Imagine the Iron Bowl ... in May. Or, something even more inconceivable ... no Iron Bowl at all.
With the coronavirus pandemic affecting sports calendars worldwide, conference commissioners and athletic directors across the United States are considering every alternative to college football's current Aug. 29 start date, including playing the entire season in the spring of 2021.
The worst-case scenario in college athletics would be canceling the entire season. It's a possibility decision-makers throughout the sport are determined to avoid while acknowledging it's something they can't fully control.
The people who ultimately will decide when college football returns will include federal government officials and state governors, plus the newly formed NCAA medical advisory panel and a host of NCAA subcommittees.
ESPN interviewed dozens of athletic directors, coaches and commissioners from the 10 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) conferences over the past few weeks about what the future might hold for college football based on their ongoing daily discussions, which change constantly as new information emerges. So far, the consensus is that while no one knows what will happen next, officials are determined to save the season in one way or another.
"There isn't a model I can run to fix the problem of not having any football," UCF athletic director Danny White said. "I don't think there's anybody in my position with a big football fan base that could make decisions to fix that. I don't know what happens -- there's not a model, there's not a solution, there's not an action I can take that's going to solve that problem."
Several conference commissioners told ESPN the first and most important step is determining when it's safe to reopen campuses -- a decision they said they will leave to medical experts and government officials. (Brown University's president wrote this week in The New York Times that opening campuses this fall should be a "national priority." Stanford's president, meanwhile, said Tuesday he does not expect a decision about the fall quarter until sometime in June.)
Among the scenarios under consideration: a shortened season in which leagues would primarily play conference games; a delayed start to a full fall season; a spring season; or starting on time, but without fans. There also could be some combination of these scenarios. Officials also are bracing for the possibility of what several have referred to as an "interrupted season," in which the season begins but has to stop because a second wave of the virus hits. There's no specific timetable to make these decisions, but most coaches say they would need about two months to get their teams ready.
"You're coming out of a year in which now we have this financial crisis, and we have no certainty of what the future looks like," Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. "We have no certainty of when we can begin again. We have no certainty of when we will have a football season, which is the economic engine for all of this."
There are too many uncertainties surrounding any decisions on what the season will look like -- from conditioning, to how many games teams will play, to when the season starts, to whether fans will be in the stands.
Miami coach Manny Diaz might have summed up the entire situation best.
"We all know what we want, but we've encountered something that's unprecedented," Diaz said. "We have to play it out and see what we can get. That's the difference. Let's see how good we can get it. I believe we'll all be appreciative for whatever we get."
'You're going to need two months to get these guys back'
Penn State coach James Franklin asked his sports scientist, strength staff and athletic trainers to weigh in on how long it will take to get the players physically prepared to play a game once they're given the green light to resume practice.
They began working on about six different models.
"Is it 30 days, is it 45 days?" Franklin said. "Sixty days? Ninety days? What is it that's needed to make sure that we're going to be in good shape, that the players are going to be able to protect themselves and go out and compete on a high level?"
The opinions vary from coach to coach, but the general consensus from our interviews is about eight weeks. The first four would be spent mainly in meetings and with strength and conditioning coaches, with some walk-throughs beginning in Week 3. Then, in Week 4, the players could put on pads and helmets again and start a true "fall camp."
"You're going to need two months to get these guys back going again before you can even consider putting them on a field and asking them to play football," Arizona State coach Herm Edwards said. "When you rush back, that's when you get the soft-tissue injuries -- hamstrings, Achilles tendons, groins -- because you haven't done anything. Pro players, they have a sense of, 'I gotta work out, I make my living doing this,' but if you're a college kid, and a lot don't have access to gyms where they can lift, it's not like he's in football shape."
Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the director of sports medicine at the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute and team physician for the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Dodgers, agreed with the coaches' timetable.
"As far as being able to get together as a team and be able to really ramp up the physical conditioning necessary to compete -- if you're coming into the whole process in pretty good condition -- that usually still takes about a month or six weeks to ramp up the intensity to where you're ready for the season," he said.
West Virginia coach Neal Brown said the preparation period should differ by position type.
"The guys up front, it's more about getting in shape from a strength standpoint where they'll be able to withstand contact, be able to push, lean, and those types of things. For the skill guys, it will be more about their cardio and short bursts and protecting against those soft-tissue injuries," Brown said. "A lot of people say, 'Well, back in the old days we just showed up at fall camp.' Yeah, well, fall camp was six weeks long. You had opportunity to get in shape, practice multiple times a day -- we're not allowed to do those things anymore. So I think that's why the lead-in is so important."
It's not just the physical preparation, though. There's the learning curve for freshmen, and installation of new plays.
