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 if the offensive striker from Oregon Penei Sewell he is actually the best player in the game and wonders what Lane Kiffin will do when facing Nick Saban.
But given the coronavirus pandemic, the questions today are different. When will players be able to return to campus? What kind of environment awaits them when they return? And what kind of season are they going to play?
We spoke with dozens of key decision makers, including school presidents, conference stewards, sports directors, coaches and medical experts, to get the latest information in a rapidly changing world. Expect many more responses in the coming weeks, as professional sports try to turn things around, politicians open their states and universities plan the fall semester.
But with 100 days to go until the expected start of August 29th, here's where things are:
When will players return to campus?
Gordon Gee has recorded almost 39 years as president of a university, including six terms in schools with FBS programs. He loves football and his comment about the sport is almost as famous as his bow tie.
Last week, Gee, who is on his second stint as president of West Virginia, handed over another memorable line about football.
Speaking at a city hall event organized by WOWK-TV, Gee said he believes the 2020 season will occur despite the ongoing pandemic.
"Even if I have to get dressed," said Gee, 76. "I have my ankles taped. I'm ready to go."
Gee's joke reflects growing optimism among FBS school presidents that their campuses will soon reopen and games will be played in the fall. Auburn President Jay Gogue, in a message to freshmen last week, said, "We are going to have football this fall." Presidents of Alabama, Georgia and elsewhere said they expected a season, even if it needed to be changed.
Despite the optimism, the uncertainty has not disappeared. Last week, the California State University system chancellor announced that CSU schools would remain primarily on a virtual learning model for the academic fall season. 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 are opposed to having football players on campus if other students stay at home.
"I would be shocked if we played football and were not open for face-to-face classes," said Northwestern President Morton Schapiro.
John Swofford, ACC commissioner, added: "This is a strange thought for most of us."
Grand Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, however, said that as long as athletes are enrolled and attending classes, even online, they can still compete if the school chooses to do so. Several stewards are discussing the impact of hybrid academic models – some in person, others online – that would likely pave the way for athletic competitions.
"If there are some students on campus, but not the entire student body, our league will be absolutely inclined to play," said Mike Aresco, AAC commissioner.
Most university leaders seem focused on when and how, and if not, campuses will reopen. They see improvements in testing and are formulating protocols to reintegrate the student body, including the possibility of isolation and quarantine.
As schools try to solve these problems, the schedule of decisions is approaching.
On Wednesday, the NCAA Division I Council voted raise its moratorium on campus activities for football and basketball from June 1st. SEC Presidents and Chancellors will vote friday whether schools can reopen their sports facilities for voluntary exercise as early as June 1st. Meanwhile, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley called a race to open June 1 "ridiculous". Bowlsby, Riley's league commissioner, said on Wednesday that the The big 12 must be "up and running" until mid-July to start the season on time. The top ten presidents and chancellors meet on June 7.
"June 1, in everyone's opinion, is a critical date," said TCU athletic director Jeremiah Donati. "That leaves you with five, six weeks of potential return to campus in those six weeks [practice] plan everyone is talking. … At the beginning of June is when you have to have a plan, I think, and you must be in full swing, subject to change and with some flexibility incorporated there. But at that point, the countdown is officially activated because you have less than 90 days to start. "
Some employees preach patience with decisions about formal activities, including practices. There will be rules for social distance in changing rooms and training areas, frequent cleaning of facilities and other measures to limit outbreaks. The University of Florida medical team told Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin that he would prefer athletes to return in stages rather than all at once.
Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer noted that even when a return date is set, athletes returning to campus need to be tested for COVID-19 and possibly quarantined before starting activities.
"I was there as a coach, but for me, the decision really comes down to medical professionals," said Fulmer, Vols' Hall of Fame coach from 1992 to 2008.
"This is bigger than some practices. As long as we all have the same opportunity to practice and exercise the same number of days, in the end, it won't matter as long as you have time to get the kids in shape." And I think we will be able to do that as long as we return them to campus in mid-June or the first of July. "
A doctor on the Power 5 core team told ESPN that he was concerned about being too quick to make a decision.
"The world needs to re-engage," said the doctor, "but bringing back 130 participants [from] a football team next week, when we still have almost three months before the season starts, if the season starts on September 1, it’s not smart. I don't see the value in that. "- Chris Low and Adam Rittenberg
Heather Dinich reviews comments from AD Gene Smith, from Ohio, about the possibility of playing in front of smaller crowds with fans following the guidelines of social distance.
How will things be when the players return?
As officials continue to discover when and how college football players can safely return to campus, everyone will have to get used to a new normal. From weight rooms to practice fields and cafeterias, things will be different. And on arrival, coronavirus testing will be critical.
"First, when they get here, they are quarantined for 48 hours and then they are tested," said Bill Moos, athletic director for Nebraska. "If there is a positive, a dormitory is provided to quarantine them and then [take] all precautions regarding where they are training, what they are doing, how they are doing, how they get access to our food and our nutritional part. Everything very well thought out. Everything managed superbly with the safety and well-being of young people who are at the top of our mindset ".
