Whether it was the Pacific Coast Conference, Pac-8, Pac-10 or Pac-12, the league has played football each fall dating back to 1916.
Through World Wars and any number of global or domestic events in between and afterward, the preeminent collegiate athletics conference in the Western United States has persevered.
The Pac-12 announced on Tuesday afternoon that it will not only not play fall sports in 2020, but that it is postponing all sports through at least Jan. 1, 2021.
The vote by Pac-12 presidents and chancellors on Tuesday morning to postpone was unanimous, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott revealed at the top of a Zoom call with reporters following the league’s announcement.
“This decision was made after consultation with athletics directors, our coaches, football working groups and with the Pac-12 COVID-19 Medical Advisory Committee, who expressed concern moving forward with contact practice,” Scott said on the call. “Enough questions and concerns had been raised, and answers that we need more time to find, that we did not feel comfortable moving forward.”
Scott also made clear what the league, as well as the University of Utah, have been adamant about in recent weeks as the prognosis of a college football season has worsened — that all scholarships for student-athletes affected will be guaranteed.
“We’ve known for some time that this was a possibility,” Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham said in a statement. “However, it is still disappointing news for our program, our fans and especially our student-athletes. We respect the guidance of the Pac-12 Medical Advisory Committee and the decision made today by the Pac-12 CEO Group.”
Of the state of Utah’s three FBS programs, the Utes no longer have a football season, nor does Utah State, which saw the Mountain West postpone on Monday. Independent BYU is down to three scheduled games. The Cougars’ situation became more tenuous Monday given three MW teams were on their schedule.
The Pac-12′s decision came on the heels of the 14-team, 11-state Big Ten— which has played football each year since 1896 — opting to cancel fall sports earlier Tuesday afternoon.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 have worked in lockstep most of the way. When the Big Ten announced it would go to a conference-only format on July 9, the Pac-12 did the same thing the very next day. The Pac-12 announced its 10-game schedule on July 31, the Big Ten Aug. 5.
“We have been discussing this for a while and we knew there was a parallel track with the Big Ten also discussing this,” University of Oregon president Michael Schill said on the Zoom call. “We feel good about this decision, we would have made this decision without the Big Ten. We respect the institutions in the Big Ten, many of them have the same values that we have. We’re pleased that they’re joining us.”
Both conferences hope to play football in the spring, but logistics and details of how a spring season would come together are unknown. Scott said Tuesday that the Pac-12 will allow schools to continue practicing via 20 hours per week of mandatory activity for the foreseeable future.
The Pac-12 was already allowing 20-hour weeks beginning Aug. 3, which is when Utah started. The Utes were scheduled to begin training camp Aug. 17, the first day allowed by the Pac-12, in anticipation of a Sept. 26 opener vs. Washington State in Pullman.
“Our attention will continue to focus on providing for the academic, emotional and physical well-being of our student-athletes,” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said in a statement. “They will continue to prepare for their upcoming academic semester, and they will continue to have the same access to our first-class medical care, mental health care, academic support, nutrition and meals and scholarship support.”
The writing was on the wall for the Pac-12 late Monday after Dr. David Petron spoke candidly with Spence Checketts on ESPN700.
The team doctor for the Utes and Jazz, Petron revealed that a group of Pac-12 medical advisors, including himself, presented a document to Scott that states that the board was recommending “to stop contact and competitive activities at this time.”
Petron further stated Monday that the document, which is now publicly available, outlines criteria that are needed to move forward with competition. Specifically, daily new cases per 100,000 in a given community and the percentage of positive tests in a given community will be watched closely.
Anything over 7.5% in terms of positive tests, per Pac-12 medical advisors, qualifies as “red.” To that end, the recommendation would be to test as frequently as daily. A move down to 5-7.5% would yield a recommendation to test every other day. Less than 5% and cases per 100,000 falling to 30 or below would mean testing every three days, or maybe even just weekly.
The state of Utah’s seven-day rolling average of positive tests through Tuesday’s COVID-19 numbers release stood at 8.3%, well inside the Pac-12 medical advisory board’s “red” recommendation.
Furthermore, Pac-12 doctors are recommending that athletes should be tested within 24 hours of competition to ensure they are not infectious while competing.
Pac-12 doctors advising for a stoppage flies in the face of what other Power Five medical staffs are saying. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said Tuesday morning on The Dan Patrick Show that his medical advisory group has said, “Yes, we can continue to go forward.”
ACC medical advisory group chairman Dr. Cameron Wolfe, a Duke infectious disease specialist, made similar statements to the Sports Business Journal on Tuesday morning indicating the league would move forward.
The fallout from Tuesday’s decisions will be wide-ranging with the potential to be catastrophic.
For starters, matters of eligibility in the case of a lost season will need to be handled by the NCAA. The Pac-12 and Utah both have said they will push the college sports governing body to protect players’ eligibility, and eligibility concerns are expected to be on the agenda when the Division I Council reconvenes Wednesday.
Specifically to Utah, the Utes’ athletic department is staring down dire economic ramifications. In fiscal 2019, which included the 2018 football season, the Utah football program brought in $65.7 million in revenue, which accounted for more than 66% of all athletic department revenue for that period. Utah was already working with $8 million chopped off its fiscal 2021 operating budget, athletic director Mark Harlan told beat reporters last month.
That $8 million shortfall was what Harlan expected to see while working under the assumption of the originally prescribed six home games with what he called “limited fans.” While a spring football season remains on the table, zero home games and zero ticket sales would likely widen that shortfall.
Utah’s other fall sports, women’s volleyball, women’s soccer and women’s cross country all fall under “other sports” on Utah’s fiscal 2019 report. “Other sports” finished in the red by over $13 million for that time period.
How those sports plus all other so-called “non-revenue” sports at Utah will be affected by the loss of football revenue is unknown.
Winter sports have also been impacted. Pac-12 basketball will start no earlier than Jan. 1. Utah’s nonconference schedule, which includes Battle 4 Atlantis, has not officially been canceled but is headed that way. The conference was moving to a 20-game schedule in 2020-21, with each team to play twice in December.
How the basketball side of things will proceed, including how many games will be played, is among the multitude of things athletic departments across the league are now left to deal with.
A list of major college athletic conferences that have canceled or postponed fall sports as of Tuesday:
• Big Ten
• Mountain West
• Big Sky
• Colonial League
• Ivy League