Texas coach Tom Herman hired Chris Ash as defensive coordinator and Mike Yurcich as offensive coordinator, and said much of the new terminology and philosophy has been teachable remotely. Herman said resuming practices on June 1 would be ideal in order to start the season on Sept. 5, but even if they were told on Aug. 6 or 7, they would "figure it out."
"I know this sounds crazy because it's a completely new defensive system and a good amount of new concepts and ideas on offense, but ... the X's and O's part of it, that's the least of my worries, to be honest with you," Herman said. "Now we get four hours of virtual meetings, and coaches are testing their kids."
First-year Baylor coach Dave Aranda said he would like 60 days to get his players ready, but for now, he's trying to invest his time "in things that will stick," like concepts and situations.
"Hey, it's a two-minute situation, or hey, it's the end of a half, the start of the second half, it's four-minute situations," Aranda said. "Teaching our players, but keeping them engaged, as well ... seminal moments in a game where it's like, 'Oh, I remember that,' things we can invest in that they can carry back whenever it is we do get back together."
Edwards also said everyone will need to be tested for the coronavirus, which just raises more questions about the availability of tests, who is providing them, and more.
"Why wouldn't you do that?" he said. "You've gotta do that. That's got to be part of the program now. It's kind of ironic. We play a sport, there's no social distancing in this sport. Social distancing has been working. We don't do that in this sport."
American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco agreed, saying the possibility of an "interrupted season" due to a potential second wave of the virus is a concern for the commissioners.
"If you were going to play again, obviously, you'd have to realistically have some kind of testing protocol, and we're getting there," he said. "That's the problem. You might start playing, and the next thing you know, you've got somebody sick, and then next thing you know, you've got a whole team quarantined. How do you play with teams quarantined?" -- Heather Dinich
Could teams play a conference-only schedule?
There are many questions about what the season will look like when it actually begins. Among the most pressing: What if a full season cannot be played?
Every athletic director and coach we spoke to wants to do everything in their power to get in the entire season, and there are obvious reasons for that. Coaches do not want to take away playing opportunities from their players, especially since they have only 12 games to start with, far fewer than other sports.
What's more, the financial implications of playing a shortened season would be substantial, not only for Power 5 schools but also for FCS and Group of 5 programs that rely so heavily on guarantee nonconference games.
That becomes a much larger issue if a shortened season means going to a conference-only game scenario.
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"The domino effect, I would have to imagine, would be devastating to those schools," TCU athletic director Jeremiah Donati said. "We play an FCS opponent this year, and it's pretty widely known that they rely on the revenue they get from the guarantee to play Power 5 schools. I can't speak for all of them, but if you play two or three of those, that can be anywhere from $2 million to $4 million, and for a smaller school, that's huge, that's your lifeline. To pull that away would be absolutely crushing."
There are other examples on the Power 5 level. Can anyone imagine a world where Florida and Florida State don't play each other? In the ACC alone, there are four nonconference rivalry games between SEC and ACC teams that no one wants to lose. But those rivalry games seem small compared to perhaps the biggest nonconference rivalry game of them all: Army-Navy.
Now add in independent Notre Dame as the giant X factor in the equation, especially for a school like Navy. Notre Dame and Navy are scheduled to open the season in Ireland on Aug. 29.
"Devastating, devastating. The two biggest games we have all year are nonconference: Notre Dame and Army," Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said. "Both of those contests are so critically important to our financial picture, losing those two games would be simply devastating to us financially. They're of great significance for television purposes, ticket sales, corporate sponsorship. They're the two anchors that are really important."
Speaking of Notre Dame, what happens to independents in a conference-only game scenario?
"Would you have a season without Notre Dame having any football?" Aresco said. "OK, you play nine games, so Notre Dame could figure out some nonconference games. And it's not just Notre Dame. Would Army suddenly not play football? There are no simple answers. You'd at least have to have a nine-game schedule so independents could play."
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said if the season has to be shortened, the easiest solution might be to make the reduction "calendar-based more than anything, like the first two weeks don't happen."
"I understand the importance of conference schedules, but [there are] complexities of trying to move games within the season as opposed to just doing it based off a calendar," Swarbrick said. "If you start saying, 'We're going to take this game and we were going to be in City X and we're moving it to a different date,' that's not easy to do from a travel, from an accommodations, from a fan/ticket sales dynamic."
The bottom line in any scheduling scenario: Coaches will take what they can get, and if that means a shortened, conference-only season, then that is what it will have to be.
"If it came down to it and we were still allowed to play football, we'd have to live with that consequence," Kansas State coach Chris Klieman said. "Obviously, you'd like to play as many games as you can for a variety of reasons. Not just for this year, but for your freshmen two years down the line.