A SEC coach told ESPN this week that his athletics department's plan for returning players to campus, which remains a work in progress, includes testing all players when they return and keeping them in quarantine 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' disposition; roommates in apartments and players who live in the same dormitories would be put together in sets to mitigate the possible spread of the coronavirus.
The exercises started around 7 am and didn't end until 6 pm, as the groups rotated around the weight room every day. The players entered through the same entrance to the football building, where the medical team measured their temperatures. Players would be asked to practice social detachment in the weight room, and employees would clean the room after each workout before the next group arrived.
Players would not be allowed to bathe in the locker room. They would be required to hand over their used clothes the next day to be washed by the team.
The technical team would continue to have virtual meetings with groups of positions and no meetings would be held inside the football facilities until June.
The SEC technician said that the first month of exercises would not include passing exercises and other activities that would require a ball or other equipment. During a live Twitter interview on Friday, NCAA medical director Brian Hainline made reference to the NCAA medical panel's guidelines for the first two weeks of the two-week return to game.
"We recommend that the shared balls are not part of phases 1 and 2," said Hainline. "There is certainly that possibility – maybe even a probability – that the virus can be transmitted via a shared ball."
The SEC coach emphasized that the first month of training was strictly voluntary, and players did not have to return to campus if they were not comfortable doing so. He said the SEC's programs expected to develop activities of the organized NFL-type team in July, but there is currently no plan for that.
"Eventually, we will have to enter the meeting and meeting rooms," said the SEC coach. "We don't have many answers as to how this is going to happen now."
SEC team doctors are scheduled to speak to sports directors on Thursday, and then SEC presidents and chancellors will make the final call on Friday when they vote whether athletes should return to campus on June 1. or postpone that date to mid-June. or the first of July.
"There is a theory out there that we need to wait until everyone can do this," said Stricklin, from Florida. "Is there another theory that, if you have some states opening gyms, would children be safer in school-controlled environments? It is very easy to understand all the different sides of this issue, whether you agree or not.
"We all want to do what is right for children and do as fair as possible."
A doctor on the Power 5 team told ESPN that he is in favor of bringing players back to campus in smaller groups and not all at once.
"It makes no sense that some coaches are concerned with bringing players back on June 1," said the team doctor. "A lot of this is that the coaches are getting ahead and thinking they need to get them back to train and control them. Why not wait and see what we have learned in the coming months and film for July 1st?
"I am more interested, when they come back, that there is a plan to effectively assess the status of COVID-19 and have adequate capacity to test and get those results back, and then have a plan outlined on how they handle the day." we can control is when they are on the premises. We can't control after hours. "
Andrea Adelson presents the obstacles that college administrators face when trying to coordinate the logistics of having students on campus during the pandemic.
For fans, the return of college football may mean watching the games on television only, at least in the beginning. In some cases, stadiums may require certain restrictions, such as how many people can be in the stands, where they sit and that those who choose to go to games need to wear masks.
These are all scenarios that need to be taken into account before adding an even more complicated variable: what responsibility do schools have to provide a safe environment for fans? And again, this landscape is not clear.
"I know that every time I go to a baseball game, you hand over the ticket and it says: & # 39; If you get hit by a dirty ball, this is up to you," said Schapiro. "I also know that whenever someone gets hit by a dirty ball and, if God doesn't get hurt, there is a big financial deal. I think that accepting a ticket, what it says on the back, is legally mandatory?"
Perhaps the most surreal scenario is fanless games, for which a Power 5 technician told ESPN: "College football without fans is like having a wedding ceremony without a bride."
Even so, a stadium without fans would hardly be empty.
According to a SEC administrator, when you count players and coaches from both teams, game officials, medical teams, equipment managers and other team members, there may still be more than 500 people in the stadium for a game.
And the financial impact for teams that play without fans would be huge.
Texas A&M, for example, generated about $ 85 million last year in sales and donations linked to these tickets, according to sports director Ross Bjork. And when you consider all of the game day's revenue, including grants and sponsorships, that number was just over $ 100 million. The Aggies' total football revenue for the year, including SEC revenue sharing and television money, was about $ 140 million.
Stricklin said Florida ticket sales and ticket donations associated with tickets generate about $ 56 million. And, like most other SEC schools, Florida generates about 85% of the entire sports department's budget through football.
Stricklin shudders at the thought of football games without fans, and he is not alone.
"College football is a reflection of society," said Stricklin. "Sport in general is a reflection of society, and so where we end up is likely to be driven by how comfortable people will be in the coming months going to restaurants, bars and churches. As states start to open up again .
"This week, they may not be very comfortable. In three weeks, they may be more comfortable. In two months, it may be too old, in which case it will bode well for college football. But if people in July are still cautious when doing these things, then it will be a different story ". – Chris Low and Mark Schlabach
What will the 2020 schedule look like?
