Texas uniforms sit on the sideline as players warmup before a Big 12 Conference football game at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. [Stephen Spillman for Statesman]

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Texas’ Del Conte, peers prepare for all scenarios, even spring football

Posted July 4th, 2020

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Story highlights
  • Is spring football even possible for 130 FBS schools? “Absolutely,” Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder told me Friday. “Anything is possible. It might not be preferred but anything is possible."
  • OU athletic director Joe Castiglione said if you consider all football-related revenues, OU would be “at risk” of losing “north of $110 million” if no football. The bulk of that would come in ticket sales and annual giving.
  • “Roughly 30 days before the start of the season, some decision has to be made,” Castiglione said. “But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be made earlier than that. I am not predicting. There’s no doomsday tone in anything I’m saying."

Chris Del Conte has heard it all.

Darn near every scenario under the sun.

College football on schedule. No chance of college football. Delayed football. Football in the spring. And then again in the fall of 2021.

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“I’ve heard ‘em all,” the shaggy-bearded Texas athletic director said on Thursday. “Everyone is just floating ideas out there. What is practical? What is factual? They tease out every scenario. I don’t think anything is off the table.”

But Texas-OU … in April?

The Big 12 championship game … next May?

The college football title game … on the Fourth of July, perhaps?

Is spring football even possible for 130 schools?

“Absolutely,” Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder told me Friday. “Anything is possible. It might not be preferred, but anything is possible. Our athletes, they just want to play. They came here to compete.”

Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione thinks moving the 2020 college football season to the spring of 2021 may not be as bad as it sounds, especially if you consider the alternative: No football at all. (Kevin Jairaj/USA Today)

Oklahoma’s Joe Castiglione feels the same. He is part of a Big 12 subcommittee including athletic directors from Baylor, Kansas State, TCU and West Virginia that’s tasked with responding to issues that could crop up during the season. OU coach Lincoln Riley thinks spring football is possible, too.

“It’s absolutely feasible, doable, possible. Absolutely,” Castiglione said. “It definitely can happen. The bottom-line question is if someone was asked would you rather have spring football or no football, then you find out if they like the idea.”

But then, Castiglione says, you start to peel the onion and see all the layers. 

Like the conflict with contracts with television networks that might also be committed to showing the NBA, major league baseball, the NHL, the Masters and even the NCAA basketball tournament. Could you play a football season in the spring and again the following fall for two complete seasons in the span of nine months? Would some star players choose to forgo spring football to prepare for the NFL draft and big dollars? Would a vaccine even be available by spring?

Then there’s the big bucks at stake for schools and leagues.

Longhorns fans give the “Hook ‘Em Horns” sign as the big state flag is unfurled before the start of a game at Royal Memorial Stadium. (Mark Matson/For Statesman)

Asked what no football for a year would cost the OU program, Castiglione said, “A lot.”

He said if you consider all football-related revenues, Oklahoma would be “at risk” of losing “north of $110 million.” The bulk of that would come in ticket sales and annual giving.

“These are unprecedented times,” Castiglione said. “But all we can do is put all our attention and energy into preparing, not predicting. I’m an AD, not an MD.”

So here we sit, less than two months before college football is supposed to kick off with six games on Aug. 29, including openers such as UCLA-New Mexico State and Arizona-Hawaii.

Texas begins its Season of Hope on Sept. 5 at home against South Florida. The next week, the Longhorns head to Baton Rouge for a rematch with LSU.

But it could all come screeching to a halt in an instant, just as the NBA season did.

University of Illinois computer science professor Sheldon Jacobson told CBS Sports that he expects a 30-50% COVID-19 infection rate among the 13,000 FBS players and possibly three to seven deaths. “A few of them could end up in the hospital, and you’ll have a small number who could die,” Jacobson said. “I don’t want to sugarcoat it for you. I just want to give you the facts. … If everybody comes together under normal circumstances, we’ll probably see that kind of outcome. … I guarantee someone is going to die. The virus does not discriminate.”

No one even wants to imagine that, and Castiglione said, “I have not been part of any conversation where (deaths) have been raised, but we’re keeping everything in mind. This doesn’t mean we’re tone-deaf or obtuse.”

Del Conte, too, remains eternally positive, but that may just be his DNA talking.

“I’m always optimistic,” he said. “It’s an ebb and flow. At this point in time, we’re in a wait-and-see pattern, but we’re 64 days out, and I’m optimistic we’ll have football in the fall. We’re preparing for football in the fall with fans in the stands. My optimism doesn’t wane.” 

