Back in April, not long after the NCAA basketball tournaments were canceled because of the pandemic, the idea of moving the college football season to the spring of 2021 already was being tossed around.
Conference commissioners and athletic directors called it a last resort. And when it looked like the fight against the coronavirus might be going well, the idea mostly fell by the wayside.
“We broached it very little in our AD meetings and really haven’t gotten serious about it at all,” Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez recalled Tuesday. “I had one AD from another league call and just talk about it a little bit.”
Time to start talking about it a lot.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 postponed fall football this week, hoping to salvage a spring season like the Mid-American Conference and Mountain West plan to do.
What that looks like is anybody's guess, but officials will need to figure out everything from how to prepare in the fall to how much to play in the spring, where in the calendar it could fit and who exactly is going to be suiting up for these teams.
Before a spring football season is planned, Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said, there has to be a discussion about next fall, too.
“I think the two have to be tied together. In my mind, we’ve made the decision and we’ve canceled the 2020 season," Chryst said. "Now how do we want to do 2021?”
Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and a member of the NCAA’s football oversight committee, said conversations about a spring football season have been minimal. There has been a theme: “We would all like to go into next fall with some kind of normalcy.”
Ohio State coach Ryan Day was clear on what he wanted.
“I think starting the first week of January would be the best way to go and an eight-week season,” he said.
Chryst coached in what was known at the time as the World League of American Football and later become NFL Europe. Occasionally players from that spring league would end up on NFL rosters the following fall.
“It’s a long season,” Chryst said.
Former NCAA executive and college football player Mark Lewis said playing two full seasons or even close to that should be a nonstarter.
“If you look back to the last 20 years of college football, there’s been a de-emphasis of spring activity, spring practice, the number of days you can practice, the number of days you can practice with pads, the number of contact practices you can have," he said. "All those have been reduced with purpose.”
“What are you gaining by playing in spring if you’re trying to add more games?" Lewis said. "I don’t think that’s necessarily a good idea.”
Exactly when a season could be played in the spring is likely to be determined, like many things, by the virus.
“I don’t think there’s a single indication that there could be a better situation in March, April and May then in September, October, November,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.
Schools have generally done a good job mitigating the virus's spread during voluntary workouts and noncontact practices over the last month. Whether that keeps up when schools starts remains to be seen, even with some schools doing most or all their classes online.
Berry said teams are not likely to send players home even without football games on the schedule. Day said the Buckeyes will still be tested once a week.
Keeping the players in shape might be easier than simply keeping them around.
More than two dozen FBS players, including some big stars from the Big Ten such as Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons and receivers Rondale Moore of Purdue and Rashod Bateman of Minnesota, opted out of the 2020 season even before the conference postponed.
Will other highly regarded future NFL players such as Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, Oregon offensive lineman Penei Sewell and Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth bother participating in a spring season?
"I think Justin wants to see what the schedule is,” Day said.
The NFL scouting combine is in late February and the draft is in late April. If the NFL does nothing to accommodate spring college football, some of the sure-thing players are almost certain to leave. The players who needed another year to improve their stock might be more inclined to stay and play. But an injury in the spring could be an even bigger problem when it comes time to earn a spot on an NFL roster in the summer.
Maybe players will still try to play in the fall but in another conference. The Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12, American Athletic Conference, Conference USA and Sun Belt are all still on track to start their seasons in September.
With a few weeks to go before classes start at most schools, there is still time for a player to transfer, apply for a waiver from the NCAA and maybe be eligible by the opening game.
“I know when the MAC made their decision (not to play in the fall), the phones were ringing in a lot of places, many of them quite honestly from other MAC coaches saying we’ve got a kid here, he wants to go, do you have a spot?" Chryst said.
Opportunities, though, would be limited.
FBS teams are allowed to sign 25 players per year, recruits or transfers, and at this point in the year most teams will be full or close to it.
Teams that lose players before a spring season could replace them with next year's signing class. Early enrollment is common for many football players who want to get on campus in time for spring practice. Now, maybe they can get game experience.
There is much to sort out, including the NCAA signing off on a spring football season.
"We’ll start diving into that more," Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said. “At this point in time, we'll see.”
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