COLUMBUS, Ohio — While the Big Ten Conference continues to plan for its next step, other college football teams hit the ground running over the weekend.
Ohio State and other Big Ten programs will feel even more left out this weekend, when other the ACC and Big 12 begin playing games. With its medical committee supposedly collecting new information to submit to the presidents and chancellors, the Big Ten remains in limbo while many of its Power 5 peers prepare to party.
The idle weekend, however, was not nearly the worst look the Big Ten experienced this weekend.
Had the league summoned more collective prudence and simply delayed a final vote rather than cancel fall sports, it would likely not have played this past weekend anyway. Hopefully Big Ten administrators are using this period for fact-finding — what are other conferences doing, what are their test results, and how are they coping with any fallout?
No, the Big Ten’s most egregious issue continues to be the self-admitted lack of communication. For the moment this is not about the communication parents and the media have implored Commissioner Kevin Warren and other leaders to engage in. I’m talking instead about the borderline dysfunctional relationships between the most important individuals within the individual schools.
This bizarre lack of discussion within multiple schools looms as a likely factor in the miscalculated decision to cancel and its clunky public unfolding.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh showed up at a protest in Ann Arbor on Saturday. Through his mask, Harbaugh told reporters the Wolverines would be able to play a game in two weeks. Even Buckeye fans — or at least the ones who have placed their hopes on playing games by mid-October — had to be excited to hear that.
Harbaugh also said that he had traded texts and emails with Michigan President Mark Schlissel, but had not spoken to him. Now, I do not believe the football season rises to the level of the most important thing university presidents are dealing with right now. I also understand athletic directors likely act as an intermediary between university leadership and individual coaches?
But considering the financial and other implications of the football season, how have Harbaugh an Schlissel not had a face-to-face meeting about this subject? We can assume Schlissel — an epidemiologist — knows Harbaugh wants to play football.
But something is clearly missing from the message traveling in the other direction. What could Schlissel and other presidents share about their cancellation vote that would better explain the situation to their coaches, and by extension the players and their families?
A few days earlier, many around the Big Ten had whiplash after reading a Centre Daily Times article. Penn State director of athletic medicine Wayne Sebastianelli was quoted giving a higher-than-previously-reported instance of the heart condition myocarditis among Big Ten athletes. He later admitted he had mistakenly provided an inaccurate number.
Yet something else jumped out at me when I first read the article — this quote:
“I have had no direct conversation with President (Eric) Barron on this topic,” Sebastianelli said.
If you’re not seeking out your director of athletic medicine to determine whether or not it is safe to play football in a pandemic, then why do you have one?
Sebastianelli’s comment reminded me of a similar quote from Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour a few weeks earlier. She told reporters in a Zoom call: “I just don’t know whether there actually was a vote” by the presidents and chancellors to cancel.
That comment helped fuel some of the conspiracy theories that have unfolded the ensuing three weeks. Seems like an easy enough thing to avoid, if these high-level administrators are talking at all about the major factors and decisions in the process.
It should be noted this has not appeared to be an issue at Ohio State (or at Iowa and Nebraska, the other two schools who voted against cancellation). It could have been, had Kristin M. Johnson’s tenure started any later. Whether or not you agree with the OSU stance, everyone from the president down through the coaching staff seems to be on the same page.
Some criticized Warren for the impression that he did not sufficiently carry the opinions of the Big Ten athletic directors to the presidents and chancellors. We can debate Warren’s job description, but should it really include playing matchmaker between coaches and administrators across all 14 campuses?
What if the Big Ten’s messaging problem is not due to conflicting medical data or political influences? What if this is simply typical bureaucracy at work?
If the Big Ten had been scheduled to play this past weekend, Iowa and Maryland would both presumably have been sidelined. Both shut down football practice last week due to a spike of positive COVID-19 cases in the athletic department.
Possibly Indiana, as well, after that athletic department also shut down four sports — but not football — on Friday.
Across the rest of the country, Big Ten presidents and chancellors can find both encouraging and discouraging evidence as to the safety of resuming a football season.
• Good: Notre Dame, which got off to a rough start campus-wide when it first reopened to students, reported zero positive tests among its football players last week.
• Bad: Tennessee could not hold its scrimmage on Saturday because 44 players were not available. That included “seven or eight” active COVID-19 cases, per coach Jeremy Pruitt, and twice that many held out due to contact tracing protocols.
• Good: Arizona could return to workouts soon after 11 of the 13 COVID-19 tests that led to sports being shut down were deemed to be false positives.
• Bad: Rice announced it is postponing the start of practice until late September. It cited “he infection rate in Houston and the need for highly reliable and very rapid testing results in the competitive athletics context.” Presumably that means the Owls will not open their season as currently scheduled on Oct. 3 at Marshall.
• Bad: TCU’s scheduled opener Saturday against SMU was postponed due to the Horned Frogs’ positive tests.
A lack of a new plan is only one thing the Big Ten has faced criticism for in recent weeks. At the same time, having been slammed once for what many considered a hasty decision to cancel, why would the league rush into another move simply to pacify its detractors? If anything the Big Ten has more incentive this week to wait back and see what unfolds when the ACC and Big 12 return this weekend.
