Gordon Monson: Utah football is doing what it can to stay afloat in a stormy sea

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune The No. 4 University of Washington Huskies and No. 17 University of Utah Utes will converge in the biggest game in Utah's Pac-12 era at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Saturday, October 29, 2016.

In a recent interview centered generally on whether college football would be played this fall and specifically on Utah football and its prospects for playing within an altered framework, Utes AD Mark Harlan uttered comforting words that only seemed obvious, but that in the middle of a pandemic were reassuring, nonetheless.

Harlan said he had, in a complicated mix, one primary swing thought, and one thought only:

“Is it safe? Is it safe for [athletes] to practice? Is if safe for them to play? And if I believe and others in our industry believe that it’s just not possible, then we’re not going to play. We’ll figure out how to deal with that fallout, which will be significant, but the most important thing is their safety. That’s my resolve as we work through this.”

As it should be.

Anything short of that in college sports would be hypocritical and condemnable.

In a cold face-off between finances tied to/generated by playing a football season and the good health of those doing the playing, as well as the well-being of those with whom they come in contact away from the field, it’s encouraging to hear that priorities are said to be in order.

Exactly how those priorities will play out is a feather in a tornado right now.

Nobody knows with exactness what will happen, how it will all turn out. But there are indicators regarding the form Utah football will take — if games are, in fact, played.

The Pac-12 is following the lead of the Big Ten, as will other P5 leagues, in all likelihood, a course that will rearrange schedules this fall, transforming them to conference-only slates.

Harlan said there is one primary reason for that.

It’s not the worry over or search for standardized testing for the coronavirus across all of college football, or shortening travel. It’s something else.

“Maximum flexibility,” he said.

That allows Utah, and other schools in the Pac-12, to “deal with all the week-to-week issues that could come up,” he said, “having a central decision-maker in the Pac-12 office regarding our teams.

Unless there is some kind of special provision for keeping select non-league games, that means Utah-BYU in 2020 is a goner.

Harlan said he texted BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe on Thursday night, informing him on what was happening and seeking to “work collaboratively” moving forward, whatever that means.

It’s strange that two major programs 45 miles apart can’t figure out a way to play. Harlan, nonetheless, said Utah would fall in line with the rest of the Pac-12.

It will be interesting to see how certain stiffed teams/schools will react to being shoved off the schedule of P5 teams, contracts having been signed. Some of those contracts have outs in the case of an act of God, or other unusual circumstances. But if a pandemic is judged to fit into that category, we’ll have to wait and see. If the environment is suitable for a league game, but not for a non-league game, it might be up to a court’s discretion to untangle — and pull a judgment out of — that mess.

Harlan said that the central requirement for the season to be played starts with having enough practice time to ramp up to real games. If COVID-19 concerns limit or prevent that ramp-up for teams located in different governmental jurisdictions, that could and would put a stop to football proceeding.

“If you don’t have four weeks of practice,” he said, “it’s hard to imagine having a football game.”

This makes sense. The virus is bad enough, adding in injuries due to lack of preparation is careless.

Again, that speaks to the convenience of the aforementioned flexibility, where a conference playing only league games can shove the season back at its singular discretion, based on the limitations on each of the Pac-12 teams. That enables the league, if practices cannot safely commence in August and are delayed until September, then games can begin in that revamped schedule in October.

Understandable. Smart.

The league-only schedule will be built with the idea of allowing teams five home games and five roadies, although, if certain games cannot be played as planned because of rules from local government leaders, some games could be switched around.

That’s bound to happen.

Harlan also said he could not foresee Utah’s football team practicing over an extended period and playing games if the school’s campus is closed down to other students. If there was some minimal in-person academic activity, then it might be justifiable … “as long as an athletic department is proving that the safety measures and testing and all of those things are as good as they can be,” he said.

Agreed. If a campus isn’t safe for regular students, a practice facility on that campus isn’t safe for football-playing students.

As for whether there will be some measure of fans in the stands at Rice-Eccles during home games, Harlan said he and other administrators are spending a lot of time studying that prospect. “We believe,” he said, “there is a path to do that. …”

He hesitated.

“… The data in Salt Lake is not great right now. We’re encouraging others to do what they can, wear a mask, be smart, so that we have a chance to a) play football and b) have some people come to watch these kids. We encourage everyone to do the right thing to try to get us to that point.”

He’s right. Keep more people alive. Keep football alive. Wear a freakin’ mask, everybody.

Harlan said that while some Pac-12 schools have either thought about or gone ahead and eliminated certain sports, on account of budget restraints, Utah has no plans for cuts at this time: “That’s the last thing you want to do.” The athletic director announced on Friday an $8.5 million budget cut in the department, which underscored a mounting deficit between the money taken in by each Pac-12 school versus what schools in the Big Ten and SEC receive, mostly off of more lucrative television deals.

“Am I frustrated that we don’t have as much money as the other conferences?” Harlan said. “Of course. … I don’t want to just catch up, I’m not in this business to catch up and tie others. We’ve got to put our value out there and be the very best we can be.”

This is a failure that can be laid at the feet of Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott. The league is lagging behind.

Finally, Harlan considered what Utah would do if the season got underway, but then a number of players got sick from COVID-19 … “What if you lose a whole position group,” he asked. “How do you travel?”

How do you function, at all?

He answered those questions with … well, no answers at all because … nobody knows.

“These are the things that there’s no book to pull out and read,” he said. “But these are the things we know are coming. It’s quite overwhelming, when you think of all the possibilities.”

Makes you wonder whether so many of these moves and machinations are a waste of time, makes you wonder if this is all just a prelude to no football at all.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.

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