Unfortunately, neither does the coronavirus. The state of Texas has been setting records with numbers of new cases, total confirmed cases and hospitalizations.

The governor of South Carolina sent alarms when he said there will be no home games for Clemson or South Carolina if the trajectory of cases doesn’t start going down. On Friday, Kansas canceled voluntary workouts after 14 players tested positive. The OU football team has had 14 positive tests, seven before the players showed up at the football complex, and seven or so athletes in other sports are infected, Castiglione revealed. Oklahoma State has had 14 as well, 12 of them football and two baseball players.

Since Texas’ players returned for voluntary workouts, 13 initially tested positive, and none since. Of those 13, Del Conte said three-fourths have since recovered and are testing negative. Starting Monday, the school’s volleyball team and men’s and women’s basketball teams are scheduled to report to campus. Football will start the next phase of workouts on July 13.

“I think everyone shares an optimism on football in the fall,” Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte said, “and we’re all planning accordingly.” (Nick Wagner/American-Statesman)

Meanwhile, Del Conte’s athletic department staff is working up game-day logistics that it may reveal soon. Currently, he says they have a plan and feel comfortable they can accommodate all their season ticket holders in Royal-Memorial Stadium, even with a student-body audience that ranges between 16,000 and 20,000 in number, depending on the appeal of the game matchup. Texas sold 62,737 season tickets last season.

“We’re in good shape. We’ve had close to 80% renewals on season tickets,” Del Conte said while checking out a map of the stadium, which will have a capacity of 100,000 or so once the south end zone renovation is completed. “If everything stays the way it is, I think every single season-ticket holder will have a seat in the stadium. And we’ll take care of the students, but we have to have a social-distance plan.”

OU has also received 80% renewals of its 64,000 season ticket base but reserves just 8,000 tickets for its students.

So much promise. So much uncertainty.

The bottom line is this:

No one really knows.

Not even Gov. Greg Abbott, who celebrated the reopening of bars and restaurants only to shutter them again at the end of June. On Thursday he issued a statewide mask order for anyone in public spaces. 

Sound to you like a pandemic in retreat? Yeah, me neither.

Forgive me if I anticipate September football with more than a modicum of skepticism. I’m not alone.

“I’m leaning toward no right now,” former Longhorns linebacker great Brian Jones of CBS Sports said during our ‘On Second Thought’ podcast. “Of course, the guinea pigs are going to be the NBA (which has 25 positive cases). We’ve just got to wait and see. But we’re building this bad boy on the fly. That’s the landscape.”

Schools and pro leagues and media outlets almost have to operate out of a best-case scenario if only because the alternative is too gloomy. But don’t discount any possibility.

The idea that the Ivy League is touting of a possible spring season starting in April with only conference games is entirely plausible. But it’s not really realistic to expect young athletes to play two football seasons within one calendar year.

In truth, if the economic factor could be dismissed from the equation — and obviously it cannot — the country should probably close down ALL sports for the rest of 2020 and, fingers crossed, hope to start anew next year. 

Already schools like Iowa and Iowa State and Kansas State have announced budget cutbacks and salary cuts. Schools like USC have said fall classes will be taught primarily online, and is it really fair to bring back student-athletes when it’s not safe for students?

“No way can you do social distancing on a football field,” Jones said. “When I played, my core objective was to knock the snot out of you.”

The drop-dead deadline for college football has to be approaching soon. 

“Roughly 30 days before the start of the season, some decision has to be made,” Castiglione said. “But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be made earlier than that. I am not predicting. There’s no doomsday tone in anything I’m saying. Some would say we don’t have to make a decision right now, but common sense would tell you we’re getting closer.”

Yet the number of positive cases continues to rise, spiking even at what was supposed to be the end of the first wave. Here we are in the first week of July, and some state governments are rolling back many of the reopenings from May.

The coast, most certainly, is not clear.

And there is no one-size-fits-all protocol. While almost every team reports positive tests, Penn State and Michigan State have reported zero infections.

LSU and Clemson, the two teams that battled for last season’s national championship, shook the sports world with reports of up to 37 positive tests between them. That only ignited conspiracy theories that they purposely infected players to create a herd immunity and speed up the painful transition to recovery and full health in time for the season, a philosophy most reject.

Del Conte’s heard that, too. But he gives it no credibility at all.

“I think everyone shares an optimism on football in the fall,” he said, “and we’re all planning accordingly.”

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