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No EMU, CMU, WMU football in 2020: MAC is first FBS conference to cancel fall sports

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
From left, WMU coach Tim Lester, CMU coach Jim McElwain and EMU coach Chris Creighton.

By going last, the Mid-American Conference actually went first.

The MAC on Saturday became the first FBS conference to officially cancel all of its fall sports, including football, citing player and health and safety, though the member schools' financial outlook was a strong consideration as well.

The MAC, with athletic directors and presidents meeting twice a week for months and four times over the past week, has sat back and watched as all the other FBS conferences have announced some plan for college football, many of them hoping for conference-only schedules or something similar.

Finally, on Saturday morning, a unanimous decision was reached by the MAC presidents. Saturday's meeting was the third this week. Presidents postponed a vote Thursday.

The MAC has 12 football teams, including Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan and Western Michigan. 

"If you told me in March we would be here today, I would never have believed it," MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said.

"I'm crushed by this decision. I'm so disappointed.

"We're making decisions for the right reasons. That's the bottom line."

The cancellation of fall sports, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, also affects men's and women's cross country, men's and women's soccer, field hockey and women's volleyball.

The decision impacts about 2,500 student athletes, many of whom will seek an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA. The NCAA and schools' continue to work through the eligibility issues, which are mighty complex.

Steinbrecher said he hopes to provide the fall athletes opportunities in the spring, including possibly a spring football season, but acknowledged, "the virus is going to continue to make decisions for us."

"I know this news affects many of you deeply," Eastern Michigan president James M. Smith said in a statement. "Please know that I share in your disappointment."

Steinbrecher said Saturday's decision was based almost entirely on student health and safety, and that the MAC has regularly consulted with its medical experts.

But finances can't be ignored.

With decisions by many of the other FBS conferences — starting with the Big Ten, which was the first to announce a conference-only schedule — many MAC schools already had lost what are called "buy games," or road football games against marquee opponents that can net MAC universities a critical payday often in the high six figures or even low seven figures.

Central Michigan lost Nebraska ($1.3 million) and Northwestern ($850,000), Eastern Michigan lost Missouri ($1.1 million) and Kentucky ($350,000), and Western Michigan was going to a home game with Syracuse (Now, WMU loses its road game with Notre Dame, costing it $1.1 million). Western Michigan also went through two opening opponents, both having canceled their season (Colgate and Stony Brook).

The NCAA also recently mandated weekly COVID-19 testing for all student athletes, which is no small cost. At nearly $100 per test, that's a significant financial burden for mid-major institutions like EMU, CMU and WMU, especially given there's little to no revenue coming in — because even if the MAC proceeded with college football, it would be doing so without fans in attendance. The MAC has a TV deal with ESPN, but it's nowhere near the money boon that Power Five schools receive from their national TV packages.

"While this decision is difficult for many in our university community, it prioritizes of the health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and other participants," said Central Michigan athletic director Michael Alford, in a statement. 'We will get through this together."

Said Eastern Michigan athletic director Scott Wetherbee, also in a statement: "This is not the outcome anyone would have hoped for, but it is the right one. ... Our department will remain focused on ensuring the safest experience possible, as we pivot to provide training and development opportunities. As is always the case, Eastern Michigan athletics will fully support our student-athletes through this challenging time in their athletic and academic pursuits."

Western Michigan athletic director Kathy Beauregard hadn't commented as of 1 p.m. Saturday.

Earlier in the week, Connecticut, an independent school, became the first FBS institution to cancel its football season. At the FCS level, the Big Sky canceled its football season, leaving that division's championship in doubt. Also, the NCAA canceled Division II and Division III fall sports championships. 

In the FBS, the highest level of Division I competition, conferences have announced the following football decisions: American Athletic Association with eight conference games and up to four nonconference games, ACC with 10 conference games and one nonconference game, Big 12 with nine conference games and one nonconference game, Big Ten with 10 conference games, Conference USA with eight conference games while leaving nonconference decisions up to the schools, Mountain West with eight conference games and up to two nonconference games, Pac-12 with 10 conference games, SEC with 10 conference games, and Sun Belt with eight conference games and up to four nonconference games.

The strong belief throughout college circles, however, is that the MAC may be the first but won't be the last FBS conference to pull the plug on the 2020 football season. Several programs have had extended shutdowns amid COVID-19 outbreaks, including Michigan State and Rutgers in the Big Ten, and in the last month, dozens of athletes from Big Ten and Pac-12 have signed unity letters, asking their conferences for health and safety assurances.

No wonder, then, that moving to spring football seasons and even July NCAA basketball tournaments have been an increasingly hot topic among coaches and athletic directors over the past several weeks.

"I really don't know," Steinbrecher said Saturday during a call with reporters, speaking about what other leagues might do in the wake of the MAC's announcement. "I don't try to judge what other folks are doing.

"I'll leave it to you to ask them those questions.

"This is simply a miserable decision."

Steinbrecher said no decisions have been made on winter sports, including college basketball. MAC officials will continue to be updated regularly by medical experts; college basketball seasons for men and women, which had their NCAA Tournaments canceled early in the pandemic, are set to start in early November. Steinbrecher also declined to detail how a spring football season would work, or what it would look like. Development of a COVID-19 vaccine is likely to determine how and when the MAC resumes competition.

The MAC, already feeling the financial crunch in May, previously announced it was cancelling postseason tournaments in baseball, softball, men's and women's soccer, men's and women's tennis, women's lacrosse and field hockey for the next four years. Several MAC teams also have cut sports programs amid the pandemic, including Central Michigan eliminating its men's indoor and outdoor track program. The highest-paid administrators and coaches at EMU, CMU and WMU also have taken voluntary pay cuts.

With Saturday's news, MAC athletic directors have expressed concern that department jobs could be lost, and that MAC players would start exploring the transfer portal in earnest.

"Our institutions will make whatever decisions they will have to make," Steinbrecher said.

One notable casualty of Saturday's announcement: Rivals Central Michigan and Western Michigan were to play their annual football game at Ford Field on Oct. 17. It's unclear if that downtown Detroit game is rescheduled for a future year.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984