This has been a college football season unlike any other.
The coronavirus pandemic forced the sport to reimagine everything about how it is conducted. From mask-adorned coaches on the sidelines, to the fan game-day experience, to extensive team testing protocols — and even how the sport is officiated — everything is different.
Now more than a month into the season, ESPN reporters Heather Dinich, Sam Khan Jr., Ivan Maisel and Alex Scarborough spoke to people in and around the sport to assess how COVID-19 protocols are impacting college football so far:
Masks and sideline protocol
The most visible upset of the college football season on Sept. 26 threw up a red flag, and not because defending national champion LSU had lost its season opener at home to unranked Mississippi State. Rather, what drew the attention away from the exciting debut of the Mike Leach Air Raid offense was the fact that Leach was so often seen flouting COVID-19 protocols during the game.
Television cameras kept panning to Leach on the sidelines, and almost every time he had his face covering down around his neck as if it were a scarf, instead of over his mouth and nose as called for by the conference’s protocols. And Leach was hardly alone. Several head coaches were seen not wearing their masks properly that day.
That Wednesday, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey sent a memo to the conference’s athletic directors and coaches with a stern reminder that “additional action” would be taken if failure to follow the protocols continued. And a week after that, when coaches like Texas A&M‘s Jimbo Fisher failed to heed his warning, Sankey typed out another memo. The second memo laid out what that “additional action” would be: a financial penalty of $100,000, which would go up an additional $100,000 for every week of failed compliance.
As one source put it: “So we are in the scare portion of the program.”
And a week later, Sankey made good on his promise after coaches like Tennessee‘s Jeremy Pruitt continued to not follow protocol. Sources told ESPN that the league penalized multiple programs. Sankey, appearing on ESPN Radio the following day, said that additional penalties would be made public.
This was the culmination of a nightmare week in the SEC that resulted in the first two postponements of the season — Missouri vs. Vanderbilt and LSU vs. Florida — and the announcement that Alabama coach Nick Saban had tested positive for COVID-19. (Saban later had three consecutive negative tests, leading to a determination that he had received a false positive.)
Speaking with ESPN on Friday, Sankey said if he were to provide a report card on the adherence to sideline protocol, it would read “needs improvement.” He added that fines could eventually reach the $1 million mark.
“My premise is, our head football coaches are leaders, the most visible people in their programs,” he said. “They set the tone. They have that responsibility in this environment. Our athletics programs have to make certain the people around the program are complying with all of the protocols involved — washing your hands, wearing masks, maintaining social distancing to the extent that’s possible in a competitive environment.
“We have testing, but testing is not alone going to solve all of these problems. It’s hypervigilance to all of the expectations; it has to be continually emphasized and reemphasized.”
An ACC official said there continue to be weekly calls with the conference’s athletic directors and football subcommittee to review the previous week’s competition. After Week 1, commissioner John Swofford wrote a memo to ADs and coaches saying how important it was to show leadership by wearing face coverings at all times. “The health benefits are obvious,” he wrote. “The optics are important as well.”
The expectation, Swofford wrote, was that ADs and coaches “will take all appropriate action to ensure 100% compliance among their Team Members.”
And so far, there have been no reports of punitive action taken by the ACC. The same goes for the Big 12.
Where their counterparts in the SEC go next and how they respond to the first round of fines remains to be seen. On Saturday afternoon, Florida coach Dan Mullen announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19.
But aside from mask-wearing protocol, Sankey has found himself thinking a lot lately about who is allowed on the sideline during games. He has become famous around the conference offices in Birmingham for being angry at what he called “the guy in the green shirt.”
There are no schools in the SEC with green in their colors, but Sankey said that while reviewing games he has seen this man in green who couldn’t be identified and who wasn’t wearing a mask.
“I’ve simply said to our athletics directors, if we identity those types of people, they’ll be removed from the sideline,” he said. — Alex Scarborough
Fans, seating and in-stadium experience
Much of what makes college football unique is the game-day experience: the fans, the band, the student section, tailgating. All of that has been drastically altered.
Stadiums are a quarter or one-third full. There are no more marching bands at halftime. Student sections aren’t packed like they used to be.
Tailgating, in many places, is nonexistent.
“That was a tough one emotionally,” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said, “because tailgating around Oklahoma games is huge.”
Said Oklahoma State deputy athletic director Chad Weiberg: “You park and start walking across campus and there’s no tailgating going on whatsoever. It’s almost an eerie feeling.”
In the annual Red River Showdown, where the Texas State Fair usually surrounds the Oklahoma-Texas game at the Cotton Bowl, the absence of the usual festivities was certainly strange.
Through the early part of the season, fans have been largely compliant. Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork said his staff had to break up only one tailgating group in the first two home games.
“People have totally understood and respected all of that,” Bjork said.
