Editor’s note: this is the first in a five-part series on the coronavirus’ effect on college football in the state of Washington, featuring interviews with Washington athletic director Jen Cohen and Washington State athletic director Pat Chun.
It’s possible that the Washington State Cougars will open their 2020 football season at Utah State on Sept. 3. It’s also possible that Washington will host Michigan in a highly anticipated nonconference matchup inside Husky Stadium two days later.
It’s possible — though undeniably painful to project — that a second wave of the coronavirus will wipe out college football’s 2020 season. It’s possible that games will be played inside empty stadiums, or that Pac-12 programs will be left behind.
Last week, the state of Washington’s Pac-12 athletic directors — UW’s Jen Cohen and WSU’s Pat Chun — pondered the myriad possibilities in separate interviews with The Seattle Times.
And it starts with a not-so-simple question:
What’s your level of optimism — or pessimism — that the 2020 season starts on time?
“Probably a little bit more pessimism about the season starting on time, but optimism that there will be a season,” Chun said in a phone interview Thursday. “I think that might be a good way to put it.”
Granted, the fall season comprises much more than football — but football’s financial upside allows for everything else. In the 2019 financial year, UW’s athletic department reported $106.9 million in team-specific revenue — and the football program accounted for $84 million, according to The Athletic. Chun acknowledged that “college football is the key economic driver to fund the vast majority of athletic departments, especially the ones in the Power Five conferences. To not play football does have some … ‘significant’ might be an understatement. To not play football would impair the ability to fund the other sports.”
And for UW, to not play Michigan — in a season marked by road games against rivals Oregon, WSU, Utah and USC — would be a blow for the strength of schedule and the bottom line. (Not that those facts will factor into what amounts to a public-health decision.)
So how likely is it that UW hosts Michigan inside Husky Stadium on Sept. 5?
“I really don’t know. I don’t,” Cohen said in a phone interview Friday. “I’m working towards a plan that we’re still playing that football game. I was actually just sending messages with Warde (Manuel), their athletic director, this morning. They’re of that same time frame and plan, too. So I think the question to me is as much, ‘What will it look like in the venue?’ as it is whether or not we’re going to play it.
“I just don’t know yet, but I’m hopeful, and our energy and effort are being put into being able to safely bring our kids back to campus so that we can eventually get to a point to have competition.”
Like Cohen said, as obvious as it sounds, student-athletes must return to campus before they can compete. In a financial presentation to UW’s Board of Regents last Wednesday, Cohen estimated that “the best-case scenario would probably be July 1 for that.” For football, the hope is that the Huskies can participate in several weeks of small workouts before a six-week extended fall camp kicks off in mid-July. The fourth and final phase of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan to reopen the state — which includes the resumption of gatherings of more than 50 people and large sporting events — could commence July 13 at the earliest, according to current data trends.
But what if that timeline ultimately proves premature and student-athletes at UW and WSU — as well as the rest of the Pac-12 — aren’t cleared to return to campuses by mid-July? Is it possible a college football season could kick off without them?
“You hope there’s going to be some uniformity in how conferences come back, and I think the thing that gets lost is the conferences are bound by one specific thing, and that’s the College Football Playoff,” Chun said. “So it’ll be interesting to see where that lands, but there’s going to have to be some type of uniformity, because the five Power Five conferences and the five Group of Five conferences — but specifically the five Power Five conferences — are bonded by and affiliated through the CFP.
“So there will have to be some type of synergy, in my opinion, in how they come back.”
Not everyone agrees. American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco told Sports Illustrated last week that “if California is not playing football but everyone else is, do we still play? My guess is: we would play, but that would create a real problem for the Pac-12 and Mountain West, which have teams in California.”
In the same story, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that all 130 FBS schools would start at the same time. California Gov. Gavin Newsome provided another reason for optimism on Monday, stating that pro sports could resume without fans in California as early as the first week of June.
