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Big Ten, Pac-12 pull plug on fall football amid pandemic

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The Big Ten and Pac-12 won’t play football this fall because of concerns about COVID-19, taking two of college football’s five power conferences out of a crumbling season amid the pandemic.

About an hour after the Big Ten’s announcement, the Pac-12 called a news conference to say its season would be postponed until the spring.

The Big Ten’s announcement comes six days after the conference that includes historic programs such as Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State had released a revised conference-only football schedule that it hoped would help it navigate a fall season with potential COVID-19 disruptions.

Instead, all fall sports in the Big Ten have been called off and a spring season will be explored.

The decision was monumental but not a surprise. Speculation has run rampant for several days that the Big Ten was moving toward this decision. On Monday, coaches throughout the conference tried to push back the tide, publicly pleading for more time and threatening to look elsewhere for games this fall.

“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”

Warren took over as commissioner from Jim Delany at the start of this year. A former longtime executive in the NFL, Warren walked into an unprecedented problem for college sports.

During an interview on the Big Ten Network, Warren was pressed on whether the decision was unanimous across the conferences and if Big Ten teams could still try to play a fall season, as some coaches suggested Monday.

Warren declined to answer.

“We are very disappointed in the decision by the Big Ten Conference to postpone the fall football season, as we have been and continue to be ready to play,” University of Nebraska leadership said in a statement.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said the Buckeyes would have preferred to play.

“I wish we would have had a little more time to evaluate,” Smith told Big Ten Network.

Over the last month, conferences have been reworking schedules in the hopes of being able to buy some time and play a season. The Big Ten was the first to go to conference-only play, doing it in early July.

The Pac-12 followed two days later and eventually all the Power Five conferences switched to either all conference play or mostly.

The first FBS conference to pull the plug on a fall season was the Mid-American Conference on Saturday, and then the Mountain West did the same on Monday.

But those conferences don’t have the revenue, reach and history of the Big Ten, which seemed positioned to pour resources into trying to protect their athletes from getting and spreading COVID-19.

The Big Ten touts itself as the oldest college athletic conference in the country, dating back to 1896 when it was called the Western Conference, and its schools have been playing football ever since. It became the Big Ten in 1918 and grew into a football powerhouse.

The 14 Big Ten schools span from Maryland and Rutgers on the East Coast to Iowa and Nebraska out west. Not only has it been one of the most successful conferences on the field but off the field it has become one of the wealthiest.

The Big Ten, with its lucrative television network, distributes about $50 million per year to its members.

The Pac-12’s members are in Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

Move toward fall football ramps up in Pac-12, Mountain West

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The Pac-12 university presidents and chancellors will meet Friday and be presented options for staging a fall football season, but Commissioner Larry Scott says a vote by the CEO Group is not expected.

“(Friday) is a chance to get everyone caught up on what’s been a very dynamic and rapidly changing series of events over the last 24 to 48 hours,” Scott told The Associated Press on Thursday. “We’ll obviously have to decide soon, but I’m not necessarily expecting a decision (Friday).”

A day after the Big Ten changed course from its decision to postpone fall sports because of the pandemic and set a late October start for football, the Pac-12 appeared headed toward a similar move.

The Mountain West is trying to do the same and there even is some movement in the Mid-American Conference toward reconsidering a fall season.

“The board has asked for a plan,” Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson said. That conference’s university presidents next meeting is next week.

Meanwhile, early Thursday, it was announced that another FBS game could not be played because of COVID-19 issues with one of the teams. Charlotte at No. 12 North Carolina scheduled for Saturday had to be canceled because the 49ers did not have enough available offensive linemen.

The Pac-12’s medical concerns about playing through the pandemic have been eased by the conference earlier this month securing rapid, daily COVID-19 testing for all its schools. This week brought more good news. State and local authorities in California and Oregon signaled they would be willing to ease COVID-19-related restrictions that have made it nearly impossible for six Pac-12 teams to prepare for a football season.

There is still work to be done with health officials, but things are moving quickly enough that the Pac-12 is hopeful it could start a season that allows its teams to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff. The four playoff teams are scheduled to be selected Dec. 20.

“We feel we’ve got a responsibility to our student-athletes and our programs to explore that possibility. So that’s what we’re doing,” Scott said.

The Big Ten’s plan is to start an eight-games-in-eight-weeks regular season the weekend of Oct. 24, with a championship game on Dec. 19.

The San Jose Mercury News reported, citing unidentified sources, that the Pac-12’s athletic directors were targeting Oct. 31 to start football season. Scott declined to confirm the report or go into any details about potential models for a season.

The Pac-12 presidents’ meeting was originally scheduled to address basketball. The NCAA set a Nov. 25 opening date for the season. Scott said for the same reasons there is hope for a fall football season there is optimism the Pac-12 will start basketball season at the same time as the rest of the country.

Thompson, whose league includes three California schools, said he has been in frequent contact with Scott.

The lifting of restrictions in California has been hurdle for the Mountain West to clear, too, but the conference is still trying to catch-up in another pivotal area.