"We're a developmental program, I want to try to play as many as we can to prepare ourselves for our conference. That's still financially going to cost an awful lot of people an awful lot of dollars if we don't play those nonconference games. If that were the worst-case scenario, I think we'd all say, 'OK, we have to live with that,' but we'd rather play our nonconference schedule as well." -- Andrea Adelson
'Do you know how screwed up the football season would be if we started in February?'
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Governors in some states warn that major gatherings won't resume without vaccines or herd immunity. Prominent athletic directors are publicly opposing games without crowds. The most realistic compromise is an unprecedented one: a spring season.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, no major college football team has played a game between February and July since the 19th century. But a spring 2021 model likely avoids some obstacles a fall 2020 season carries. Campuses are expected to be open by then, and teams will have ample time to prepare after a long and strange layoff. Pushing back the season also buys time for improved testing, treatments and other developments that would make games safer for participants, stadium personnel and fans.
"[A spring schedule is] getting more and more discussion," Aresco said. "Would you be able to play right after the Super Bowl and play an eight- or 10-game schedule and still have a short playoff? You probably could, and you might try hard to do it because football is so important on a lot of levels, but the financial [impact] is huge."
A spring 2021 season raises multiple hurdles -- weather, television scheduling, the NFL draft timetable and a short turnaround for a fall 2021 season; but if given the choice between a spring season or no season at all, many would reluctantly choose the former.
"In order to have an athletic department, we need to play football for everybody, because of the finances that go with it," NC State coach Dave Doeren said. "There's going to be back-end issues that come up the later it goes, but I don't think that means you cancel it, either. You figure out how to deal with those issues as we go."
A spring season likely would begin sometime in February and run through May, with postseason games in late May or June. The regular season would run concurrent with the NCAA basketball tournaments, and bowl games or the College Football Playoff could overlap with spring championships. Television schedules, including many involving ESPN, would have to be adjusted.
Nick Carparelli, the executive director of the Football Bowl Association, said as long as there is a regular season, he fully expects a full bowl season.
"Each of those games is a separate and individual enterprise with its own unique model and objectives, and they simply can't take a year off and expect to pick up where they left off the following year," he said. "Most college football programs depend on the bowl season for their postseason. If there is a college football season this year and institutions hope to participate in bowl games in future years, we're going to need to find a way to play the games this year."
Weather is a concern for schools in colder climates. Although the Big Ten, MAC and northern schools in other leagues finish the regular season on frigid fields, the spring model would require them to kick off that way. What would a Feb. 20 season opener look like in Minneapolis or Madison?
"Bring out your snow shovels," a Big Ten coach said.
"If I'm in the Big Ten, I'm probably not real excited about that," Donati said. "I don't know if you're going to draw too many fans to football games in Michigan in January or February. That sounds like a nightmare."
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren declined our request for an interview.
Another concern is how a spring season would affect the future, for college teams and players with NFL aspirations. Teams use the spring to spin forward: winter conditioning in January and February; practices in March and April; recruiting in May.
More recruits are enrolling midyear to capitalize on a full offseason program. How would a spring season affect them, or change roster and scholarship limits?
"Do you know how screwed up the football season would be if we started in February?" Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. "Are you going to play next September, too? You're running one season into another. You screwed up another spring, you never get back on track."
A spring season also impacts the NFL and players aspiring to reach the sport's top level. The entire NFL draft timeline -- the Senior Bowl and other competitions in January, scouting combine in late February, individual pro days in March, draft in April -- would likely move back significantly. Would there even be a combine? Would the NFL hold its draft during the college postseason, like Major League Baseball does during the College World Series?
College football players regularly skip bowl games to preserve themselves for the draft. Would a player such as Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence really play in the spring when he'd be mere weeks away from a multimillion-dollar contract?
"Your guys that were either going to graduate or declare early, there would have to be some type of agreement with the NFL," Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. "That's going to affect draft preparation."
Coaches and administrators currently are hyper-focused on athletes' health and safety regarding COVID-19, but there's a long-term risk to pushing back competition. A full spring 2021 season combined with a full fall 2021 season means players could log 24 regular-season games in 10 months or so. Add in postseason play, and the number of games for top teams approaches 30. Even if both seasons were shortened, players would have less time to rest and recharge, or rehabilitate from injuries.
"These kids would be beat to hell," Narduzzi said. "I don't think you can do it. These kids need a break. Think about the players' bodies."
"You hear a lot about postseason surgery lists, you hear a lot about postseason surgery choices," said Tory Lindley, the president of the National Athletic Trainers Association and director of athletic training at Northwestern. "There's a whole list of orthopedic injuries at the end of everybody's year that we're looking at, that we can manage. But as soon as it's over, that surgery needs to occur. When I think about the spring season followed by the fall season, you're going to have a lot more of that as a primary health concern, surgeries that you're going to have in May, and in many cases that student-athlete is not going to be ready to return for that August season."
