There was no denying that playing the 2020 college football season amid the coronavirus pandemic presented a host of concerns. And after the Big Ten Conference on Tuesday became the first Power 5 league to postpone its fall sports season, the NCAA and the Big Ten powers that be will have an increasing list of concerns to address.
Even with the hurdles faced to salvage the college football season, Maryland coach Mike Locksley thinks a spring football season is “definitely feasible.”
“I’ve had a chance to be on lots of phone calls with coaches and [athletic directors] here in the conference,” Locksley said Thursday on a Zoom call, his first public comments since the Big Ten postponed the fall sports season, citing health concerns with the coronavirus pandemic.
“I do know that our coaches along with our athletic directors have been really creative in the thought process behind it. … I feel really good about the way that infrastructure looks and I anticipate us being able to pull it off.”
The week after Maryland opened preseason camp quickly shifted from cautious optimism to disappointment. The Terps began preparations for their second season under Locksley last Friday. The team had conducted two practices, one each on Friday and Saturday, when the Big Ten instructed schools to remain in the acclimatization period of practice with helmets and no pads.
As the Mid-American Conference became the first Football Bowl Subdivision league to postpone its fall season and reports began to surface about a potential stoppage by the Big Ten, Locksley moved carefully.
The team had a scheduled day off Sunday and was set to practice Monday, but Locksley paused everything and kept his players in The Hotel, where the team was staying for preseason camp, while Big Ten officials sorted things out.
By 2:45 p.m. Tuesday, Maryland’s athletic department arranged a virtual meeting with its fall student-athletes to inform them their seasons were being delayed. The Big Ten’s official announcement came 15 minutes later. The Pac-12 followed an hour later, postponing all sports competitions for the remainder of the year.
“What made it difficult was obviously knowing the players had made some sacrifices — our players, staff and our support staff — had all made tremendous sacrifices from June 1 to get us to this point to see if we could play,” Locksley said. “But the disappointment is obviously in finding out that we decided to pause it.”
Maryland will allow players to continue workouts and those who choose to do so will continue to undergo testing for COVID-19. Locksley is also hopeful he can use the coming months to keep his team in shape and “virtually game plan” for the season, whenever that may be.
On Thursday, Purdue coach Jeff Brohm announced a detailed plan for what a spring season could look like. His proposal outlines an eight-game season beginning Feb. 27 and finishing April 17, with postseason play ending by May 15. It also includes a truncated fall 2021 schedule that would feature 10 games and begin Oct. 2 after a four-week training camp.
But in many respects, Locksley is still looking to the NCAA for answers, particularly if the season cannot be played.
A lost season would bring forth myriad questions concerning scholarships and eligibility for seniors. These same issues arose in March, when the coronavirus outbreak forced the cancellation of spring sports. The NCAA responded by allowing schools to offer spring-sports student-athletes an extra year of eligibility.
Locksley said despite the uncertainty of scholarships and eligibility, he’ll continue “actively recruiting” the Class of 2021 but acknowledged that retaining this year’s seniors and bringing in another sizable recruiting class could cause financial headaches for the athletic department.
Since the decisions from the Big Ten and Pac-12, the NCAA Division I Council recommended a one-year extension of the five-year period of eligibility for any player whose season is cut short because of the pandemic.
A measure such as this would be welcomed by fifth-year senior running back Jake Funk, as well as the countless athletes worried their college careers may have been dashed unexpectedly.
“We have guys that are ready to go play their senior seasons, which is their last shot,” Locksley said. “And to tell them there’s no football now is a tough pill to swallow and hard for all of us.”