Even at LSU, known as the sport’s premier tailgating destination, fans have largely behaved (though some got creative, setting up tailgates just outside the campus boundaries, according to Sports Illustrated).
Halftime has been changed, too. No more marching bands on the field at the midpoint; they’re staying in their section throughout the game. Schools have resorted to playing prerecorded or past performances on the video boards instead. Oklahoma State used the extra time to do a robust presentation for alumnus Thurman Thomas as he was inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor.
“Normally that would be a pretty short, rushed presentation,” Weiberg said. “With nothing else going on, we were able to blow that out.”
Throughout the stadium, things like hand-sanitizing stations, plexiglass dividers at concession stands and cashless transactions are common. Digital ticketing already existed in most places, but schools have increased its usage this season. Castiglione said OU fans can purchase their concessions from their seats, pay for them in an app and go pick them up without standing in line, which fans have loved.
The biggest challenge for schools thus far has been enforcing the two core prevention strategies recommended by the Center for Disease Control: masks and social distancing. Watch a game broadcast and it’s not hard to spot maskless fans in close proximity.
“It’s not easy to enforce,” Castiglione said. “But we aren’t going to back off our commitment to enforcement.”
Bjork said Texas A&M had to remove more than 40 fans from its Oct. 10 home game against Florida for not complying with the face-covering mandate. The heat index that day rose above 90 degrees and Aggies pride themselves on their ability to yell and “It’s hard to yell through a mask,” Bjork said.
Schools have relied on reminders — whether on the video board, public address announcements or ushers holding up signs — to keep the mask mandate front and center for fans. Oklahoma State tries to “make it fun,” Weiberg said, even putting a mask on its mascot, Pistol Pete, and installing a “mask cam” (akin to the “kiss cam”) on the video board.
In some cases, schools are asking security staff to be stronger with enforcement.
“The last thing we ever wanna do is remove somebody from the stadium, but that’s where the judgment comes into place with our police officers, our safety officers, security,” Bjork said. “It’s hard, because this is not normal and nothing that we’re dealing with is not normal and everyone’s trying to do the best they can.”
Multiple school officials noted that student sections have been a challenging area to enforce protocols. Students are usually well-behaved coming into the game and find their seats, but as the game goes on, they often inch closer together. Bjork noted that the second and third decks of Texas A&M’s student section are ones that need improvement in that area.
Castiglione said Oklahoma saw significant improvement in student behavior in its second home game. Oklahoma also focused on giving more detailed instructions and implementing signage marking permissible seating and prohibited seating.
In an effort to keep students spaced, Oklahoma State installed chair backs — usually reserved for season-ticket holders and often at a fee — in the student section. It also condensed the row for the famed “Paddle People” to the end zone only (previously, that section also stretched near the visiting team’s bench).
Sometimes, it still does feel like a normal game atmosphere. After his team’s loss at Texas A&M, Florida coach Dan Mullen asked his school’s administration to allow him to “Pack the Swamp” because of how loud it was at Kyle Field.
Bjork, who noted that Texas A&M sold only 14,000 student tickets (the Aggies usually sell more than 30,000 in normal years), took it as praise.
“In the second half, when the game was tight … it got loud,” he said. “If people thought there were 50,000 people there when there were less than 25,000, that’s a compliment.” — Sam Khan Jr.
Conference testing protocols continue to vary, but officials in the SEC, ACC and Big 12 still believe the PCR test remains the “gold standard,” as described by the CDC guidelines and NCAA.
ACC commissioner John Swofford and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said there are currently no plans to add daily antigen testing to their three weekly PCR tests.
“Should we be more comfortable with the reliability around rapid antigen or some new technology, certainly we would be open to that,” Sankey said, “but that’s going to be based on the guidance from our medical advisers.”
At Vanderbilt, athletic director Candice Lee described the program’s COVID-19 situation as a “slow creep.” It began on Sept. 10, when the Commodores were down to 56 scholarship players in a 41-7 loss to South Carolina. Having barely met the threshold of 53 scholarship athletes required by the SEC, those within the program knew it was a fragile position as they waited for Oct. 11 test results.
“That slow creep starts to have a cumulative effect,” Lee said. “Once we realized we fell below the threshold, we immediately communicated with the conference office and together walked through that process. The conference office was very helpful. At that time, it was the first game in our league that had to be postponed. Some of that was navigating as we go, like so many things through the last few months. We understood what we were dealing with, and made the pivot as soon as we realized we needed to.”
Alabama reversed course twice in four days because of Saban’s Oct. 14 false positive PCR test.
Alabama has supplemented the league’s three weekly PCR tests with daily PCR testing from an outside lab, and that’s where Saban’s errant result originated. Saban then had five negative PCR tests split between two labs. Because he was asymptomatic with no fever, Saban was cleared to coach against Georgia by the time the game kicked off at 8 p.m. ET last Saturday night — a testing policy not shared by the ACC or Big 12. In those leagues, any positive COVID-19 test requires at least 10 days of isolation, a protocol coaches and players cannot test out of even if asymptomatic.
