Big Ten will postpone football season until spring; coaches plead to play

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Big Ten football coaches, including Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, have made last-ditch efforts to have a football season this fall. But the Big Ten is expected to cancel the football season and all fall sports this week, postponing until the spring, two sources told The Detroit News earlier Monday.

Meanwhile, as Big Ten athletic directors reportedly are meeting Monday night, ESPN College GameDay analyst Kirk Herbstreit tweeted the Big Ten is "looking to delay the start of the season not to cancel." 

The News' sources requested anonymity because there has not been an official announcement from the conference. Other fall sports that would be postponed: men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer and women’s volleyball.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 will cancel their football seasons on Tuesday, according to a report by Dan Patrick on his national radio show.

Just days after Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren revealed a 10-game composite Big Ten schedule last Wednesday, the fall season has come tumbling down as Big Ten university presidents expressed deep concerns regarding COVID-19 and potential long-term effects on athletes should they contract the virus. In mid-March, colleges across the country halted on-campus activities because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Early Monday, Dan Patrick on the “The Dan Patrick Show” said that 12 of the 14 Big Ten presidents had voted against having a fall football season, including Michigan’s and Michigan State’s presidents. Iowa and Nebraska were the two that voted to play football, according to Patrick, citing a source. Later reports, however, said the Big Ten had not voted.

A report Monday in the Columbus Dispatch said incoming president Kristin Johnson would not vote to cancel the season but favors a delay.

Big Ten presidents and chancellors met Sunday night, a day after a regularly scheduled meeting on Saturday when a source told The Detroit News that Warren preferred playing in the spring. The Big Ten on Saturday issued a statement that football teams, which had just opened preseason camp, could  practice with helmets-only and not move to padded practices as scheduled.

Multiple reports Sunday night said the Big Ten, along with several conferences, planned to cancel the upcoming fall season this week. The Mid-American Conference on Saturday announced it was canceling its fall sports season, and The News, citing multiple sources, said there was growing sentiment among officials at Michigan and Michigan State that the football season would be postponed.

Michigan president Mark Schlissel, an immunologist, expressed doubts about the football season as early as May. He was on record at the time saying there would be not football season if students were not on campus, but students are returning.

“I don’t want to set false expectations,” Schlissel told the Wall Street Journal in May. “They’re really not as declarative as they appear.”

Also at that time, Harbaugh appeared on ESPN and said “heck yeah” he’d be comfortable coaching a game without fans and said his team was on board to do so.

“If the choice were play in front of no fans or not play, then I would choose to play in front of no fans. And darn near every guy I’ve talked to on our team, that’s the way they feel about it.”

Harbaugh on Monday shared a lengthy statement saying he advocates for football this fall not because he and his staff and players want to play, but because eight weeks of data – from the time the Michigan players returned for voluntary workouts through the first days of camp – support his stance:

“I am advocating on August 10 that this virus can be controlled and handled because of these facts: The Michigan football program has had 11 positive tests out of 893 administered, including three upon initial return to campus; we have had two positive tests out of the last 417 administered; we have had zero positive tests out of the last 353 administered; there have been zero positives tests among the coaches or staff over the entire eight weeks of testing.”

More: 'We will not cower from it': Jim Harbaugh uses data to support claim that football should be played

Harbaugh’s statement was followed by a growing number of conference coaches pushing back on the Big Ten’s move toward postponement. And this came on the heels of players across the country posting on social media, “#WeWanttoPlay” in earnest beginning Sunday night.

“Swinging as hard as we possibly can right now for these players!! This isn’t over! #FIGHT” Ohio State coach Ryan Day wrote on Twitter.

Penn State coach James Franklin issued a comment on social media saying he is “willing to fight WITH them & for our program,” referring to his players.

Perhaps the boldest of the coaches was Nebraska’s Scott Frost, who said in a news conference that his program is “committed to playing” even if it’s not in the Big Ten.

“We want to play a Big Ten schedule. I hope that’s what happens,” Frost said Monday. “Our university is committed to playing no matter what that looks like and how that looks. We want to play no matter who it is or where it is, so we’ll see how all those chips fall. We certainly hope it’s in the Big Ten. If it isn’t, I think we’re prepared to look for other options.”

More: Wojo: Big Ten football shouldn’t pull the plug, just yet

Gerry DiNardo, a former head football coach now on the Big Ten Network, told The News that speaking as a coach, not having a football season would be hard to handle.

“It’s how you make a living, it’s your life,” DiNardo said Monday. “There could be nothing more disappointing professionally than not having the chance to play, but it’s still not a family member passing or someone getting sick or all the problems in the world. But professionally speaking, regardless what kind of team I had coming back, whether it was bad, decent, good, great, it would be the most disappointing thing professionally that could happen to a coach.”

Scott Frost

It also is the worst thing that could happen to athletic departments, which are driven by the money football generates. Athletic directors from Michigan and Michigan State have said no fall football season will result in significant financial losses for their departments.

Michigan football generated $122,270,243 of the department’s $148,637,051 total revenue last year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics Data Analysis. Michigan State football generates $75,545,976 of the department’s total revenue of $104,119,055.

Speaking with the Lansing Economic Club on Monday, Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman said revenue loss will be steep for the Spartans’ athletic department.

“When we think about the pandemic and what might happen,” Beekman said, “if there is no football there is a loss of $80 to $85 million in direct revenue.”

Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, in a letter to football season ticket-holders last week, said the athletic department had budgeted $61 million less in revenues this year and said it could be in triple digits if a decision is made not to play sports.

Manuel said the athletic department is “navigating a historic financial challenge” and has implemented cost-cutting measures. He asked season-ticket holders to consider donating what they would have spent on tickets this season to the athletic department.

The department’s resolve, Manuel wrote, is to support the more than 900 student-athletes at the university.

“Given the anticipated loss of revenue due to limited or no fans at our games, our department faces an unparalleled level of financial uncertainty,” Manuel wrote. “As a direct result of COVID-19, we budgeted $61 million less in revenues this year, which could easily double if the decision is not made to play any sports.”

Staff writer Matt Charboneau contributed.

Twitter: @chengelis