As college administrators, sports directors and coaches ponder a 2020 season unlike any other recent memory, questions that previously seemed unthinkable are now at the forefront. What if the SEC is ready to play, but Pac-12 is not? What if only 12 of the 14 ACC teams are ready to play?
Unlike the NFL, NBA or other professional sports, college football lacks a single body that can make one-size-fits-all decisions. The NCAA made it clear that it does not want this role, postponing it to conferences and local authorities. FBS football is made up of 130 school presidents in 43 states, in addition to 10 (and independent) conferences, not to mention countless counties where the extent of the virus may differ within state boundaries.
Pat Narduzzi, Pitt's trainer, studies the latest data on the spread of the coronavirus, waiting for signs that the worst is over. In Pittsburgh, the news has been encouraging. Cases have fallen; deaths have decreased. But while Pittsburgh's response during the blockade produced promising results, there is a different scene to the east on the Pennsylvania highway.
"Western Pennsylvania is in great shape, but eastern Pennsylvania is still a nightmare," said Narduzzi last week. "They are in a difficult situation there, and I don't know what will happen."
(According to the website for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, on Wednesday night, Philadelphia County had 16,340 cases, or 1,032 per 100,000 inhabitants. Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, had 1,641 cases, or 135 per 100,000 inhabitants.)
"It can be different anywhere in the country," said Bowlsby, the commissioner for the Big 12. "We all like to have a level playing field, but the virus will decide that."
South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner said that while the conferences are ideally aligned with the season, regional realities can make it difficult for a normal national season to be held. The SEC, whose 14 teams are grouped in a region where most states already have relaxed restrictions, could apparently move forward with a season, even if other leagues aren't sure.
"If you are clear in certain parts of the country and others are not," said Tanner, "do you think they will not play?"
Regional differences also apply within certain leagues. ACC campuses line up on the east coast and go west to Louisville, Kentucky. While Clemson and Virginia Tech are relatively isolated, ACC also has teams in major cities like Atlanta, Boston, Pittsburgh and Miami.
"We are a country, but we are very different regions," said Miami coach Manny Diaz. "When we get to the other side of the curve and start making a plan for how to get out of it, there may be very different guidelines [from] one state to another state. So that will be the interesting part. There must be some leveling of the playing field so that everyone can at least return at the same time. "
A uniform return date would be ideal, but it may not be possible. Coaches and medical experts say players need at least six weeks to prepare for the competition, but that window could start at a much different time in Alabama than in California.
"I can't imagine that now we are all going to open at the same time," said Penn State coach James Franklin. "If the SEC, for example, opens a month before the Big Ten, and the Big Ten manages to open and 12 of the 14 schools, if two schools cannot open, I don't see a conference – – any conference – penalizing 80% or 75% of schools, because 25% of them cannot open ".
And that's where questions arise about how an uneven playing field affects the chase of the playoffs.
"Say 36 [states] say we can go, hypothetically, choose a date – July 15, "said Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson." These other states say: & # 39; No, we are not & # 39; and five of those schools – half of your conference can go. What if Alabama, Nick Saban, can start training and LSU can't? Do you think this will work for your national champion? "
For the record, Schapiro, president of the Northwest and chairman of the Big Ten presidents and chancellors, says he does not anticipate a situation in which the league will play without all its members.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh discusses the protocols the team is adopting to protect its players and the possibility of playing football games without fans.
But even though most schools and leagues are prepared to play, the unknowns surrounding the virus and how it spreads or increases can make scheduling a nightmare. Even if teams play only against opponents of the conference or do not leave their regions, some can play 12 games, while others play eight.
"Let's just say that TCU is playing in the state of Iowa or Oklahoma in Texas, and one of the schools cannot play, but the other school has a number of positive tests or is concerned about traveling or for any reason and cannot play the game, "said Donati. "Is it a loss? Does the team that did not come out positive win the game? … All this will be real, because inevitably they will appear".
"I think we will be very lucky to start on the Labor Day weekend and go through a football season without interruption," added Bowlsby. "And we will be very lucky to get through the postseason and the basketball season without interruption. We will have a new normal and we will have an idea of how we are going to deal with these things.
College administrators are determined to find that out, and all options are on the table as to how it will be structured. Could Pac-12 and Mountain West combine to try to fill a schedule? Would the northern half of the ACC play a handful of games, while schools in the south would make a complete list? Could Georgia and Georgia Tech do a series at home?
"We all want to play 12 games and have a perfect scenario where everyone can play the programming as it is, but we are smart enough to know that it may not happen," said Blake Anderson, an Arkansas State coach. "There are so many unknowns about what will happen when we take people back to small areas. Will there be a peak? We have to be realistic enough to know that there will be some adjustments. … How far in advance will you know? Could it be the week of [the game] are you quarantined? We will 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.