Thirty-six days. That’s how long the 2020 Big Ten football season spent in a coffin before rising from the grave on Wednesday morning. These five weeks (plus one day) will reverberate in college athletics for years and years to come.
Here are 12 thoughts on what we learned and where we’re going.
1. The Big Ten brought this all on itself. No one forced the Big Ten to start its season on Sept. 3, and no one forced the conference to make an all-or-nothing decision on Aug. 11. Had the Big Ten decided to begin on Sept. 26, it seems far more likely than not that its teams would be preparing to kick off next weekend.
2. No one should declare victory just yet. The SEC has yet to play a single game yet. Thirty percent of the Big 12’s roster was unable to play last weekend, and the ACC has already postponed multiple conference games. This season is going to be a day-to-day proposition where nothing is guaranteed, and that’s going to remain the case throughout.
3. You’d always rather err on the side of caution, especially in regards to young people’s health. But being the most cautious doesn’t automatically make you the most correct.
4. In relation to that point, the Big Ten’s protocols are tough. One positive test will sideline athlete for 21 days. A team positivity rate of greater than 5 percent and a “population” positivity rate above 7.5 percent will knock a team out of competition for seven days. Both metrics must be met for a team to shut down.
5. I always found the idea that sportswriters were rooting against the season to be both ridiculous and offensive. But I understand Joe Fan might come to that conclusion, for two reasons. First, 2020 has to be the worst year for mental health in this country in living memory, and the daily tick, tick, tick of bad news in July and August wore on people. The prospect of losing the religion of football — after losing all we did in the spring and summer — became too much for some to bear. At some point, it just becomes cathartic to shoot the messenger.
At the same time, I think people — primarily those behind the scenes — became too confident in their opinions on something no one could control and no one could predict. Take this tweet from Pat Forde back on Aug. 8:
Prominent industry source: "I think by the end of the week the fall sports will be postponed in all conferences."
— Pat Forde (@ByPatForde) August 8, 2020
Moments after the MAC shut down its season on Aug. 8, the Big Ten started floating trial balloons about its impending decision. Pat’s source was incorrect at the time and now, with five weeks of hindsight, laughably wrong. Could you view that tweet as part of an influence campaign to coax the SEC, ACC and Big 12 in line behind the Big Ten and Pac-12? Reader, you could.
I don’t blame Pat for reporting what a prominent industry source told him, I blame the source for forming an opinion while standing on quicksand.
6. How did the Big Ten justify bringing football back in September after shutting it down in August? Here’s Northwestern president Morton Schapiro: “The medical advice I realized on said there was virtually no chance we could do it safely. We weren’t going to have the testing and the protocols. Then medical opinion changed. There have been a lot of advances in understanding the pandemic, myocarditis and the like in the past five weeks. The facts changed, and our minds changed.”
Do with that what you will.
7. On some level, the Big Ten should be commended for its about face. No one will ever come out and say as much, but that’s what today is about. Daily testing is undeniably a major development but was not available in August, but cardiologists have known about myocarditis long before COVID-19 appeared and the Big Ten’s opinion on its threat was in the minority.
Certainly, the Big Ten read the room incorrectly back in August, so badly that just eight days after postponing the season, commissioner Kevin Warren was forced to say the decision “will not be revisited.” Little did he know where he’d find himself by Sept. 16. Little did he know at that time that Central Arkansas would play two games safely while Ohio State played none.
Big Ten presidents could have dug their heels in, and they didn’t. We can be mad at them all they want, but let’s be grateful they changed their minds. As Michael Scott once said, “It takes a big man to admit his mistake. I am that big man.”
“The biggest thing that we had to realize is that this is a fluid situation. This is a situation where we need to adapt. We need to be able to adapt,” Warren said today. “We need to make sure that we create an environment where our student-athletes can compete in intercollegiate athletics in a safe and healthy environment. Once we were able to create that environment, we were able to move forward.”
8. Urban Meyer on what coaches will have to focus on over the next five weeks. “The fundamentals looked very poor to me when I watched (the first two weeks). It has absolutely got to be on point as far as fundamentals. I mean blocking, tackling. If the first time you go live is on October 24, it’s not going to go well. You’ve got to get your players ready for contact.”
Michigan State has not held a single padded practice since Mel Tucker’s staff was hired in February.
9. The idea of a Plus-1 schedule is so brilliant I’m mad I didn’t think of it myself. For those not aware, the East and West division champions won’t be the only Big Ten teams playing on Championship Saturday, Dec. 19. The second-place teams will play each other, as will the third-place teams, fourth-place teams and so on. It’s a great idea by the conference to give its athletes an extra opportunity to compete.
And the schaudenfreude potential is off the chart.
Finally, we can figure out EXACTLY who the worst team is in the Big Ten. By settling it on the field, the way God intended.
— Matt Brown (@MattBrownEP) September 16, 2020
10. For years, the Big Ten fashioned itself as the moral authority of big-time college athletics. This is a conference that tried its best to marry an Ivy League attitude with SEC performance — a line that some people actually bought. The league clearly thought it was leading a march to the right side of history by becoming the first Power 5 conference to postpone its season — while, it must not be forgotten, waiting for the MAC to rip the band aid off at the FBS level — and the ACC, SEC and Big 12 called their bluff. Those conferences took a risk in doing so, but that risk paid off.
Those events can’t just be forgotten. Especially not after the Big Ten blindsided the rest of the sport by going conference-only without telling anyone, then engaged in an influence campaign for the other leagues to follow them into darkness.
For a generation, nothing happened in college football without Mike Slive and Jim Delany’s stamp of approval. Those days are gone, and Greg Sankey has stepped, mostly alone, into that power vacuum. (I would include ACC commissioner John Swofford here, but he’s on his way into retirement.)
College football does not have a commissioner, but Greg Sankey (with a nod to the Big 12’s Bob Bowlsby) now stands as the sport’s strongest authority.
11. On a macro level, I hope this was a lesson for everyone in the democratic process. Coaches, players and parents led the way, but we would not be here today without sustained pressure from Big Ten fan bases. Ryan Day, Scott Frost, Jim Harbaugh, Randy Wade… none of their voices would have carried near as far without an army behind them.
When people demand a solution and don’t let up until they get one, change happens. We all just watched it happen. Now what other ways can we change society for the better?
12. The past five weeks were unprecedented in college sports. Who could have ever imagined back on Aug. 11 where the next 36 days would take us? The conference couldn’t agree on a vote — its totals, nor even its existence — until a lawsuit by Nebraska players forced the conference to disclose the outcome. Players’ parents held a protest outside of conference headquarters. Two different state attorneys general threatened legal action against the conference. A group of state lawmakers from across the conference got involved. An entire universe of realignment-era fan fiction sprouted up out of nowhere. The president got involved.
This story was the ride of a lifetime. Let’s never do it again.