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'It could all change tomorrow': Inside 49 days of purgatory for Mid-American Conference

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

No Football Bowl Subdivision conference was in purgatory longer than the Mid-American Conference.

On Aug. 8, the MAC became the first to pull the plug on fall football amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic. Then, on Friday night, the MAC became the last to officially reinstate the season.

The Mid-American Conference, which includes Eastern Michigan (pictured), will play a six-game schedule starting Nov. 3.

That was an excruciatingly long 49 days.

"Woof," said Tim Lester, head coach at Western Michigan. "It felt like two years."

The MAC announced Friday it will play a six-game fall season, starting Nov. 3. The first three weeks will be all midweek games. They'll move to the weekends for the second half of the season, with a championship game Dec. 18 or 19, and possibly at Detroit's Ford Field.

The MAC, Pac-12 and Mountain West all reinstated their fall football seasons last week, after the Big Ten had gone forward the week before.

Western Michigan went through training sessions Monday, and will start full-pads practices sometime next week. Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain said "fall camp" started Monday in Mount Pleasant. Eastern Michigan coach Chris Creighton said practice began Monday, but wouldn't call it fall camp — or anything.

"We don't know what to call it," Creighton said with a laugh. "We're literally labeling our practice schedule today. We've had 'spring ball,' 'summer ball, 'summer runthroughs,' 'fall ball,' all this stuff. I just said, put, 'Start of the season.'"

The MAC, even as the Big Ten reversed its decision, immediately continued to focus on opportunities to play a spring season, with a spring committee comprised of four coaches (including Lester), one athletic director, two players and one doctor meeting a handful of times in the past month-and-a-half.

The Big Ten's reversal the morning of Sept. 16 was followed almost instantly by a statement from the MAC, saying as much. That was a gut punch; no MAC coach knew that statement would be coming. But by the night of the Big Ten's decision, MAC athletic directors were talking again, and optimism was swirling.

"A complete 180," said Creighton, who still was cautioning players not to get hopes up. That Wednesday, one player started to ask, and Creighton quickly cut off the question. "In a matter of hours."

Two days later, MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher held a Zoom call that included all 12 head coaches, two players from each school, and multiple doctors.

"It was an awesome meeting, a big meeting," said Lester, who, it's worth noting, loves his meetings and loves planning — sometimes 16 months out — but has learned not to plan long-term anymore, calling his attempts to do so "a waste."

"The players got to ask questions. It was a pretty cool, but I still didn't know which way it was gonna go."

That, of course, has been a common refrain, for everyone, these past several months — the uncertainty.

"It could all change tomorrow," McElwain said, and, by the way, it still could.

On Sept. 19, MAC presidents met on a Zoom call. No vote was taken, but wheels were in motion.

In the days that followed, many MAC players and coaches made their voices heard, including Western Michigan's entire team, which put out a statement about its collective desire to play in the fall. That statement was put together by senior offensive guard (and future doctor) Mike Caliendo. Former WMU quarterback Alex Mussat did the graphic design. They didn't seek university approval before sending out the statement. That was followed by a we-want-to-play video that included one player from every MAC school.

Finally, on Friday, the MAC presidents met again and, this time satisfied with the medical advancements and the acquisition of enough tests, voted unanimously to reinstate the season. League schools still will take a bath financially, with no lucrative nonconference "buy" games, but all felt the bigger hit long-term would be staying on an island with spring football.

The MAC is expected to release its schedule this week; schedules will include five division games and one crossover. Rivals Western Michigan and Central Michigan are expected to play in Mount Pleasant this year, and not at Ford Field in Detroit, which had the been the plan pre-pandemic; that change makes sense, given fans won't be allowed at MAC games. Also coming out will be the conference's detailed medical protocols, which are expected to align heavily with the Big Ten's, including the 21-day sit-out time for a player who tests positive — as well as a cardiologist's clearance before that player can return.

MAC players will be tested four times a week; the Big Ten is testing daily.

"More than anything, I'm just really excited for our players," said McElwain, "and for them to have an opportunity to get this season, to play some games."

Not everyone will play, of course. Western Michigan has had five players opt out of the season, though star receiver D'Wayne Eskridge held out on making a decision and will now play. Eastern Michigan had three players opt out, including senior running back Willie Parker. Central Michigan had four players opt out.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984