Wojo: Michigan's Jim Harbaugh ready to fight for college football's fate

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Jim Harbaugh is standing up for football, as he often, passionately does. He speaks of its importance to young athletes and lifetime ambitions, without even mentioning the economic impact on universities.

Harbaugh also is standing up for common sense, and as the pandemic persists, it’s important to recognize the two sentiments are not mutually exclusive: You can desperately want college football in the fall, and also understand it might not be safe enough to play.

After several months of relative quiet, Harbaugh spoke Wednesday of the pitfalls and realities, and he essentially, unabashedly said what many are nervous to voice: Don’t give up on football so easily.

Jim Harbaugh

It’s not a reckless thing to say, although some health experts might suggest it is until a vaccine arrives. But if this is a hellacious fight against COVID-19, go ahead and fight it. Fight it on all fronts, in the factories and food stores, in hospitals and hair salons, essential and non-essential, although every job is essential to someone. And yes, fight it in the sports world, with no sport facing a bigger battle than football. Some will say it’s foolish to even try. Cancel the season. Shorten the season. Push it to the spring. Play with no fans or limited fans.

Those are possible outcomes and most coaches don’t deny it. And frankly, if we as a nation can’t alter our behaviors enough to get the virus under control, we don’t deserve sports, or concerts, or large indoor gatherings. I suppose it depends on how badly you want it, and when it comes to football, Harbaugh is relentless in his advocacy.

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

And then, the necessary caution: “Now if it comes to a point in time where you say, we can’t play, it’s obvious, it’s clear, everybody would be reasonable and know that was the right thing to do.”

Until — or if — it comes to that point, there’s no harm in trying to avoid it, no matter how dire it seems. Power Five conference commissioners have said they hope to have a decision on the season by the end of July, and the Pac-12’s Larry Scott recently said it was “a lot more perilous than a few weeks ago.” The Ivy League just announced it was pushing football to the spring, which is ominous but won’t necessarily affect other conferences.

Michigan’s training camp workouts are scheduled to start July 24, and of approximately 530 athletes in all sports who have reported to Ann Arbor, two have tested positive. Yet elsewhere, dozens of football players have tested positive at places such as Clemson, LSU, Texas and Kansas State. Several Power Five programs have halted workouts, and Ohio State and North Carolina just joined the group. The quick conclusion is, certain measures work, and stricter measures provide better chances.

Michigan’s safety protocols, similar to Michigan State’s, involve rampant testing, constant temperature checks, separate housing for quarantining if needed, and facemasks at all times except during workouts. Fittingly, the sport that requires facemasks on the field needs them off the field more than any other.

“COVID is part of our society, it wasn’t caused by football or caused by sports, and no expert view that I’m aware of says that sports is going to make that worse,” Harbaugh said. “We’re gonna have to deal with it. These kids are gonna have to do the same thing. … I would want the responsibility of keeping our players safe, and also educating them. I wouldn’t want to come off that guard tower.”

Harbaugh’s first point isn’t entirely correct, because we don’t know yet whether sports will make it worse. The larger point is, while scientists hunt for important clues, personal and institutional responsibility are paramount. Why should Michigan, or any school, abdicate its goal of keeping student-athletes (and all students) safe by sending them away? Outside of structured environments, infections have spread. College football athletic complexes may be as structured as anywhere.

In the quest for no-risk settings (impossible), society must settle for reduced-risk settings. It’s the case in auto plants and grocery stores, on airplanes and buses. It will be the much-debated case as elementary and high schools try to open. Everyone has to find a way to deal with it, although no one should be bull-headed. If a season starts and the virus spreads, you halt the attempt and prepare for another time.

“It’s a different conversation if no students are on campus,” Harbaugh said. “If students are on campus, my personal belief, as a parent of a daughter who’d also be on campus, this is a safe place, as safe as possible within our university.”

Harbaugh rarely lacks enthusiasm about his team, and after four months of communicating with players and coaches through Zoom calls, his excitement is bubbling. He praised the conditioning of several players, especially on an offensive line that lost four starters but returns All-American candidate Jalen Mayfield.

He singled out freshman safety RJ Moten and defensive lineman Donovan Jeter as examples of players who added strength and size. When he went down the list of players showing notable leadership, he mentioned all three quarterbacks, Dylan McCaffrey, Joe Milton and Cade McNamara.

The Wolverines were 9-4 and haven’t won the Big Ten or beaten Ohio State in his five seasons, but Harbaugh’s 35-minute conference call had a pep-talk feel to it.

“It’s been a tremendous offseason, even before it got interrupted you could really see the talent and work ethic,” Harbaugh said. “I’d say the biggest question I’m getting from our players is, how they can be a part of the solution? The feedback has been that their peers, other people in their age group, are somewhat cavalier about the virus. They want to be a force for good. For example, when they’re here, they’ve been terrific about following protocols. They’ve taken it to the extra level, from wearing a mask in public, to socially distancing, to cooking their own food.”

The fight for football is taking place far from the practice fields, and it’s a worthy battle. Beyond the enormous economic impact — Stanford just announced it was cutting 11 varsity sports, a growing trend — there is a societal impact. In the process of attempting to further their own careers, players can show how it might work, while fully understanding the consequences.

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said a spring season is “very doable” and every option should be explored. Harbaugh said he’d welcome football in any scenario — in the spring, no non-conference games, a 10-game Big Ten slate, a delayed start.

It’s not just about trying to prove he can push Michigan to the level that was expected when he arrived. It’s about navigating a treacherous path, because if college football truly starts on time and Michigan plays that opener at Washington Sept. 5, something remarkable was accomplished.

Harbaugh and the Wolverines face the standard fights — try to compete with the Buckeyes, try to finally win the Big Ten, try to beat ranked teams on the road. Daunting indeed. But in these unsettling, unprecedented times, just getting on the field will be everyone’s biggest battle.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski