The Texas Longhorns open their season Saturday at home against UTEP. The revised schedule this season is 10 games. (Stephen Spillman/For Statesman)

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Welcome back, college football, to ‘very stormy seas’ and an uncertain future

Posted August 29th, 2020

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Story highlights
  • The college football season was set to begin Saturday night, come hell or high water from the havoc-wreaking COVID-19 and destructive Hurricane Laura.
  • "If this is March to March and we’re back to some kind of normal, which I’m not predicting, certainly there are impacts," SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said. "You don’t go through what we are financially, socially and culturally and not have impacts.”
  • “The financial aspects are going to be massive," ESPN's Paul Finebaum told the American-Statesman. "I think the sport will go through a repositioning and a recalibration. I have no idea what it will be other than I think it will be in serious trouble when it’s all over.”

Hello, college football.

Good to see you again, old friend.

Just hoping we’ll recognize you since you may barely resemble your old self.

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No bands marching at halftime. Very few fans, if any, in the stands. Some stadiums capped at 25% capacity. The only student body left may be on the field because there may not be any students in some stadiums. Or in classrooms. Not enough eligible teams for 43 bowl games. A season without two major conferences.

The season was set to begin Saturday night, come hell or high water from the havoc-wreaking COVID-19 and destructive Hurricane Laura. Central Arkansas, an FCS playoff team a year ago when life extended beyond our living rooms, was to host Austin Peay on ESPN to kick off the 151st season of the sport. Of course, the entire nation has had Central Arkansas-Austin Peay circled for months, right? 

Uh, no.

But at this point, I’ll take the Central Arkansas JV against Austin Peay’s second team. We’re desperate. The nation is salivating over the chance to watch a college football game.

The LSU Tigers and Clemson Tigers met on Jan 13 in New Orleans for the 2019 College Football Playoff championship game, won by LSU. Technically, even in this 2020 season that’s been clouded by the coronavirus pandemic, canceled games and conferences calling off football, LSU and Clemson could meet again for this year’s title. Their ACC and SEC leagues are two of the three Power Five conferences still playing. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

However, the helter-skelter nature of the sport these days hardly inspires confidence that college football may ever be the same.

“My observation on Monday, March 16 to one of my staff was things won’t be the same when we come back,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey told me. “He said, ‘What do you mean?’ Higher education is changing. We’ve seen the acceleration of virtual learning. Content delivery will be different. But our campuses will adapt, and athletics will adapt.”

Two of the five Power Five conferences are still sitting out this season although there were reports, starting with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Friday, that the Big Ten is reconsidering its highly premature decision to abandon a fall season and play a spring season, starting in January in mostly indoor arenas. 

Sankey said a spring season was on the SEC’s list of contingencies as “a safe harbor in very stormy seas,” but almost a last resort.

Will Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields get a chance to play this season? The Big Ten postponed football season this fall back in early August, but reportedly now may be rethinking that decision. Fields was considered a top candidate for the Heisman Trophy this season. (Joe Maiorana/USA Today)

The Sentinel reported the Big Ten was at least contemplating starting its season during Thanksgiving week and concluding an eight-game schedule in early March, probably because the league fears losing revenue, exposure and recruits to other conferences.

Talk about turmoil.

It’s possibly the sport itself is in real trouble or clearly changing because of the pandemic as well as player empowerment. Obviously this was not all their own doing, but the schools themselves helped make their messy bed.

The schools didn’t help themselves with the arms race in terms of football facilities and coaching salaries and grandiose locker rooms, all of which may have invited severe shortfalls that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.

In short, we might ought to brace for landmark change in a sport this nation holds dear.

It won’t surprise if one domino could fall after another, once football peeks its head out from the raging pandemic.

Do some expect far-reaching, maybe even cataclysmic consequences after this year?

“Yes, I do,” ESPN commentator Paul Finebaum said during an American-Statesman interview for our “On Second Thought” podcast Thursday. “I think of all the questions about this season, that’s the most interesting and important: What is the sport going to look like at the end of all this?”

Who really knows?

Sankey shares the long-term concern.

