Leistikow: As Ohio State cautiously opens doors to football, others likely to follow

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Ohio State boldly set the pace for returning to football in the Big Ten Conference on Wednesday, putting its prominent athletic director at the front of the conversation and announcing it would open its football facility’s doors to athletes June 8.

It’s hard to imagine rival programs ceding much ground to the Buckeyes, the league’s powerhouse program of late — and now perhaps the standard-setter for getting prepared for an on-time start to the college season, even as concerns about the spread of COVID-19 remain high.

That list includes Iowa, which is set to face Ohio State in football on Oct. 10 — 4½ months from now — in Columbus.

Coupled with the NCAA Division I Council’s decision Wednesday to lift a moratorium on facility use for athletes — the ruling approves “voluntary” workouts starting June 1 for those in football and men’s and women’s basketball — Ohio State’s earlier announcement was akin to a starter’s gun at a track meet.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Iowa was not prepared to announce that it would be opening its doors for football and basketball athletes. Kirk Ferentz, pictured, has said teams would need at least eight weeks to prepare for a football season.

The race is on for athletes to safely scramble back to facilities. It's not like the coronavirus has gone away, so this is hardly a decision that should be rushed. Yet, competitively, time is of the essence.

Government and health officials (not to mention the virus itself) will have the ultimate veto power, and that’ll depend on the state. But based on Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ leniency that high school baseball and softball seasons can begin in June, decisions to open athletic doors at Iowa (and Iowa State) would likely come from university officials.

The NCAA ruling does specify that these approved voluntary workouts must be initiated by players and cannot be directed by a coach; nor can a coach be present unless a safety exemption allows it. But "voluntary" certainly adds an element of pressure for 85 scholarship athletes plus walk-ons to do all they can to not lose playing time come fall.

Iowa athletics director Gary Barta, who is part of the 40-member D-I Council, was not ready to pronounce a triumphant return for Hawkeye sports as of Wednesday night. If Iowa is going to open its facilities to athletes, it makes sense to wait until a unified plan like Ohio State's is in place.

"The Iowa athletics department continues to work with the UI’s Critical Incident Management Team on developing protocols related to student-athletes and staff returning to campus," university athletics spokesman Steve Roe said. "A specific return date has not been determined at this time."

In Columbus, athletics director Gene Smith outlined some of Ohio State's intended protocols for June 8, which happens to be one day after the Big Ten presidents and chancellors have their annual meeting — one that figures to hash out further guidelines about the conference's plan to return to football.

Smith said that, at first, no more than 10 athletes would be allowed into the Woody Hayes Athletic Center at a time. He also supports restricting organized team activities through June 30. 

Such a timetable mixes boldness and measured caution. Considered one of the leaders in college sports, Smith’s voice carries ample heft. If he’s out front talking on this, he’s going to have followers.

Smith’s full menu of comments Wednesday, though, also reflects the uncertainty ahead. He told Buckeyes beat writers that a “best-case scenario” would allow players to return to full practices six weeks before the season opener but that might turn into five weeks or four — a timetable that left Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz uneasy in a conversation last month.

Minnesota is first up in the Big Ten, on Sept. 3, with all 14 teams scheduled to play their openers by Sept. 5. Iowa plays host to Northern Iowa on Sept. 5, with trophy games against Iowa State and Minnesota in the following weeks.

Smith also indicated he was growing more comfortable with games without fans. He said that Ohio State has discussed scenarios in which it permits 20,000 to 22,000 fans — about 20% of Ohio Stadium’s capacity of 105,000. Perhaps more telling, Smith said up to 50,000 could be possible if social-distancing guidelines were relaxed, but he felt that was the ceiling.

If 20% capacity is the reality at a massive structure like Ohio Stadium, what would be feasible at a snugger structure like Kinnick Stadium? Maybe 15%? That'd equate to roughly 10,000 fans. While that stuff doesn't need to be decided yet, it's something we should brace for.

No matter what unfolds, we already know that the 2020 college football season — if there is one — will be unusual to say the least.

But for now, doors are figuratively and literally swinging open as a methodical march continues toward live games this fall.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.