SALT LAKE CITY — It isn’t necessarily first-and-goal for spring football in the collegiate ranks. Utah athletics director Mark Harlan acknowledged it’s not a done deal in the wake of the Pac-12’s decision to postpone the fall season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Obviously in football there’s many things to consider,” Harlan said in a Zoom conference with the media Wednesday.
Besides the physicality of the game, Harlan noted factors that could affect a typical football season in 2021. Spring variables like the bowl situation; the College Football Playoff; what other conferences are dealing with; and where television partners stand as additional considerations.
Harlan said the most important thing now, as a Pac-12 football working group committee, is to spend a majority — if not all — of its time to “look at every possible thing.” That, in turn, will help in decisions about the viability of a spring season.
“We’re definitely not willing to shut it off at this point — very willing and open to look at avenues that might exist,” Harlan said. “And that’s the same for our other sports. Is the NCAA going to move the championships? That decision hasn’t been made. We expect more understanding to that next week to the spring. What does that do for them as well. How does it fit into the overall structure of our other sports.”
Facilities are also a concern as Harlan emphasized his desire to “control the controllable” in the pandemic.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said the conference is still looking at options and will exhaust every opportunity for the student-athletes. In football, for example, how many football games could be played in one calendar year is a big question.
“We obviously have a spring portion of the football season but nothing like playing a full season,” Scott said. “So whether it’s a full season, a compressed season, there’s a lot of different scenarios that folks are looking at.”
It’s one reason, he added, that simply moving the football season to next spring is not at the top of the list of defaults right away — mentioning that post-January play weighs heavily on coaches, athletic directors and medical personnel.
“There are going to be some health and safety considerations,” Scott said.
Former Ute safeties Steve Tate and Robert Johnson are among those who question a decision to play this spring and again in the fall if the virus subsides.
“There’s no way. Truly if you’re looking out for the players’ safety and well-being there’s no way you can ask a player to turn around within eight months and play two seasons,” said Tate, who played for the Utes from 2005-07. “It’s not plausible, not healthy. That would put way more of these kids at risk for significant injuries.”
“There’s no way. Truly if you’re looking out for the players’ safety and well-being there’s no way you can ask a player to turn around within eight months and play two seasons. It’s not plausible, not healthy. That would put way more of these kids at risk for significant injuries.” — Steve Tate
Tate noted he had to miss two spring football camps during his time with the Utes while recovering from injuries — a torn labrum and rotator cuff one year and a sports hernia the other. Some offseason surgeries, he explained, require months of rehab with no contact.
“So it would be ludicrous to ask these athletes to be able to play in the spring and two to three months later start preparing for a fall season,” said Tate, who predicts there would be a ripple-down or domino effect to such a plan.
The logistics, which include six to eight weeks of preparation prior to playing a season, just don’t make sense. Tate said injuries would be a factor — a huge factor — even with a shortened spring season.
Then there’s the coronavirus. Tate doesn’t think it’ll be gone by spring. That certainly wasn’t the case for those hoping camps would take place this fall.
“But here we are now and there’s no plan in place even for spring ball. So I think just having an actual plan that’s measurable to which teams and/or universities could be held responsible or held to that in order to start a season,” Tate said. “But I don’t know. I think right now to assume the virus is going to be completely gone and staying away by spring is hopeful wishing.”
Johnson, who played for the Utes from 2007-09 before going to the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, has similar thoughts about trying to play seasons in both the spring and fall. Things are already beyond tough.
“You have to remember as a young man your body is still developing. I’m not saying everybody is not developed once you get in college, but your body is still developing and your body is still trying to get used to gaining weight for a certain position or you have to lose weight for a certain position,” said Johnson, who noted that going to school and building relationships at a university is also part of the process. “So when it comes to, like, the physical matter of playing basically back-to-back football seasons, I don’t think that it’s healthy.”
There’s a slogan, Johnson added, that aptly describes the situation. The gist of it is, “If you’re healthy then you’re not playing.” Johnson said no one is 100% during a season. Things always seem to happen.
Those who play hard-nosed positions like the offensive or defensive line, where there’s contact on every snap, take quite a physical toll. Johnson said there’s a reason why college teams have traditional spring ball and how coaches often have star players sit some things out.
“There’s so many different things that can happen. But I feel, in my opinion, that it’s not a good idea to have a spring (season) because it’s going to be contact back-to-back and chances of getting injured. And I feel like it’s going to hurt you more than help you when you get to the NFL if you get that shot.” — Robert Johnson
“You don’t want to risk it but knowing if you have a back-to-back type of season, then where does that put the coaches. Because if something happens to one of the players then it falls back on the coach,” Johnson said. “But then you also want to win. So it’s a lot more negative than it is positive when it comes to having back-to-back seasons because things happen to young players.”
Some of which, he continued, can impact future careers if not healthy. A shortened spring season isn’t necessarily the answer, either. Johnson said games aren’t 30 minutes long and one play can change everything — especially for those preparing for NFL opportunities. Beating up your body without a break can only hurt.
“You’re never going to be healthy enough to really showcase your talents once you get to the NFL level. What they always say in the NFL is you’ve got to be available. You’ve got to be healthy,” said Johnson, who explained that those who play in two college seasons close together may have too much tread on their tires.
In that regard, Johnson doesn’t feel like it’s a good idea to have a spring season. As someone who went undrafted, he acknowledged a decision would have to be made in terms of risk as a tradeoff for improving his stock.
“There’s so many different things that can happen,” Johnson said. “But I feel, in my opinion, that it’s not a good idea to have a spring (season) because it’s going to be contact back-to-back and chances of getting injured. And I feel like it’s going to hurt you more than help you when you get to the NFL if you get that shot.”