“We’ve been very pleased with the testing protocols,” Swofford said. “The day-before protocols have worked well. At this point, after five weeks, our programs are getting comfortable doing what we’re doing. There’s some rhythm to it.”
When Notre Dame flies to Pittsburgh on Friday, the Irish will take two PCR tests — first before they get on the plane in South Bend, Indiana, and again at an arranged time when they arrive. A crew of ACC testing technicians immediately will fly back to Raleigh, North Carolina, with both teams’ samples, and Mako Medical will produce results by late Friday night or early Saturday morning.
When Notre Dame hosted South Florida on Sept. 19, the tests taken by the team at 3 p.m. on Friday were negative. On Monday, Notre Dame had nine positives.
“Those guys didn’t contract that virus between Friday and Monday,” athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. “In all likelihood, it was building in their system at the time. It just hadn’t reached the level yet where it was detectable, and it’s probably less transmissible during that same time, though it can be transmitted. It’s both of those dynamics — how reliable is your testing, and where are you in the virus’ development in your body?”
South Florida athletic director Michael Kelly said the Notre Dame game didn’t cause an outbreak within the Bulls’ program, and the Bulls immediately followed quarantine procedures. USF uses PCR tests on Monday and Wednesday, plus an antigen test on Friday through a third-party provider associated with the AAC, and all of the team’s test results are provided within hours.
“When I travel I want to know that everyone on that plane at least is negative,” Kelly said.
Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades thought everyone on the plane to West Virginia was negative.
The Big 12 is most reliant upon its PCR tests three times a week, but has also added daily testing on Fridays. Rhoades suspects a false negative before the Oct. 3 trip to West Virginia led to 42 active cases within the football program.
“I think we’re fairly confident that potentially somebody got on that plane that obviously had tested negative but had the infection,” said Rhoades, “or, somehow, obviously became infectious from the time we got on the plane to the time we got back from the West Virginia trip.”
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said the PCR is “still the best test,” and the most reliable.
“Our doctors are telling us it’s where we should stay,” he said. “The antigen test Friday, it’s a rapid-response test intended to be a last test in the case of a visiting team gets on a plane and goes to a game site. While it’s not as reliable as some other testing, in conjunction with other PCR testing, it’s very reliable.”
That’s exactly what the Big Ten and Pac-12 are banking on. — Heather Dinich
Safety for the refs
Given that the number of COVID-19 cases has risen in 41 states over the past week, not to mention the positive tests of three FBS head coaches, the chief college football official is doubling down on safety for his striped shirts.
Beginning this week, when a head coach seeks to speak with an official during a game, the official will remain at a safe distance unless the coach is wearing his mask appropriately, national coordinator of officials Steve Shaw said Monday
“If the coach wants to talk to you, make sure his mask is up,” Shaw said. “If the coach’s mask is not up, you back away and give him a signal to mask up.”
Everyone in college football is adjusting to the pandemic as they go. The Southeastern Conference decided a couple of days before it began play on Sept. 26 to use the Kinexon player tracking system. Every player had a sensor sewn into his jersey. If that player tests positive, then the system can determine which other players on the field were exposed to him long enough to warrant being quarantined.
The great electronic whistle experiment made a quiet exit. After three weeks of games in which coaches, players and television announcers strained to hear when a play ended, Shaw instructed officials to carry an electronic and a traditional air whistle.
“We recognized the thing is just not loud enough,” Shaw said. “For run-of-the-mill plays, the electronic whistle performed satisfactorily; for plays when an official needs to assert control, no. If you need to shut a play down, you need the power of a traditional whistle.”
Shaw said that the makers of the electronic whistle are working on a version that reaches 140 decibels, the equivalent of the noise level of an aircraft carrier deck. That whistle won’t be available this season.
Officials have to be careful because they travel every week. College football is trying to stage the season without a bubble, and 33 FBS games have been postponed because of the coronavirus. Florida played at Texas A&M, came home and had a rash of positive tests that caused the Gators to postpone their game against LSU. When Auburn goes on the road, equipment manager Dana Marquez has his crew go in and sanitize each hotel room and meeting room that his team will use. “We’re spraying down the buses before we get on them,” Marquez said. Sometimes peace of mind comes at the cost of redundancy.
In the wake of Alabama’s Saban almost being stuck at home for the Georgia game Saturday, Shaw said there has been some confusion concerning why a head coach, or any assistant, may not work remotely during a game.
“The concern is not a COVID issue,” Shaw said, “but a competitive advantage. In stadiums, you can’t use video. You can’t use a computer. We’ve never allowed an outside person to communicate.”
With the virus surging across the country, don’t expect the issue to go away.
“If COVID lasts longer than a season,” Shaw said, “that will be a huge topic of conversation.” — Ivan Maisel