Given all of the above, a spring season is viewed as a last resort, but the alternative could be even more disruptive.
"If we don't have college football, almost every athletic department is going to be bankrupt," a Power 5 coach said. "We support every other sport other than maybe men's basketball, so I would think every AD and every commissioner would do anything they can to have the season. For one year, if it's a nontraditional season, who cares?"
In terms of the coronavirus itself, the only thing a spring start would guarantee is more time to prepare.
Multiple epidemiologists told ESPN that if COVID-19 behaves in a way similar to other respiratory viruses, it's reasonable to allow for another surge between December and February. The only thing pushing back the season to the spring guarantees is time to prepare. It is highly unlikely that the additional time will bridge the gap to the availability of a vaccine, but it would afford more time for the medical community to develop better treatment methods. More tests also could be more readily available, while college athletic departments can potentially implement more sophisticated plans on how to adapt as necessary.
"Even some of the medications, expecting that they'd be ready by January for any kind of mass distribution, I think is being really overly optimistic and certainly not the vaccine," said Dr. Jonathan Mayer, an epidemiologist, infectious disease specialist and professor emeritus at the University of Washington. "I don't really see a delay of three months making much difference. Better than nothing. It would buy some time and result in conditions where decisions don't have to be made quite as soon. But I think that's being overly optimistic." -- Adam Rittenberg
'It would be hard to say that it's not safe for fans ... but it's safe for 100 football players'
Boston College's Jeff Hafley has envisioned running out onto the field for his head-coaching debut countless times.
"It would be a little different coaching my first game as a head coach looking up and seeing the only one in the stands be [AD] Martin [Jarmond] waving at me," he said.
Just about everyone we spoke to cannot fathom college football without spectators, because fans are the lifeblood that separates the sport from so many others. Swarbrick said earlier this month, "I don't see a model where we play, at least any extended number of games, in facilities where we don't have fans."
There is a reason for that.
"The pageantry of college football and the fans are so much intertwined with the players and the game, I just know how much that means to the players and how much it means to the fans, I think that would be really hard to do," Texas Tech coach Matt Wells said.
Most coaches we spoke to favor delaying the start of the season in order for fans to be present.
"If we have to wait for just a little bit to give the fans what they've been waiting for and something to look forward to and provide them with some entertainment and allow them to have some fun and enjoyment, it's something we do have to talk about," Hafley said.
But there also is one question that comes up repeatedly during these conversations. If it's not safe for fans to be in the stands, why is it safe for the players?
"It would be hard to say that it's not safe for fans to be there, but it's safe for 100 football players, officials and coaches," one Power 5 coach said. "We have players from all over the country and what are these players going to do when we're not playing? Are they going to be sequestered? Are they going to be in one dorm? If we're doing that, am I going to go home and sleep in my own house? You're putting all these kids and coaches on the front lines. This thing is so contagious it takes one kid on your team to expose your team, your staff and your opponent. This whole idea they're going to put the participants in a bubble, especially the size of a football team, I find that a hard scenario."
Let's say fans are allowed to attend games. Athletic directors are already making plans for what that environment could look like as part of a "new normal." In a recent Seton Hall poll, 72% of Americans said they wouldn't attend games before there is a vaccine for the virus.
Louisville athletic director Vince Tyra said his department is rethinking the entire setup of the football stadium, from the concourses to the placement of tents outside the stadium to the number of gates used for entry.
"We all have a different philosophy about whether we want to be in a stadium of 50,000 people even after this has passed to make sure this is truly gone," Tyra said. "Some subset may say the coast is clear but another may say, 'I'll wait 90 days until I show up in the stadium.' What are you going to do about tailgating and social distancing in the parking lot or in the stands -- those concerns are secondary to what do I do about the packed lines at the entry gates -- that's where people are elbow to elbow. We're already thinking about those things."
There are too many uncertainties now to make any decisions about what the season will look like -- from conditioning, to how many games they play, to when it starts, to whether fans will be in the stands.
Several epidemiologists we spoke with were skeptical that shifting the college football season to the spring would make a significant difference in terms of being able to play in front of crowds.
"It's just hard to tell what would happen in the fall, but I think there's very unlikely to be anything in place that would allow large numbers of people to congregate, whether in August or January," said Dr. Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, School of Public Health. "When we lift these physical distancing and community mitigation methods, we're going to do it slowly and it will be, maybe stores will reopen.
"I'm just making this up [as an example], but maybe 20 people can be in there at the same time, you know? I graduated from the University of Michigan. The Big House has what, 105,000 people or something? That's a whole lot of people in one place." -- Andrea Adelson
ESPN reporters Kyle Bonagura and Mark Schlabach contributed to this report.