Nick Rolovich was prepared to wait eight months to coach his first practice at Washington State.
Now it could be a full year, and potentially much longer, before Rolovich gets his first authentic look at a football team he inherited on Jan. 14, two months before a global pandemic enveloped the United States.
With many of the same concerns that forced postseason basketball and spring sports to come to a halt at a much earlier stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pac-12 decided Tuesday to postpone the fall football season and delay all sports competition until Jan. 1, 2021, the conference announced. It marks the first time since 1944 (World War II) the Cougars won’t be holding a fall football season.
According to a conference news release, members of the Pac-12 CEO Group voted unanimously to postpone the season, and University of Oregon President Michael Schill assured no Pac-12 members considered breaking away from the conference to play games against teams from other leagues that plan to continue with fall football.
“No, not even close,” Schill said. “Everybody was very enthusiastic about agreeing with each other and very committed to agreeing with each other about this. We’re proud to be in the Pac-12. … We’re going to stick together in this decision and the decision was unanimous.
“It was unanimous because this was the morally correct thing to do.”
Football seasons for the SEC, ACC and Big-12 remain in limbo, but postponements in the Pac-12, Mountain West and Big Sky Conference all but ensure no college football will be played west of Texas this fall.
The decision affects three other sports programs at WSU that compete during the fall — women’s soccer, volleyball and men’s and women’s cross country — and should impact the early stages of the college basketball season. For the first time ever, Pac-12 basketball teams were scheduled to play 20-game conference schedules, with two of those 20 contests taking place in the month of December. Scott said a basketball-specific working group will spend the next few months reviewing various scenarios for the 2020-21 season.
Regardless, it means for the first time since 1905, the Cougars will go a full year without playing the annual rivalry game against Idaho. The decision also means WSU’s pre-Christmas game against Eastern Washington at Spokane Arena would be eliminated.
Multiple reports on Sunday and Monday suggested the Pac-12 would follow the lead of the Big Ten Conference, which as anticipated, became the first Power Five league to announce it wouldn’t be playing football this fall. The Pac-12’s decision may have come on the heels of the Big Ten’s decision, but Schill assured “we would’ve made this decision independent of the Big Ten.”
Both conferences will now focus on a spring football model — something that could offer a different set of hurdles, in addition to the ones already presented by COVID-19.
“That is one of the top questions and considerations: how many football games could be played in one calendar year?” Scott said. “We obviously have a spring portion of the football season, but nothing like playing a full season. So, whether it’s a full season, compressed season, there’s a lot of different scenarios folks are looking at. … We are reluctantly coming to this decision the earliest we could start would be in January, with a lot of details to figure out.”
Scott assured scholarships will be guaranteed for all Pac-12 athletes and said the conference would be “encouraging the NCAA to make decisions as quickly as possible to extend eligibility for student-athletes.”
The decision comes two days after a player group led by star Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence made a late push to salvage the fall season. The group promoted its message, “#WeWantToPlay” by using a viral graphic that was created by Washington State defensive tackle Dallas Hobbs.
By Monday, efforts to save the football season were backed not only by major college football players and coaches, but also by U.S. President Donald Trump, who tweeted “Play college football!” and subsequently shared a “We want to play” hype video from his Twitter account that’s followed by 84.9 million people.
In the end, not even those voices were unable to compete with the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been traced to more than 160,000 American deaths. According to a recent ESPN story, the virus could also be linked to a heart condition, myocarditis, that at least five Big Ten athletes have been diagnosed with.
During a media webinar Tuesday afternoon, Oregon State Senior Associate Athletic Director for Sports Medicine Doug Aukerman indicated recent cardiology studies, and other COVID-19 research, factored into the conference’s decision.
“There is some emerging data about some health risks that affect athletes and specifically the cardiac side effects of potential COVID infections that we don’t know enough about,” Aukerman said. “So we became more concerned that.”
Even though Whitman County has managed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, relatively speaking, more than 920,000 coronavirus cases have been traced to states within the Pac-12’s footprint: Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Colorado and Utah.
As of July 24, only three WSU athletes had tested positive for COVID-19. At that point, 216 athletes in total had been tested, and many had been tested more than once. Two of the three positive tests came upon re-entry and the third came from a roommate of one of the others.
“While WSU supports this decision, there is a profound sadness and disappointment for our fall sports student-athletes, coaches and staff,” WSU Athletics Director Pat Chun said in a news release. “ … This year continues to be a winding road with unforeseen twists and turns.”
While the NBA and other professional sports leagues have succeeded in a bubble setting, Scott said “college sports cannot operate” in that type of environment.
Most WSU football players began voluntary workouts on June 15, lifting weights and conditioning while wearing masks in smaller, socially-distanced groups on the field at Martin Stadium. The Cougars were split into four groups, two on offense and two on defense, when mandatory, 20-hour-per-week workouts started on Aug. 3.
But Rolovich’s team, one of three in the Pac-12 to miss out on spring football entirely, came up nearly a week short of the Aug. 17 date when WSU was scheduled to begin preseason camp.
It’s understood Pac-12 teams can continue workouts and noncontact activities under the current structure, at the discretion of each school, and while teams aren’t allowed to compete until Jan. 1, 2021, they may be able to begin regular practices before that date.
New Cougars defensive coordinator Jacob Dickert tweeted Tuesday in support of players who’ve already opted out due to health reasons, but also offered the same sentiments to those who were planning to play.
“I respect and support the players that don’t think it is safe to play,” Dickert tweeted hours before the Pac-12 announcement. “But I also support the players that want to play and will give them everything I have everyday while following every safety protocol in place. It takes special people to lead in uncertain times. #CodeCOUGS”
A school spokesperson told the S-R the Cougars had off days on Monday and Tuesday, and it’s unclear if they’ll continue with mandatory workouts in the wake of the Pac-12’s decision.
Another topic the school will have to broach over the next few days will be whether it allows student-athletes to remain on campus during the fall semester if they aren’t competing. WSU is one of many colleges that will be offering primarily virtual instruction this fall, announcing its move to online learning last month.
One WSU player, defensive tackle Dallas Hobbs, told the S-R in a phone interview Monday he believes Cougar football players would allowed to stay on campus, and offered that “some people might not want to go home” and “their situation here is better.”
“I think they’re going to run it the same way they’ve been running it here in Pullman,” Hobbs said. “We’re able to stay around, there was still some type of meal plan in place. It really depends if it’s going to be canceled, if it’s going to be next spring, if it’s going to be next fall. Because that changes a lot of things. I bet there’s plans in work for whatever may happen, but I know we’ll be able to stay around here, so it won’t really affect stuff on that point.”