Leistikow: Conference-only schedule was pragmatic move for Big Ten, but tougher decisions remain

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The Big Ten’s move to a conference-only football schedule — well, trying for one anyway — underscores the kind of desperation that has set in among some of the nation’s most powerful universities: That a season must be salvaged.

That means scrapping Ohio State vs. Oregon, Michigan vs. Washington, Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame … and yes, Iowa State vs. Iowa.

That’s right: For the first fall since 1976, there won’t be a Cy-Hawk football game.

The Big Ten announced Thursday afternoon that it was instituting conference-only scheduling for all fall sports. A big move seemed to be inevitable, especially following the Wednesday news that the Ivy League would cancel fall sports (with the hopes of resuming in the spring); that Stanford was slashing 11 sports (including wrestling); and that mighty Ohio State, of all programs, was halting voluntary workouts in seven sports (including football) due to coronavirus outbreaks.

While the Big Ten-only move certainly reeks of desperation, it's also a sensible one in an uncertain time. By doing so, the Big Ten (and any other conference that follows suit) can mandate uniform coronavirus testing protocols and response plans to its members. If there are already outbreaks before players start grappling face-mask to face-mask, there are surely more to come.

While the Cy-Hawk game will not happen in 2020, Thursday's decision by the Big Ten zeroes in on conference-only matchups like Iowa (and Kirk Ferentz) vs. Northwestern (and Pat Fitzgerald) to salvage a football season.

“By limiting competition to other Big Ten institutions,” the league said in its six-paragraph statement, “the conference will have the greatest flexibility to adjust its own operations throughout the season and make quick decisions in real-time, based on the most current evolving medical advice and the fluid nature of the pandemic.”

The key word there is flexibility.

Considering there is no college football commissioner like in the NFL or other major sports, who shapes football decisions if there’s an outbreak at, say, Virginia Tech (an early opponent on Penn State’s schedule)? Or what if Northern Illinois came to Kinnick Stadium on Sept. 28 and had 15 of its athletes test positive for coronavirus the following week? Would Iowa be forced into quarantine and forfeit upcoming games vs. Michigan State and Ohio State?

Maybe those things are unavoidable in a conference-only plan, too, but at least there is a better chance to maintaining control of 14 campuses across the Big Ten as opposed to 130 across the FBS. And by scheduling league-only games, the Big Ten can more easily space out the calendar with critical built-in off weeks.

According to a person with direct knowledge of the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because details haven’t been worked out, there is no determination on how many football games will ultimately make up the revised football schedule. But Tom Dienhart — formerly of the Big Ten Network, who now covers Purdue for Rivals.com — reported Wednesday that the Big Ten was considering a 10-game, conference-only schedule to begin sometime in September. That would be an ambitious number to get wrapped up by Thanksgiving weekend — by which point a lot of schools (including Iowa) are planning to transition to online-only learning out of fears for a coronavirus outbreak.

But, perhaps, it's doable.

Ten games per team, almost all of them packed with division-title implications, would help the Big Ten maximize the television revenue it needs for its athletics departments to weather the COVID-19 pandemic storm. A 10-game season at this point would be a huge success for these 14 universities.

Beyond health questions, a key element to a successful schedule will be ensuring there are open weekends for every team — that will allow the league to push games back or reschedule them. If Minnesota experiences an outbreak during Iowa week, for example, maybe that game can be pushed back more easily to a mutually open date.

There are major questions about whether a season can start by Sept. 5, the first originally scheduled Saturday on the Big Ten football calendar. Taking non-conference games out of the picture largely gives the league more time to get proper testing and action plans in place, should a late-September or early-October start become safer and more realistic.

There’s also a most important matter of assuring the unpaid labor force — the student-athletes — that their health is being genuinely considered. Iowa athletics director Gary Barta referenced that matter in his statement Thursday, saying he supported the Big Ten’s decision “knowing that the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes, coaches and staff is the top priority.”

The Big Ten became the leading Power Five voice Thursday, but this was just one day — July 9, 2020. More difficult days and bold decisions are likely ahead.

A reminder that this is a fluid situation: The state of Iowa reported Thursday the highest single-day spike in coronavirus cases since May 1.


There’s a long way to go before Sept. 5. Or whenever the Big Ten football season is supposed to begin.

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.