At first glance anyway.
Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham and a handful of Utes players rode 1920s-style buggies in a cavalcade down Disneyland’s iconic Main Street, U.S.A., as has become customary in the days leading up to the Rose Bowl, along with Ohio State head coach Ryan Day and his players.
Britain Covey, Devin Lloyd, Cam Rising and Mika Tafua — four of Whittingham’s five captains — had their own buggy, creeping up Main Street as park-goers and a smattering of fans from both programs lined Main Street and cheered.
It looked like the bowl week’s normal pageantry, but full normalcy is still a ways off.
This Rose Bowl, Utah’s first after it won the Pac-12 championship for the first time on Dec. 3, is being played against a backdrop of the omicron variant and rising COVID-19 cases, which has caused teams across the country to opt out of bowl games, and in some cases, bowl games to be canceled. As of Monday afternoon, the Hawaii Bowl (Dec. 24), the Military Bowl (Dec. 27), the Fenway Bowl (Dec. 29) and the Arizona Bowl (Dec. 31) had all been canceled, while opt-outs in other spots have sent bowl executives scrambling.
The latest instance came Monday afternoon, roughly 90 minutes before the Utah-Ohio State Disneyland cavalcade began, with Boise State opting out of the Arizona Bowl. The game was later spiked after the Broncos’ opponent, Central Michigan, opted out in favor of playing Washington State in another bowl that was in need of a team, the Sun Bowl.
With bowl games affected in various locales this month, why should there be confidence that that fate will not befall this Rose Bowl?
“I don’t know why there should be, but I’m confident and I’m hoping that everything can continue on its course,” a masked-up Whittingham said at the Main Street Opera House following the procession. “We seem to be doing OK — knock on wood — and I’m expecting Ohio State to be the same. They (the canceled bowls) are dropping so, hopefully the Rose Bowl will go off without any hitches. We’ll see what happens.”
Whittingham said in August that he expected his program to plateau at a 95% vaccination rate. On Monday, he revealed that number actually got to 99%. The Utes had just one player unvaccinated, the coach said.
As for what percentage of his roster has received a booster shot, neither an athletic department spokesperson nor Whittingham provided an answer when asked Monday. The coach said he was unsure of the percentage, though he did confirm that booster shots are available to those who want one.
“Our team is taking everything seriously,” said Covey, the redshirt junior wide receiver and return specialist, who will play his final collegiate game in the Rose Bowl. “We try to wear masks, we do whatever we can. This is what we’ve been aiming for for years now. If it’s going to be canceled, it’s not going to be on our part. We’ve talked about it as a team, we’re trying to keep this thing going.
“We’re at Disneyland, which kind of seems counterintuitive, but at the same time, it’s part of the bowl experience. We’re hoping for the best.”
To further Covey’s latter point, Disneyland is open for business, and it was crowded Monday, in between Christmas and New Year’s, even as omicron continues to spread across the United States. Not nearly everyone lining Main Street, or in any other part of the park, was in a mask, but in fairness, there are no Disney or Orange County protocols for masks outdoors. Indoors was a different story as everyone inside the Opera House — coaches, players, Rose Bowl officials, Disneyland officials, and media — was required to wear a mask.
Later Monday, Lawry’s The Prime Rib, an upscale chophouse on the outskirts of Beverly Hills, canceled its annual Beef Bowl, a longstanding Rose Bowl week tradition in which Ohio State was to attend Tuesday and Utah Wednesday. The restaurant cited the “growing concerns around COVID-19 and the Omicron variant.”
The Beef Bowl was the second in-person event canceled this week after the Pasadena Tournament of Roses decided to do away with Thursday’s media day, which was to include the two-deep depth chart for each team meeting the media.
“I leave that to the experts in that area, I just try to find ways to motivate my team and get a first down,” Day said, tongue-in-cheek, when asked why there should be confidence the Rose Bowl will get played. “At the same time, that is part of our responsibility because we are dealing with college students here. They’ve done everything we’ve asked this year. The high, high majority of our team is vaccinated. We’ve talked at length about what this new spike is like and all the precautions we need to take.
“Certainly at home over break, we talked about it at length, and now being in Southern California, with the exposure we’re getting here, we have to be really smart. We talked about all of those things, our guys I think are on it right now, so we’ll just continue to stay as vigilant as we can.”