“The pressures are there for everyone,” he said. “I don’t know how long this environment will last with vaccines and therapeutics that could become available. There are projections, and there is hope. If this is March to March and we’re back to some kind of normal, which I’m not predicting, certainly there are impacts. You don’t go through what we are financially, socially and culturally and not have impacts.”

Texas fans cheer as LSU quarterback Joe Burrow (9) prepares to snap the football at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Sept. 7, 2019. [Stephen Spillman for Statesman]
The possibilities run the gamut. 

Some big-time college athletic directors and conference commissioners declined to comment. The Big 12’s Bob Bowlsby said, “I don’t have anything to contribute at this time.”

Some don’t want to speculate because there are so many unknowns.

“You can kind of project what it could be,” Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte said of a long-lasting impact for football. “We’re in the eye of the storm, and it’s hard to see the other end. When the dust settles, we’ll see how the lay of the land is.”

It’s not outlandish to suggest many FBS athletic programs are living beyond their means. Not with 68 coaches making $2 million or more in annual salary, 16 getting paid more than $5 million and the majority living hand to mouth, according to the USA Today database.

So few athletic programs are profitable — one report estimated 20 of 1,000 athletic programs at all levels are in the red — it’s hard to imagine any of them not operating at a loss in their next fiscal year with a certain decline in ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, alumni donations and bowl revenue although Del Conte said he has been “overwhelmed by the response and generosity” of Longhorns season ticket-holders who are donating their money to the athletic department or applying it to the 2021 season.

The Big Ten and the Pac-12 have opted out of the fall college football season. The other Power Five leagues have revised all their teams’ schedules to account for fewer or no nonconference matchups. (Charlie Neibergall/The Associated Press)

“You can use any model you want,” Finebaum said. “No season for everyone. A complete season. Partial season. It is still going to be a mess when it’s over. 

“The financial aspects are going to be massive. I think the sport will go through a repositioning and a recalibration. I have no idea what it will be other than I think it will be in serious trouble when it’s all over.”

Here are some possibilities but not predictions:

  • The list of 130 FBS programs could drastically shrink. Many don’t belong in that division anyway and just want a piece of the big-time money with the appearance of being high-profile to attract tuition-paying students.
  • Many schools will cut non-revenue sports. Del Conte said he knows of no Big 12 schools that will slash sports and said Texas has no plans to scuttle any of its 20 programs. Sankey said none has been cut in the SEC.
  • Could realignment be triggered? Here’s looking at you, Nebraska. Anyone else unhappy?
  • Will the Big Ten and Pac-12 be playing catch-up to the other three Power Five conferences for years if they don’t play a season before September 2021?
  • Will Big Ten and Pac-12 athletes transfer in droves? One UCLA offensive tackle is transferring to Baylor. Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin is openly advocating more transfers from schools choosing not to play.
  • How many schools will resort to furloughs and layoffs to minimize their revenue losses?
  • Will the television networks renegotiate their contracts and downsize their payouts? Del Conte says no at this point, but if there are fewer games, would it surprise if the ESPNs and Foxes ask for rebates?
  • If the Big Ten and Pac-12 and other Group of Five schools make spring football viable, when will someone suggest two seasons in every calendar year? That’s clearly absurd, but if they think it’s safe …
  • With the NCAA decision to freeze eligibility for all athletes in 2020 spring and fall sports, will it also force raising scholarship limits permanently for football to manage their rosters?
  • As such, will athletes clog up these rosters with a glut of eligible players and be forced to attend junior colleges for scholarships as a last resort? And with a bigger supply of talent, will coaches run off marginal players?
  • A college football player association could arise.
  • Five years of eligibility could replace the four-game redshirt rule.
  • Players will begin receiving the benefits of the name, image and likeness rulings.
  • And, finally, will the 65 Power Five schools and Notre Dame break off from the NCAA and form their own organization free of restrictions and entanglements forced on them by smaller schools?

Don’t expect that to happen because someone has to run 90 sports. As Del Conte said, “I don’t see any of that stuff right now. The NCAA is us. We govern ourselves.”

And they’ll do so under new and increased scrutiny with much less revenue.

Welcome back, football. A murky future awaits you.

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