Still, a college football decision may hinge on another issue: if a college campus is closed, or partially closed, is it permissible to play football? NCAA president Mark Emmert said this month that “all of the commissioners and every president that I’ve talked to is in clear agreement: If you don’t have students on campus, you don’t have student-athletes on campus.”
But here’s an important piece of context: Though classes for UW’s spring quarter were completely virtual, some students were permitted to stay on campus nonetheless.
“People are getting really confused about this topic, because schools have very different setups already,” Cohen said. “So let’s just play out the University of Washington. While classes are virtual, there are students on campus right now living in our dorms, because (in some cases) that is the safest and best place for them to be. So our university is not shut down to students. Every school has been a little different in what services have and haven’t been provided to students, and I think people just focus on the online instruction piece of the conversation. So I think it’s more than that.
“Do I think it makes sense or feels right to have a university that’s completely shut down for student services and everything’s online and there’s no students on campus at all, but there’s athletic programs? That seems really foreign to me. I can’t picture that. But this is such an unusual time.”
The evidence of that fact continues to overflow. Last week, the California State University System — which comprises 23 schools, including 2020 UW nonconference opponent Sacramento State — announced that most classes at its campuses will remain online this fall. It’s unclear, however, whether that also means Sacramento State’s athletics programs would be unable to compete.
On Friday, Cohen confirmed that there have been ongoing conversations with the athletic leadership at Sacramento State, “and at this point they’re still moving forward with the plan to have an athletic program next year. They want to get the game in with us. So based on what we know today, we’re expecting to still play them.”
Of course, based on what we know today, UW and WSU would play their regularly scheduled seasons. But that could change quickly. Cohen and Chun confirmed that, should a truncated season become necessary, a conference-only slate is a possibility. They could also play games in empty, or socially-distanced, stadiums. The season could be delayed.
But one idea that Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson entertained last week is compelling. Should teams within his conference be unable to compete, they could schedule home-and-home match ups within the same season.
So, is there a world where Pac-12 rivals — say, Washington and Washington State — could play twice in 2020?
“We have not as a league had that level of conversation, just because it’s so early right now,” Chun said. “It’s still May. It’d be different if this was July 14, even June 14. But right now everything is speculative, and that’s a rabbit hole that I choose not to go down.”
Added Cohen: “I feel like almost every idea you could possibly imagine has been floated. I don’t recall (that). I think everything is going to be on the table.”
Still, it’s possible that every idea — every model, every schedule, every option to save the season — could be eradicated by the continued spread of COVID-19. The most unsatisfying season scenario is that there isn’t one at all.
But what would college athletics look like without a football season?
“That is a scenario that I have not put much thought into,” Chun said. “Right now, to waste any energy down that road, that’s a zero-sum game. If that’s what happens, it’s what happens, and it’s almost easier to react to that than anything else.”
Added Cohen: “If there’s no football, that means that there’s no sports. I get it, because of the economics and visibility of football, everybody talks about football. But we’re not looking at just football. We’re looking at 650 students and 22 teams.
“So what does it look like? If it’s not safe enough for football, then it’s not safe enough for any sport. So you really don’t have an athletic program. Then everybody’s trying to figure out how you start up again. What happens to all those kids? Do they still go to school and you (the university) pay for school but they don’t compete and you help people figure out how to still get their degree? Do all those students just stay wherever they are and take a year off?
It’s not a pretty thing to picture, in the state of Washington or anywhere else. But, in this exceedingly unusual time, it’s possible. And it’s Cohen’s job to be prepared.
“I only think about it every day,” she said. “We have very little control if we’re in that scenario. What scares me about that scenario is that tells me that it’s so much more than sports. If our state and our country is in a position where students can’t go to high school or college in the fall again because of this, then that means a lot of people aren’t working. That means a lot of people that do work have no child care again. To me it just sounds so absolutely economically impossible.
“But I think about this stuff well beyond our university and our athletic department. It’s hard to imagine.”