In March of 2020, we had reporters covering Spring camps around the country. We were at UCLA, where the media is kept outside a tarped gate so that no one can see practice. Having come from the upper parking lot, I had seen there was no equipment on the field for practice. Now we were waiting for our usual press gaggle with head coach Chip Kelly. An associate athletic director came over to tell us practice was cancelled. The school was addressing COVID concerns. There was no sense when practice would re-open. Only one reporter, Ben Bolch of the LA Times, had persistently asked about the virus in the week of Spring camp that did exist. The rest of us there failed to immediately recognize the seriousness of it until the coming weeks. How did we get here; where we are on the cusp of a CFB national championship game?
CFB National Championship; How Did We Get Here?
Of course, UCLA, along with schools across the country, never reopened at all in the Spring. And we went through much of the Summer doubting we would have a football season at all. As we sit just hours away from the national title game, how are we here?
As the universities themselves dealt with classes and the student population during an ever-evolving COVID pandemic, the football programs had their hands full. UConn got itself on the cablenets for being bold enough to cancel the season. But UConn truthfully cancelled because they had no one to play. They left the AAC a year early, had a year as an independent, and then on to new-ish Big East. The AAC was playing football. UConn was not. And its $40 million budget deficit grew. The MAC got similar lauding from the cablenets. The truth was the MAC bailed because, like so many smaller conferences and schools, they could not afford the testing protocols mandated by the NCAA for schools that were going to go forward and play.
“It Just Means More”
Of course, the “moving forward” group was always going to include the SEC, and ACC. Even though their represented states were struggling the most with the virus at that time, they had plans to isolate the athletes and not worry about how that reinforced that they were not real students like the rest of the campus population. The Big XII wanted to go forward, but waited to take the temperature of the other P5 conferences.
The Big 10 announced they would not play. They even leaked the results of a vote that actually never happened. Wisconsin Badgers President Rebecca Blank let it slip in congressional hearings that they don’t hold votes in the Big 10. They talk until they feel they can report a consensus. Big 10 commissioner Kevin Warren said there would be no going back on the decision.
Once the Big 10 did that, it gave cover to the Pac 12. There were school presidents in that conference who had never wanted the season to happen at all, and now they had partners in the shut down.
Playing = Money
But the schools in the south were always going to be there. For better or for worse, (and that judgement is to be found in a different column), the SEC missed only two games this Fall/Winter. Oh, sure every week was an absurd moving of games, rescheduling of opponents, and a stretch of everyone’s patience. But out of the total number scheduled, two were not played. The ACC went through the same process.
Smaller conferences that usually do not get prime time coverage, like the AAC, suddenly had spotlights all to themselves with the Pac 12 and Big 10 sitting it out.
Once the TV revenue was going all over the country, except to the two major conferences not playing, change was going to be in the wind. Just as forcefully as Warren said the Big 10 would not play, he was announcing they would be back in late October with a limited conference only schedule. And of course the Pac 12 was being towed along, doing a similar announcement with an early November start.
The two conferences gave themselves little to no wiggle room when teams got hit with COVID outbreaks. There was no room to reschedule or postpone games. Thus, their teams’ schedules were diminutive compared to other conferences.
Ohio State And Alabama
None the less, Ohio State got the waiver it needed from the Big 10 to participate in the conference championship game. It had not met the standards laid out in the re-start plan. But as was always the case with every game played across the country, this was about the revenue. Warren was not going to deprive all the teams in the Big 10 from the money that could be made gravy training off Ohio State’s potential success. The gamble paid off. The Buckeyes blistered Clemson and are facing perennial powerhouse Alabama Monday night for the national championship; a national championship in a season that almost never was.
Alabama did what Alabama does so often. It plowed through its conference schedule. It had more SEC games because it didn’t get to feast off the likes of The Citadel. But the Tide never receded one bit all season.
The Long And Winding Road
This is the eighth appearance in the national championship in the last dozen years for Alabama under head coach Nick Saban. But this journey has been unlike any other, for obvious reasons. Saban said Sunday morning, “Our team has shown a lot of maturity and perseverance throughout the season.” He said they had been preaching to the players since camp started that there would be distractions because of schedule changes, interruptions in the process, and attention on things other than football and school. “We told our players basically the team that shows the maturity to be able to handle disruptions is going to have the best chance to be successful in the end, and consistency in performance is always a key to success, and that perseverance has shown up in the way we’ve been able to play with consistency.”
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day lived in the regular chaos of the off/back-on, shortened Big 10 season. “I mean, when you think about that, it just kind of emphasizes the point of just how chaotic this past three, four, five months have been. Some days you woke up, you didn’t know which direction you were going in. Yeah, certainly there was a time where we didn’t think we’d have a season, when we weren’t sure if we were going to restart a season.”
As with Saban, Day said the challenge was keeping the focus of those under his direction. “I think, again, which goes to show you how strong our guys have been. Every program has gone through some different version of it. But yeah, I mean, at some point we’re going to sit back and go through all this stuff; now is not the time. All the focus is on playing in this game. But it certainly has been a strange road to get here.”
We Never Turned The Car Around
Any honest assessment of that road is going to have to happen at the administrative level, and it is going to be school by school. How much revenue was recouped by playing? Was it enough to save non-revenue sport scholarships/athletes that are reliant upon football playing? What was the price that was paid with regards to the health of the football players, coaches, and staff? Long term is a year or two away, so attempt at answers now is just worthless speculation.
Monday, the season that was not going to be, has a national championship game between two of the historic blue bloods in the country. “No one ever talks about getting to the National Championship, they talk about winning the National Championship. Along the way there are certain goals that you have to reach to get to this point, but the ultimate goal is to win this game,” Day said.
There are no fewer than a dozen story lines for this game. The health of Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields; the awesome amount of offensive firepower on the Alabama side of the field; offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian leaving Bama right after the game to take his new job as head coach at Texas; the emergence of Buckeyes running back Trey Sermon in the last few weeks of the season.
But the only real story line is that the 2020 college football season, for better or for worse, was played, and will have a champion crowned Monday night.