There were five primary participants in Monday’s Pac-12 football media webinar: Pac-12 Network analyst Yogi Roth, USC head coach Clay Helton, Stanford head coach David Shaw, Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich … and Sharon.
Sharon, of course, was the stuffed cougar standing silently to Rolovich’s left throughout the proceedings Monday. She had short blond hair, bright white teeth and wide, unblinking eyes.
Before the virtual news conference’s official introductions, Rolovich casually explained that former WSU head coach Mike Leach had named Sharon after his wife (and presumptively left said stuffed cougar to Rolovich when he accepted the head coaching position at Mississippi State).
“That is an amazing animal right there,” Roth marveled. “Hopefully it doesn’t come alive.”
The irony is that, in the most surreal offseason in college football history, a stuffed cougar springing to life in the middle of a media conference call isn’t entirely out of the question. The first of four 30-minute webinars — which will feature three different Pac-12 coaches each day, through Thursday — addressed the many possible (and previously unimaginable) scenarios for a 2020 season in the wake of COVID-19.
If, indeed, there is a season.
“We’re optimistic about a season,” said Helton, whose USC Trojans finished 8-5 in 2019. “We don’t know what that timing is of the start date, and we don’t know the structure. But we’ve been talking about all different scenarios — about the opportunity of starting on time, the opportunity of maybe it’s pushed back, the opportunity of maybe it’s more of an abbreviated conference schedule. What does the playoff look like?
“All of those discussions are being had not only in conference meetings with the head coaches but the commissioners and the NCAA, to put together the best structure we can for a season.”
Helton added that he expects to have a clearer picture of college football’s plan in “probably six to eight weeks.”
The hope — for Helton and Shaw, specifically — is that when college football resumes, the state of California is included. California Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week that “it’s difficult to imagine a stadium that’s filled until we have immunity and until we have a vaccine,” and questions have been raised about whether a football season could conceivably be played without individual teams or entire conferences.
Helton downplayed that notion, saying that “we all have different scenarios, but the one thing I have been very appreciative of in the discussions has been the opportunity to start (the season) all together — just not knowing when that start date is or what that structure’s going to look like. But I think we’re all optimistic as the NCAA and as coaches to have that opportunity to play together.”
Added Shaw: “Hopefully there are some regional things that do happen as we get closer to the start of football, to where most of our states, if not all of our states, on the West Coast can kind of be on a similar timeline.”
Still, Shaw acknowledged that “many of us believe it’s not going to be 12 (games this season) and it may not even start on time.”
There have been discussions about delaying the season until fans can attend in full, or playing a traditional regular season without fans in attendance.
Helton also confirmed that one of many discussed scenarios includes ditching non-conference schedules entirely and playing a conference-only slate, where each team would play all 11 of its Pac-12 partners in an 11-game regular season.
But what if some schools choose to keep their campuses closed this fall? Last week, NCAA president Mark Emmert said definitively 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 Shaw wasn’t convinced that will ultimately be the case.
“I think where we are is the definition of a fluid situation,” he said. “I think every state is going to be different. Every campus is going to be different. I think that’s a great sentiment (from Emmert), but I don’t know that that’s going to rule the day when it’s all said and done. I think the President of the United States is going to have a weigh-in. I think every state governor is going to have a weigh-in, and then every president and provost and chancellor is going to have a weigh-in.
“There may be a scenario to where campuses are partially open and if we can bring back athletes and bring back a section of the student body, that may not be exactly what Mr. Emmert was talking about, but that may be good for a certain university. If they feel they’re comfortable and ready to resume part of their normal activities and still field teams for fall sports, not just football, then I think that’s going to be acceptable.”
Still, even if campuses are completely full in the fall, there’s a distinct possibility that its football stadiums won’t be. Rolovich, for one, said that “if we feel it’s safe enough to play, then I’d like to play. I know that the fans are part of the experience. It’s also part of the financial model. But that’s not in my job description. So we’re just trying to hopefully get some games this fall.”
And, if all goes reasonably well, those games will culminate in another bowl season and a College Football Playoff. But, even in that scenario, there’s much still to be decided. For instance, if the season is shortened, or non-conference games are canceled, or individual programs or conferences choose not to participate, how will that affect the CFP committee’s ability to organize a legitimate playoff?
“That’s the big question, isn’t it?” Shaw said. “It’s depending on what the schedule looks like, depending on how many people are playing, depending on who you are playing. If we go to a conference-only schedule, how do you compare conference to conference? There have been a lot of discussions about, for this year, do we expand the playoff? Because we’re not really going to know how to whittle this thing down to four.”
For now, that’s all coaches, fans and administrators have — big, unanswerable questions and frustrating hypotheticals.
When asked about the playoff near the end of Monday’s media webinar, Rolovich was no longer willing to play along.
“In my mind, I’m planning on playing Utah State game one,” he said. “So I don’t really think too much … I don’t really have a comment on that other thing you asked about (regarding the College Football Playoff). I’m optimistic about going with the 12 (games) we got until they tell me differently.”
And, if you were wondering, Sharon declined comment as well.