“The real trigger on this is the rapid-result testing,” Thompson told AP. “And that’s the key, if we can get that. We’re talking to a number of manufacturers and providers. That has to be done really before any decisions can concretely be made.”

Thompson said the goal in the Mountain West is also to have a season in place that could wrap up on Dec. 19 and allow its teams to be selected for the playoff and lucrative New Year’s Six bowls.

“You come up with a model and then you move it backwards and forwards depending on where you stand with some of the other issues, particularly testing,” Thompson said.

Another immediate concern for both the Pac-12 and Mountain West is wildfires raging in California and Oregon that have led to unsafe air quality in some areas. The Seattle Mariners had a series this weekend with the San Diego Padres moved to Southern California.

The Mid-American Conference, which was the first FBS league to postpone its fall sports season, indicated earlier in the week it was still focused on a winter/spring season. But some MAC players have followed the lead of their peers in Power Five conferences by pushing for a fall season on social media.

Kent State coach Sean Lewis also called for the conference to revisit the decision to punt on a fall season.

Charlotte-North Carolina became the 14th FBS game postponed or canceled because of COVID-19 since Aug. 26. It would have been the first meeting between the schools.

In its release, Charlotte said there had been three positive cases among football players discovered through regular league-required testing during the past two weeks. Those individuals had been placed in isolation with medical care, while others impacted through contact tracing were told to quarantine for 14 days.

Charlotte didn’t specify exactly how many players were affected and said its home opener with Georgia State on Sept. 26 is still on.

The disruptions are not a deterrent to the other conferences and the Pac-12 in particular does not look as if it is headed toward days of will-they-or-won’t-they speculation that gripped the Big Ten.

Scott would not make predictions about what his bosses will do but the Pac-12 is not operating in secrecy.

“We’ve tried to be very deliberate and very transparent,” Scott said. “The major concerns and obstacles have now been cleared.

Pac-12 football plans remain in holding pattern

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The Pac-12 took a significant step toward joining the Big Ten in playing football in the fall, getting clearance to hold full-fledged practices from the states of California and Oregon.

Early Wednesday, the Big Ten grabbed headlines by changing course and agreeing to set an an eight-game football schedule that would start the weekend of Oct. 24.

The Pac-12 also has reconsidered starting its football season this fall, but it has more hurdles to clear. Half of its schools have been unable to ramp up preparation for the season because of restrictions put in place by state and local authorities to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Later Wednesday, the Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott announced a breakthrough with the California and Oregon governors that was helped along by the conference’s plans to soon begin testing athletes daily for the virus.

“The Pac-12 welcomes today’s statements by Governor Newsom of California and Governor Brown of Oregon that state public health officials will allow for contact practice and return to competition, and that there are no state restrictions on our ability to play sports in light of our adherence to strict health and safety protocols and stringent testing requirements, including our recently announced partnership with Quidel which will enable daily rapid results testing,” Scott said.

He added: “Our California and Oregon universities will now each individually and immediately reach out to their relevant county public health officials to seek clarification on what is required to achieve the same clearance to resume contact practice and competition.”

Earlier this month, the Pac-12 announced a partnership that would give the conference’s schools the capacity to perform daily, rapid COVID-19 tests on athletes. Scott has called the testing a “game-changer” and it certainly proved to be so in the Big Ten. That league’s university presidents unanimously voted to return to competition in all fall sports and said their schools will begin daily antigen testing on Sept. 30.

The Pac-12 CEO Group is scheduled to meet Friday to discuss the conference’s options. Because of the restrictions, it might take the teams that had been limited, including conference favorites Oregon and Southern California, more than a month to be ready to play. An Oct. 24 start, lined up with the Big Ten, could be challenging.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Scott spoke Wednesday. While there was some confusion about how the state’s rule limiting athletic activities to groups of no more than 12 could allow for football practice, ultimately things landed in a good place for the conference.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s spokesman said the two Pac-12 schools in that state met with the the Oregon Health Authority on Wednesday to discuss COVID-19 heath and safety plans for football and ask for a exemption to current sports guidance. An exemption has already be given to Oregon professional sports teams.

“We have granted that request, and, under the new guidance, OHA must receive written plans for approval,” Charles Boyle said in a statement.

Boyle said no plans had been received yet from the Pac-12.

“We want Oregon and Oregon State players to be able to focus on football while protecting their health and safety,” Boyle said. “We also want to ensure that team practices will not be derailed by a COVID-19 outbreak that would threaten the health not only of the players and coaches, but of their university communities and the wide communities of Eugene and Corvallis.”

The Big Ten and Pac-12 decided Aug. 11 to postpone all fall sports until January due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

Football in the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big 12 started last week, with the Southeastern Conference set to kick off its season on Sept. 26.

President Donald Trump pushed for the Big Ten to get back to football and had a similar sentiment for the Pac-12.

“I want to recommend Pac-12, you’re the only one now,” Trump said. “Open up, open up Pac-12.”