As the dominoes continue to fall across the country in the wake of health concerns raised by the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Massachusetts postponed its football season.
The decision by the state’s flagship institution comes as schools and conferences are choosing to make similar moves. The Mid-American Conference announced Saturday that it would cancel its fall sports season, becoming the first conference in the Football Bowl Subdivision, college football’s top tier. The Big Ten and Pac-12 followed suit Tuesday, becoming the first Power 5 conferences to postpone their seasons.
With no conference affiliation, UMass plays football as an independent.
UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said the university met last week and a decision was made Thursday. Coach Walt Bell met with players Tuesday morning to relay the news.
“This wasn’t one of those ‘A-ha!’ moments,” Bamford said. “Walt and I had talked about all the different scenarios that could play out ever since we left in March. Our students left in March, we talked about, well, let’s see where this thing goes. By May, it started to feel like, all right, we can start to build some things around bringing our young people back. And then in June, it started to look much better. We made a plan, we executed that plan, followed all of our health protocols to do so starting on June 22.”
By July 4, Bamford estimated about 85-90 percent of the football team was back on campus, but he expressed a sense of pessimism that made UMass’s decision Tuesday seem like an inevitability, even as the football program saw relative success after conducting more than 600 coronavirus tests over seven weeks and returning just one positive result.
“It worked really well,” Bamford said. “What we didn’t know was what was going to happen from about early July to about the middle of now August. And the reality is the landscape across our country has changed in a way that hasn’t been positive as it relates to the pandemic and, ultimately, I think some of the ambition we had back in June was curtailed by some of the things we’ve seen nationally.
“Looking at the environment around us, I think our young men are as safe as they’ll ever be being in our care right now. I think we’ve proven that over the last seven weeks. What we couldn’t exactly understand or ascertain was how this was going to play out over the next three months and what it was going to mean when we started to travel and what it was going to mean when we started to welcome teams from other states, other regions to our state and our stadium to play games.”
Bell met with team leaders at 9:15 a.m. Tuesday, then met with the full team at 10. They broke off into position groups for informational meetings, then he met individually with players who had additional questions. The rest of the day was spent touching base with recruits and parents.
“I’ll tell you guys the same way I told my players: My dad passed away in 2008, my biological mom OD’d in 2012, and, to be honest with you, this is probably a tougher day than both of those days,” Bell said. “It’s one thing when it’s in your own family and you’ve got a job to do and be the caretaker for the other people, but when you’ve got to go look 109 18- to 21-year-old kids in the face and tell them their dreams aren’t going to come true, that’s a devastating deal.”
Bell stressed the difficulty of breaking the news to players without being able to answer all of their questions.
“All of the same questions that you guys are asking us, our players are asking us,” he said. “And to me, that’s the biggest thing. ‘Well, when is there going to be a season? Is there going to be a calendar? What is the training going to look like? How much are you guys going to be able to work with us? What’s going to happen to our eligibility?’ The amount of unanswered questions that as a player — typically we can tell them what they’re going to be doing 364 days from now at 10 p.m. — just the lack of answers is most concerning. But as this tidal wave continues to build, the NCAA will kind of be forced into some action here and give us some answers. To me, the lack of good answers from the NCAA is the hardest thing to deal with.”
With UMass canceling its season, that leaves Boston College as the only New England school with intentions of still playing football this fall. The Eagles opened camp last week after returning for voluntary workouts in June. In a statement posted to Twitter Tuesday afternoon, the Atlantic Coast Conference maintained its stance on moving forward as planned.
“The ACC will continue to make decisions based on medical advice, inclusive of our Medical Advisory Group, local and state health guidelines, and do so in a way that appropriately coincides with our universities’ academic missions,” the statement read. “The safety of our students, staff, and overall campus communities will always be our top priority, and we are pleased with the protocols being administered on our 15 campuses. We will continue to follow our process that has been in place for months and has served us well. We understand the need to stay flexible and be prepared to adjust as medical information and the landscape evolves.”
Signs that fall sports might be in jeopardy surfaced in July when the Ivy League announced it would not be competing. The Patriot League chose to do the same shortly after.
UMass is part of the 14-school Atlantic 10 Conference for most other sports, but the league canceled all fall competitions July 17.
The football team practiced Saturday for the first time in shells, the same day the MAC announced it was canceling its season.
“You could really feel the tension, like, ‘What’s about to happen?’ ” Bell said. “I walked in and said, ‘Hey look, guys, there’s a whole bunch of stuff going on right now. I know on March 13, I would’ve given anything to be here and I know you would’ve, too. If you don’t want to practice, you can sit on the side, hang out, throw frisbee, I don’t care what you do. But if you want to practice, let’s practice. So who in here wants to practice?‘ And I got 109 hands in the air with big smiles on their faces and they went and got after it.”
While several conferences have declared their intentions to move ahead in football with conference-only schedules, including the ACC and SEC, the decisions by the Big Ten and Pac-12 could set a tone for how the sport moves forward.
The Minutemen’s football schedule had already taken a toll. They were scheduled to play the UConn before the Huskies announced last week they would be forgoing fall sports. The date with Auburn was canceled with the SEC’s decision to play a conference-only slate.
As schools and conferences weighed the implications of canceling fall sports, a common concern was having a clear explanation for student-athletes what it may mean for their eligibility going forward.
In UMass’s case, the football team will remain enrolled at the school. UMass is expected to reopen Aug. 24, holding largely remote classes.
As the cloud of doubt around the season continued to grow, several players showed their desire to play through social media using the #WeWantToPlay hashtag, but UMass receiver Zak Simon announced in an Instagram post on Sunday he was opting out of the season.
“Due to the growing concerns of COVID-19, my family and I ultimately have made the decision to opt out of the 2020 football season,” the post read. “With the lack of leadership within our country, it has force[d] me to prioritize my health and the people that I love, thus leading to my decision.”
Bamford is now turning his attention to the future with the hopes that a football season could be salvaged in the spring.
“I think first and foremost we’ve got to have the health component and the medical component figured out,” Bamford said. “We’ve got to make sure that that’s the first box that we’re checking. Every conversation I’ve had with our 2020 opponents about if things move to the spring, we will gain back those games. There’s still so much to be determined there and so much uncertainty. But I have a lot of hope in talking not only to the 12 opponents that we’ve contracted with for this fall but another of other schools that we’ll be able to get, if we can play football in the spring, a full complement of games to go out and compete.”
The financial implications of losing a football season were still hard for Bamford to gauge.
“Right now it’s kind of unknown because we’re very hopeful for a spring,” he said. “Until we know what’s going to happen competitively with a spring schedule, I would reserve any sort of revenue opportunities we may have had, whether it be ticket sales, media rights agreements, obviously game guarantees, but also the expenses until we know what the clarity of fiscal year ’21 is and where we’re going to go forward.
“We have an intention of playing 12 games in the spring. If that happens, I think everything we’ve budgeted for football, assuming that there’s similar travel and similar home games and we can have spectators, if all of those things occur then I think our football budget and all the things we expected of this fiscal year will stay intact.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.