'They want to play': Jim Harbaugh hopes COVID won't sideline college football this fall

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh knows the decision regarding playing the upcoming season is not in his hands as the country continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Harbaugh said he and his players want to play as long as students are allowed back to campus, and he has no issue playing in empty stadiums if it’s determined there can be football without fans present. But he also said he bows to the experts and will certainly understand if proceeding with a fall season is deemed unsafe.

Michigan suspended all on-campus activities in mid-March in response to the pandemic. According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, there have been nearly 3 million cases reported across the country and more than 130,000 COVID-related deaths. In Michigan, 73,269 cases have been reported and 6,221 deaths as of Wednesday afternoon.

Harbaugh, meeting with local reporters on a video conference Wednesday, said if students are on campus, he knows Michigan will have safety precautions in place.

Michigan is scheduled to open the season Sept. 5 at Washington.

“I would feel good with the medical oversight for the student-athletes, students in general,” Harbaugh said. "I would want the responsibility of keeping our players safe and also educating them. Would not want to come off that guard tower of educating and keeping our players safe.

“Now, if it comes to a point in time you say that we can’t play, it’s obvious, it’s clear, everybody would be reasonable and know that would be the right thing to do. COVID is part of our society. It wasn’t caused by football or caused by sports, and there’s no expert view right now that I’m aware of that sports is going to make that worse. It’s part of our society, we’re going to have to deal with it. These kids have to do the same thing. They’ve got to go to school. They’ve been training their whole lives for the opportunity to play their sport and that’s my view with the knowledge we have and time to learn more about it. It would be my responsibility, our responsibility and the players’ responsible also to keep themselves safe and also get the schooling and the training that they need.”

Players from football and men’s and women’s basketball have returned to Michigan for voluntary workouts. In an athletic department release last week, Michigan said 194 student-athletes have been tested with two positive results, although no specifics regarding from what sport were given. There have been 131 staff members tested with zero positive results. These figures span all student-athletes currently on campus.

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No decision has been made regarding the fall season. The Ivy League is expected to announce today it is moving football to the spring. Harbaugh was asked specifically about potentially playing in the spring.

“I share the same opinion as our players — they want to play,” Harbaugh said in response. “They’ve been training their whole lives for this and these opportunities. Put the question to them, which I have, they would rather play than not play, and they would rather play in front of no fans than to not play.”

There are various scenarios that have been bandied about besides moving football to spring. There has been discussion of a shortened schedule, eliminating the non-conference games and playing only regional Big Ten schedule that would involve driving rather than flying to games. Or playing a regional conference schedule and perhaps adding a local non-conference opponent.

“The scenario that they’re playing (this fall) is the one that you’re hoping and praying for,” Harbaugh said. “These youngsters have put in a lot of training, really their whole lives for these moments. Is that possible? Would we support (different scenarios)? Yes. I think our athletic director, administration, Big Ten commissioner, coaches, I’ve had those conversations and continue to have those conversations, exactly what the schedule will be, what’s the first game, when we’re going to kick off, all those things. Hopefully there’s an announcement made in the coming weeks, this month.”

Michigan is scheduled to open the season Sept. 5 at Washington before returning to Michigan Stadium to face Ball State and Arkansas State. Harbaugh was asked if he would prefer not to travel to Seattle for the season-opener and whether he would want a more regional schedule.

“I’m not going to offer my personal opinion,” he said. “Athletic directors, school presidents, and the medical experts can decide what’s best there.”

On July 24, coaches can be involved in practices with players as they move to a 20-hour week preseason camp. They will have meetings and walkthroughs.

Harbaugh said he has been pleased by the response of his players who he described as proactive in terms of safety measures, understanding the coronavirus can affect anyone at any age.

“The biggest question I’m really getting from our players is how they can be part of the solution,” Harbaugh said. “A lot of the feedback has been, their peers, other people in their age group are somewhat or very cavalier about the virus, how it affects that age group.

“Their response has been, they want to be part of the solution. They want to be a force for good, an example. When they’re here, there are protocols that have been put in place. They’ve been terrific, really great about following those. They really understand it’s of great value to keep their own personal health but also that of their teammates. They’ve taken it to the extra level, when they’re out in public to have a mask, to wear a mask, to socially distance, to cooking their own food, to shopping, to everything that they’re doing to be a great example and a force for good.”


Twitter: @chengelis