SALT LAKE CITY — In a teleconference with beat writers Friday morning, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan noted that things might be imminent when it comes to a Pac-12 decision on conference-only scheduling this fall.
He wasn’t kidding. By afternoon, the league made it official.
“The Pac-12 CEO Group announced today that the fall season for several Pac-12 sports, including football, men’s and women’s soccer and women’s volleyball, would schedule conference-only games, and that it is delaying the start of mandatory athletic activities, until a series of health and safety indicators, which have recently trended in a negative direction, provided sufficient positive data to enable a move to a second phase of return-to-play activities,” read the announcement.
The conference also “made clear that it hopes to play football and all other fall sports provided that it can meet the health and safety needs of its student-athletes and obtain appropriate permissions from state and local health authorities,” according to the statement.
The decision will result in a delay for start dates with the impacted sports and is effective immediately.
Utah’s nonconference football games against BYU (Sept. 3), Montana State (Sept. 12) and at Wyoming (Sept. 19) have been canceled.
“While we support the Pac-12 Conference’s decision today to only play conference games this fall in football, volleyball and soccer, we are disappointed for our student-athletes, coaches and fans,” Harlan said. “We know it is particularly difficult to miss the rivalry matchups with BYU in these sports, and we look forward to continuing those as soon as we are able.
“These are truly unprecedented times, and we are working diligently to determine appropriate solutions while prioritizing the health and safety of everyone involved. Our conference and university leadership has provided great support and direction, informed by leading health experts and data. We will work with our colleagues at each of the non-conference institutions impacted by today’s decision to reschedule those contests, and we will provide more information about our schedules and our home events when they become available,” he continued in the released statement.
The Pac-12 has developed several potential scheduling models and plans to announce a detailed plan for 2020 by July 31.
“The health and safety of our student-athletes and all those connected to Pac-12 sports continues to be our number one priority,” conference commissioner Larry Scott said in the announcement. “Our decisions have and will be guided by science and data, and based upon the trends and indicators over the past days, it has become clear that we need to provide ourselves with maximum flexibility to schedule, and to delay any movement to the next phase of return-to-play activities.”
The Pac-12 said any student-athlete choosing not to participate in collegiate athletics in the coming academic year because of COVID-19 safety concerns will remain on scholarship and in good standing with their teams.
Before the Pac-12’s decision to follow the Big Ten’s lead on Thursday and play a conference-only football schedule this season, Harlan expressed hope that all 12 games already on the slate would be played — including the nonconference contests. He noted that this is a year where the Utes had only four Pac-12 games at home as part of a scheduling rotation. Having BYU and Montana State come to Rice-Eccles Stadium filled in the gap.
“We know that every game with season-ticket revenue is a lot of money, so any lost home games certainly would be, from a financial standpoint, damaging,” Harlan said. “We’re so blessed to have such a high season-ticket base on a year-by-year basis, including this year with so many people renewing. For us any game — whether it’s a conference or nonconference — is a highly attended event. So certainly it would be damaging if we have less than six home games.”
While it remains to be seen what the Pac-12 ultimately decides to do, Harlan acknowledged that a lot of conversations have taken place during the pandemic and said a decision for a conference-only football slate could be “imminent or it could be further out” when asked about it hours before the announcement.
“I have learned its hard to make predictions, anyway, much less in this COVID situation,” Harlan said before explaining that discussions on several different scenarios have been going for months. Options, he confirmed, include the possibility of Utah playing each of the other 11 teams in the conference. The current slate is limited to nine games per season. Opponents are rotated from the other division (North or South). Oregon and Stanford are currently not on Utah’s 2020 schedule.
It’s one of several scenarios under consideration.
“It’s just all going to be dictated, obviously, in what we’re able to do and when we make decisions in regards to what we’re able to do,” Harlan said.
The season held promise for the Pac-12 and its hopes for national prominence before the Big Ten decision. Michigan was supposed to play at Washington on Sept. 5, and Ohio State was set to visit Oregon on Sept. 12. Harlan said those games were gigantic.
“It would have been an incredible opportunity for the Pac-12 to really make a statement,” he noted.
Other key games canceled include USC facing Alabama in Arlington, Texas, as well as Notre Dame matchups against the Trojans and Stanford.