Also, while recent testing breakthroughs should help the Big Ten and Pac-12 return to play sooner than later, those tests are not yet in place. In terms of the Big Ten, no access to or strategy for this new testing has even been announced. Perhaps that will be included in the medical information Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez said is being prepared for presidents and chancellors.
The Big Ten has a second chance to make a better decision, but only a second chance. If that takes another week, so be it.
The Ash heap
Through its in-depth reporting and its podcast, The Intercollegiate explores the reform movement in and around NCAA sports.
Former Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash stumbled into a feature role in a report this week on what The Intercollegiate termed “overbearing, strange, intrusive, discriminatory and legally dubious team rules.” The report was based on written team rules covering 236 programs across 52 Division I schools.
In addition to being demonstrably awful at coaching football, Ash’s Rutgers staff wrote punitive financial consequences into the team handbook. According to The Intercollegiate, players faced fines ranging from $50-125 for missing a tutoring session. The school’s Athletic Business Department kept a spreadsheet that tracked which players the coaches turned in for missing tutoring sessions and how much they owed.
Ash did not respond to The Intercollegiate’s request for comment. Thus, we do not know how much he and his assistants were fined for apparently missing many classes about how to recruit and develop Big Ten football players. Ash signed a five-year, $11 million contract to coach the Scarlet Knights, went 8-32 in three-and-a-half of seasons and shuffled off to Texas with a fat wallet to become defensive coordinator.
The Intercollegiate’s report contains multiple examples of the codified ways in which college teams attempt to control their athletes’ personal lives. It will be interesting to look back in a few years and see how significantly those rule books changed.
I reached out to Ohio State to ask if it had similar policies, and a spokesperson said they were not aware of any monetary fines. The school did not immediately fulfill an opens record request for a copy of the team rulebook.
Apparently there was a time when athletes put up with draconian conduct policies while coaches were rewarded for failure with seven or eight-figure buyouts. Refreshingly, that era appears to be ending.
I and the other Associated Press voters do not submit another ballot until Sept. 13. It will include only those still playing, so all Big Ten and Pac-12 teams will drop out of the top 25.
My ballot could look very different, especially from the middle on down, once we have some actual results on which to judge teams. Here is how my preseason ballot would look after taking out teams from conferences currently not playing in fall 2020.
1. Clemson (Actual vote: 2)
2. Alabama (3)
3. Georgia (4)
4. Florida (5)
5. Oklahoma (6)
6. LSU (7)
7. Auburn (10)
8. Texas (11)
9. Notre Dame (12)
10. Texas A&M (14)
11. UCF (17)
12. Oklahoma State (19)
13. North Carolina (22)
14. Cincinnati (23)
15. Iowa State (24)
16. Florida State (25)
You see how quickly removing the Big Ten and Pac-12 waters down the poll. A team like Oklahoma State, which was not guaranteed to make my ballot preseason, suddenly jumps to being on the verge of the top 10? I’ll be holding my nose more than usual when I drag a team into that No. 25 spot next week.
This year’s AP poll will be a boon for winning teams with thin resumes (think Indiana or Virginia last season) or teams with solid metrics who don’t actually win their games. I agreed with the decision to have a full preseason poll with all teams. I would have capped the subsequent polls at Top 15 to reflect the smaller pool of contenders. It would have preserved the poll’s importance as a historical marker and conversation piece.
• One team will definitely slide down my ballot next week. I was already uneasy about my No. 7 vote for LSU. Without Ja’Marr Chase, who opted out of the 2020 season last week, I’m wondering if the Tigers are even top 15.
None of Ohio State’s 2021 non-conference opponents played over the weekend. We did, however, get an early start on our scouting report for Sept. 10, 2022, opponent Arkansas State. The Red Wolves led defending American Athletic Conference champion Memphis 14-7 after one quarter before losing 37-24.
It appears ASU could get big contributions from a sophomore class who will be seniors for the OSU game. Layne Hatcher split snaps at quarterback with junior Logan Bonner. Jarius Reimonenq, a cornerback, led with 11 tackles (two for loss) and a pass deflection. Another defensive back, Detravion Green, picked off Memphis quarterback Brady White.
Tulsa, the only 2021 OSU non-conference opponent currently planning to play this season, opens on Saturday night it a road trip to No. 15 Oklahoma State.
Game of the Week
Georgia Tech at Florida State, Saturday, noon
By God, someone in the ACC needs to step up and challenge Clemson. It won’t be Georgia Tech. It might be the Seminoles, though, and it might be sooner than later.
Marvin Wilson may be the best defensive tackle in the country. Quarterback James Blackman and receiver Tamorrion Terry return from last season’s productive combination. First-year coach Mike Norvell turned Memphis into an American Athletic Conference power aspiring for more before he came to Tallahassee.
It is no coincidence that Clemson’s rise to national power came as Florida State sunk to its least relevancy in a decade. When Bobby Bowden turned things over to Jimbo Fisher, a national championship followed. Can Norvell similarly push the Seminoles at least back to the top of the ACC?
New Ohio State face masks for sale: Here’s where you can buy Ohio State-themed face coverings for coronavirus protection. A 3-pack is available on Fanatics for $29.99.
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