Are We Gonna Play?

Every college football fan I know has been asking me the same question lately. “Are we going to have a season this year?”

Mike Pawlawski
Former NFL, AFL, XFL Quarterback, and California Athletic Hall of Famer
June 4, 2020

Every college football fan I know has been asking me the same question lately.

“Are we going to have a season this year?”

I’m a college football insider an analyst in the PAC-12 and have been calling college football games for over 20 years now. I also played 11 years of professional football, so I have a lot of contacts in the game, including administrators and football coaches. I've been having the same conversation and the same questions day in and day out about whether or not we're going to play college football this fall.

Obviously, the foremost consideration is about people's health amid the pandemic. But that said - football is THE American sport. Everybody is looking forward to getting into football season. I think that's going to put a lot of this behind us if we can sit down and watch football games. I know when NASCAR came back on, it was a huge celebration. And I think it'd be the same especially for college football to come back because people really identify with their team.

What NCAA programs and every other college football team is doing right now is trying to put together a plan for how we go about dealing with COVID-19, the crisis, and getting a team on the field. Obviously, college football is a billion dollar enterprise for all the teams that are involved, and so every conference, every school, every commissioner, every governor, the President - everybody's looking for a way to try to deal with the coronavirus and getting back to life as usual in this country.

The health and safety of the student-athletes is the biggest piece of the whole thing. You can't put them on the field and expose them if they are not going to be healthy. Now that said, listening to doctors on the air versus listening to doctors in the field can be two different things. There is a very low incidence of young people getting seriously sick with a disease, but with pre-existing conditions obviously do. And that's one of the big concerns about athletes coming back to play is that every year we hear about athletes that have an arrhythmia or have a heart issue that went undetected the whole time.

So, you may have an athlete in the field who might be susceptible to the coronavirus, and that's obviously one of the huge concerns. One of the biggest things you are going to have to do is make sure that you can deal with a virus is the immediate response testing that can identify people who have contracted the virus - people who are carrying the virus. And I would imagine that teams are going to have to test all the time. Clay Helton from USC actually had some thoughts on that recently - the amount of detail available from testing to being able to have secure environments and to be able to conduct practice and all the meetings that are being held. It was just an unbelievable wealth of knowledge. There are some brilliant people that are really diving into this and are formulating a plan, and have an appreciation that the health and safety of our student athletes is priority one.

With complete health considerations of the players, the staff, and the coaches - what about fans? Imagine a football game without fans. It just doesn't have the same energy. Yes, we would love to see the competition. Yes, players play for the passion of the game, but having fans there is a different story. Being part of the “family.” The rivalries, the bands, the pageantry, the tailgating. All of that is a huge part of what makes college football so special in America.

With the social distancing orders in place, it is tough to figure out how you're going to be able to bring fans back into the stands to watch these games. But as I see it right now, and from administrators that I've talked to, we are not going to have a lot of fans in the stands initially during the college football season. That means we’re going to have to get used to watching games without that same amount of energy, I imagine. There are TV producers right now discussing whether they pipe in crowd noise to inject energy pipe into that atmosphere. This will make it sound normal to people at home because a football game without fans sounds incredibly sterile. I have done games from the studio when you weren't there live. And it is sterile. It will feel the same way to fans at home. You can still enjoy the game - it's just not going to have that same type of energy.

In terms of having fans on the stands, Nick Rolovich, the new head coach at Washington State University, (which by the way…was a fantastic hire), had his thoughts about it: “I think it saves a lot of time on silent count practice. There's one. I think, in general, if we feel it's safe enough to play, and I'd like to play. I don't necessarily I know that the fans are part of the experience. It's also part of the financial model, but that's not in my job description. So, we're just trying to hopefully get some games in this fall.”

So, you can see football coaches aren't even in the know. Everyone is still guessing at this point. That said, I spoke with an administrator today, and we talked about what's going on starting June 15. Players are going to be allowed to come back on campus voluntarily to work out and start getting ready for the football season. A huge part of having a football season is getting the athletes physically and mentally ready to play. You have to be able to have a certain level of physical conditioning to play the game at the college level. There's no doubt about it. You can't just bring athletes back on campus and throw them into game and say, “Hey, go get ‘em.”
That's not going to happen. And so, they have to have time to get back in to get ready to play June 15. It's voluntary. The players can start using facilities again, they can be on campus, in meeting rooms, in small groups - obviously social distancing in place.

Then, after that, you’re going to need to be able to have OTAs (organized team activities). I'm sure social distancing will still be the norm for those, but players will be back on campus, and they can take part in organized drills, organized meetings, and other organized functions that the team is putting on to try to prepare them for the upcoming season. That's a big one, especially for a lot of the younger players like the freshmen from last season and the incoming freshmen - so guys that are coming into fall camp haven't missed much yet. The offseason training summer school - some guys do that - they haven't missed a ton yet. As long as they're still prepping, they're going to go ahead and be ready. But the athletes who were on campus who miss spring ball who missed summer training, who missed spring conditioning, that's a huge loss.

They have to get back and have to get get in shape. When Janet Napolitano said you’d see students in class this fall, that was a huge hurdle. The PAC-12 has two UC schools in the midst of the 12 conference teams, and they have four CSU schools within the conference as well. So, students need to be on campus - they need to be there participating. Obviously, the thought process was, if it's not safe enough to bring students back, then how could you possibly bring athletes back for football? It would look like strictly a money deal. And so now that the UC system has said they're going to bring students back, I completely and totally agree with that.

Getting life back to normal is very important for students, for young athletes; for people all over this country. I thought that was a great decision. That clears the way for both Cal and UCLA to be involved in a football season this fall and that is a huge step. If the PAC 12 now is at a point where they're talking about having a football season, where they're bringing people back where they're going to have OTAs…then, you know, the SEC, the Big 10, and the ACC are all planning on a football season coming up. Football is so engrained in the South and the SEC is such a big moneymaker down there that I will guarantee you all those coaches and administrators are fully planning on having a football season this fall. So that is a huge sign. It's a good sign. Coaches don't know for sure.

David Shaw, who's incredibly articulate guy that I admire and respect, said it really well when he was talking about it being a fluid situation. “I think where we are is the definition of a fluid situation. I think every state is going to be different. Every campus is going to be different. And I think that's a great sentiment. But I don't know that that's going to rule the day when it's all said and done.”

Clay Helton said it best when he talked about what it would feel like when players came back to play: “We don't know when that's going to be. When we can be back together as 110 men, and staff members on top of that, and go play the game we love, and I think when we're given the opportunity, whenever that time is, I think all of us…as coaches, players..we're going to be grateful for. Don't know the start date of that. Don't know the structure. Don't know if it's going to have fans or no fans – it’s unknown. But I know we're going to be grateful to be able to play the game we love. A grand day of celebration is where we're all back together.”

I am personally planning on the college football season this fall, and I will bring it to you on the air obviously. But I am also looking forward to getting back to life as usual. And part of that life is football.