Leistikow: 10 Iowa football thoughts, including how a 10-game schedule could work and an idea to save Cy-Hawk
There’s a lot to unpack on the heels of Thursday’s Big Ten bombshell that the league was powering ahead into a conference-only schedule in all fall sports, which of course includes America’s biggie: Football.
While I touched on the most pressing topic in the hours after the fact — that it was a sensible move but that the season itself remained questionable at best due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — here are 10 more thoughts about the decision. Keep reading, and I’ll delve into the reality of the first fall without a Cy-Hawk game in 44 years.
No. 1: Let’s start with optimism. A 10-game schedule is feasible in a best-case scenario.
That seems like the pie-in-the-sky plan that’s being discussed. And I don’t see any issue in striving for 83% of the original 12-game schedule as of mid-July.
Here’s how I would do it: Games the first three weekends (Sept. 5, 12 and 19), then one off weekend for every Big Ten team. Keep Sept. 26 completely free for all 14 members. Then three more games in a row (Oct. 3, 10 and 17), then another Saturday off (Oct. 24). Then two more weekends on (Oct. 31, Nov. 7), and one off (Nov. 14). Finally, two finishing games (Nov. 21, 28) that coincide with the originally scheduled end to the regular season on Thanksgiving weekend — a week when many campuses are planning to transition to online-only learning in anticipation of a coronavirus surge.
I would schedule crossover games — Big Ten East vs. Big Ten West — in each of those first three weekends. If significant virus concerns extend deeper into September (or teams simply aren't ready after having training time cut short), then those games would be easier to cancel to allow the possibility of keeping divisional games (where less travel is required) intact.
Also, by keeping three weekends initially free of football, it would allow rescheduling opportunities. For example, let’s say it’s deemed unsafe to begin the season Sept. 5 as scheduled. Those games could then slide to Sept. 26. If games on Sept. 12 seem too early, those could be shoved back to Oct. 24. And so forth.
Would I bet even money on a 10-game schedule to be completed by Thanksgiving weekend? No way. But it’s a starting point. And let’s suppose, for example, five games are played before athletics are shut down for the rest of the fall semester. Then the option could exist to punt the other five games to the spring semester.
Heck, maybe by then we’ll have a vaccine and there will be unlimited fans in the stands.
No. 2: If we do see 10-game Big Ten schedules, are they completely redrawn from the current nine-game format?
According to Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith, conversations about scheduling specifics haven’t taken place. So, the slate is clean. It would seem sensible to keep the nine opponents already scheduled for each team, then add one more.
Originally, Big Ten West teams were scheduled to have four home conference games and five on the road. That means West teams would be adding a home game.
Yes, I over-analyzed this. I looked at the planned crossover partners from 2022 to 2027 (Iowa, for example, moves on from a six-year marriage with Penn State to unite with Rutgers) and crossed those matchups off the list. And I looked at competitive balance and existing flight commitments. Here is what I came up with:
Illinois would add Michigan (to Rutgers, Indiana and Ohio State).
Iowa would add Maryland (to Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State).
Minnesota would add Indiana (to Maryland, Michigan and Michigan State).
Nebraska would add Michigan State (to Rutgers, Ohio State and Penn State).
Northwestern would add Rutgers (to Michigan State, Penn State and Maryland).
Purdue would add Ohio State (to Rutgers, Michigan and Indiana).
Wisconsin would add Penn State (to Indiana, Michigan and Maryland).
No. 3: If the Big Ten wants to aim for a Sept. 19 start, a nine-game schedule could be easily mapped out with only minor adjustments.
Three weeks on, one off. Three weeks on, one off. Three weeks on. Done, on the weekend after Thanksgiving as originally scheduled.
Reshuffling of the current schedule would still be needed to allow for all-important open weekends of flexibility. Under this scenario, Iowa’s season opener would take place on a Friday night at Minnesota’s TCF Stadium. A heated battle for Floyd of Rosedale, under the lights, to kick off the 2020 Big Ten season.
That’d be pretty cool.
No. 4: One of the reasons the Big Ten made this decision is because … Big Ten athletics departments stink at saving money.
For way, way too many years, Big Ten programs (Iowa included) lavishly overspent their robust cash flow. Media-rights deals and bowl-game/conference/NCAA distributions added up to more than $58 million in revenues on Iowa’s fiscal-year 2019 athletics budget, and almost $25 million went right back out toward coaching salaries, bonuses and benefits.
If athletics departments could have restrained themselves and held back even $5 million a year over the past decade in their nine-figure budgets, they’d have $50 million in reserves and be equipped to weather this COVID-19 storm. And then maybe athletes wouldn’t be pressed into risky situations, where their school's athletics department needs them to play games on TV to make sure they can cover expenses.
Already, we’ve seen even Stanford (with its $27 billion endowment) slashing 11 sports amid economic concerns. If it’s that bad at Stanford, it’s going to be worse elsewhere and probably fast. Sports-cutting will be unfortunately prevalent in the coming weeks and months.
