The absence of competition, and the self-efficacy if you will with it, that’s another end of the spectrum I just haven’t heard enough about on the national landscape.”
Emmert said he was still hopeful the November championships would be played, but if they are canceled, he said it doesn’t mean that the regular seasons couldn’t still happen.
“They could play for a conference championship if they could make it safe,” he said. “The determination of our championships would be about whether or not we could bring together large groups of students in these kinds of environments and do it safely. That’s the decision point.
“An individual contest — a football game, a basketball game — that’s quite different,” he said. “In the case of a bowl game or the CFP, you’re talking about a championship game. Can you create a bubble with enough lead time to have two teams play each other safely? The answer to that may be yes. The FCS is a round-robin championship with 20 teams participating and a full-on championship event. That’s a very different and much more challenging environment than adding one or two more games to a season with a lot of space in between.”
In a typical college football season, the 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick are in lockstep as the members of the College Football Playoff management committee. They are the ones who wrote the protocol for determining the four best teams in the country, set the field at four, and would be the ones with the power to expand it — if and when that ever happened.
The coronavirus has altered the dynamic of how the group functions — not diminishing the respect or communication between them — but by prompting an unusual level of independent decision-making. The Big Ten was the first to announce a conference-only schedule for this fall, and the league should announce soon what exactly that looks like. One day later, the Pac-12 made the same move, but also became the first Power 5 conference to delay the start of its season.
“That’s where the lack of a national voice is hurting college athletics right now,” Texas A&M athletic director Bjork said. “We need someone or some group to step up, and I think that’s where the commissioners have done the best job in all of this, is providing the best voice possible. To me right now there is a disconnect between what the NCAA is putting forward, and then you have the commissioners, and then you have the Power 5 and the FBS and impact on FCS … the lack of that type of cohesion is frustrating.”
Emmert said he understands the frustration — of athletic officials, and fans as well — but the issue is the scope of 19,000 teams spread across the country.
“Everybody says, ‘Well can’t somebody just make a rule, or can’t somebody just announce we’re going to do this or do that? I wish it were so, but the circumstances just don’t work that way,” he said. “… When you say well we want to speak with a singular voice, I sure get that, the problem is the conditions and the aspirations differ wildly across conferences. The urge is natural, the reality is very different.”
Given the differences in preference and process, it’s possible each conference looks different this fall — a scenario that could still work in the CFP era.
“They can’t be incompatible,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said, “but they don’t have to be identical.”
Bjork also acknowledged the very real possibility the SEC and other Power 5 conferences follow the Pac-12’s lead and delay the start of the season — a conversation he said “needs to have serious consideration as we sit here today.”
It’s a scenario the Big 12 is not planning for “at this point.”
“Obviously if one of us would make the decision to go to conference-only, that would affect the others,” Bowlsby told ESPN. “I’m guessing we would get some advance notice on that, but nobody has made that decision yet — at least not among the [SEC, ACC or Big 12].”
For now, they just might punt.