We can’t jump into the Doc Brown’s DeLorean to go back in time and warn colleges that their budgets would crash in 2020. But spending reform — with an eye on savings for a future crisis like this — must be on the table for Power Five programs. The era of $7 million football coaches and $1 million athletics directors needs to be re-examined.
No. 5: Schools like Northern Iowa and Northern Illinois — two programs no longer on Iowa’s 2020 schedule — are innocent bystanders and arguably hurt the most by the Big Ten decision.
Iowa will likely try to recover the $650,000 it guaranteed to UNI and the $1.15 million slated for Northern Illinois, with those games erased. Excellent Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyel wrote a terrifically blunt big-picture piece on this topic. An excerpt:
“The bigger schools are about to kill off the smaller ones, like condors devouring a flock of cardinals. Like vultures, really, picking at the dying, making sure they’re dead. This is the immediate fate facing smaller schools around the country. … You can see where this is going, of course. What started with the Big Ten will soon be adopted by the other Power Five conferences, because that’s how it works in college sports.”
Thursday’s decision could not only impact whether a MAC school has a baseball team next year, it also could be a dagger to even very successful FCS and Group of Five football programs (like UNI) that depend on Power Five “buy games” to keep athletics afloat. It stinks, across the board. According to USA TODAY, MAC schools were ticketed to lose a combined $10.5 million due to the Big Ten decision alone.
No. 6: You did read the ominous quotes from Kevin Warren and Gene Smith, didn’t you?
This scheduling talk does paper over the real story, which is the serious doubt that exists for a fall football season to be feasible. On an interview with his league’s network, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren noted, “This is not a fait accompli that we’re going to have sports in the fall. ... We may not have a college football season in the Big Ten.”
The words from Smith, the Ohio State A.D., were even stronger. Smith blasted the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic and said he was no longer hopeful of having games, let alone fans in the stands.
“When looking at our trajectory with the virus, we are the worst country or one of the worst,” he said.
These comments from two of the most powerful men in college athletics signal that everyone must take this virus seriously if there is any hope of having fall sports.
In other words: Wear your masks, people.
No. 7: The loss of the Iowa-Iowa State game stings the state, but it will be back.
Eight of the last nine Cy-Hawk matchups (2016 being the exception) have been extremely competitive and delivered many memorable moments for both fan bases. Heck, we’ve had multiple overtime games decided by a 44-41 score (with each program winning one). Last season's matchup welcomed ESPN's College GameDay then lasted more than six hours and was decided by one point.
We will miss out on whatever on-field drama was going to unfold Sept. 12 at Kinnick Stadium. But the series is still contracted through the 2025 season, and there will be plenty of political pressure to keep playing it. These teams will meet again Sept. 11, 2021, at Jack Trice Stadium.
Off the field, the chatter is alive and well. Iowa fans are happy to mention their series winning streak will surpass 2,500 calendar days before the next meeting. Iowa State fans are happy to point out that this was the year Matt Campbell, Brock Purdy and Co. were going to end the Hawkeyes' five-game run.
The Cy-Hawk rivalry will easily power through the pandemic.
No. 8: Here’s an out-of-the-box idea to salvage a Cy-Hawk matchup in this academic year.
Maybe a miracle occurs and the Big Ten-only schedule reaches the finish line with minimal hitches. Maybe the Big 12 Conference gets there, too. And maybe the COVID-19 pandemic is under control by December.
Even if all that happens, I don't think there's any way traditional bowl games will.
So … what if instead of a bowl game, Iowa vs. Iowa State becomes a postseason one-off? Bowls are basically exhibitions anyway. If things are going well within the state of Iowa five months from now (and neither team is invited to the College Football Playoff), what about trying to find a way to schedule a Cy-Hawk battle either in the indoor UNI-Dome or at Kinnick (as originally scheduled) during the spring semester?
No. 9: A few ripple effects of the Big Ten decision that came to mind …
Even if a 10-game schedule is executed, it would mark the shortest Hawkeye regular season since 1970. We won’t see as many 1,000-yard rushing seasons nationally. Seniors will be playing truncated final years of college, at best. Not that there would be much sympathy for this, but the degree of difficulty for coaches to achieve win bonuses is higher. (In the example of Kirk Ferentz, he needs eight wins out of 10 against a Big Ten-only slate to earn a $500,000 bonus.)
One interesting idea I saw from The Athletic’s Scott Dochterman was to allow college programs to schedule a 13th regular-season game in 2022 and/or 2023 to help recover lost revenue. (Maybe this is a way Iowa could do UNI a solid, too; by kicking their $650,000 agreement a few years down the road.)
No. 10: Sorry to leave you on a pessimistic note, but winter sports could be next in the crosshairs.
This week’s focus is understandably around football and how it is trying to find a path to playing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But I’m hearing real concerns from plugged-in people that the college basketball season is in jeopardy, too. Outdoor sports in warmer weather are one thing, but close-contact indoor sports (like basketball and wrestling) during prime virus-spreading season is even riskier. That’s why I think you’re seeing the pleas from powerful administrators for U.S. residents to mask up and practice responsible social-distancing behaviors.
They know that time to save college sports in 2020 is running out, and the virus is in charge.
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.