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Leistikow: A spring football season is possible, but it requires a great plan — and some luck

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

If there is going to be a spring football season for the Big Ten Conference and others, a lot of issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic must fall neatly into place.

But as was apparent from the Tuesday moves by the Big Ten and Pacific-12 to postpone fall sports, executing a spring season is also going to require better planning and foresight from league leaders.

“Obviously, it’ll look different than it’s ever looked before,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said during a Tuesday afternoon Zoom call. “But those are things that if (they’re) given thought and we do it in a smart way, for sure (a spring season) can be done.”

What might that look like?

There are already plenty of ideas flowing from Big Ten coaches and media. Ohio State’s Ryan Day came out firing Wednesday morning, advocating for a January start to an eight-week regular season plus a postseason.

Iowa's offensive line is shown during a recent practice. Left tackle Coy Cronk, left guard Kyler Schott and center Tyler Linderbaum are visible, as well as backup quarterback Alex Padilla (in yellow).

That timeline, he said, would give more opportunity for potential pro prospects (including his star quarterback, Justin Fields) to showcase their games before entering the draft process. An earlier start would be one way to entice more seniors to stick around.

Another benefit to a January start: More recovery time for student-athletes before the fall 2021 season, which everyone hopes can be as close to normal as possible.

Let’s say an abbreviated spring season ends in late March or early April. Although more contact would take place than in spring practices (which span five weeks at Iowa and finish in late April), athletes would be afforded two or three months off before returning for summer conditioning. The usual eight-week stretch of winter conditioning at Iowa could be pushed back to late fall. (Ferentz says Iowa players are being given this week and next week off before returning for team activities Aug. 24 or 25.)

A spring season could mean a slightly shortened fall 2021 season. Suppose the Big Ten, for example, kept its 10-game conference-only model and added one nonconference game to make 11. Then we’re talking 19 regular-season games crunched into 11 months. Although that is undoubtedly a high total and a point of concern for Ferentz, it’s also worth mentioning that college teams that reach their national title games (FBS or FCS) already play 15 games in 4½ months.

“When we look at the spring, we have to look at the entire calendar year for 2021,” Ferentz said. “And I’m sure that’ll be where the discussions all begin.”

If a January start is planned, two big questions must be addressed.

First, the weather — which can be particularly harsh in January and February (and even March) in Big Ten country. That might just have to be the bitter (cold) reality to play football. Fans might mind, if they are permitted to attend; I doubt the players will. Perhaps there could be a game or two scheduled for temperature-controlled environments along the way. (Hello, UNI-Dome?)

Second, there’s the eligibility issue. Day suggested Wednesday that 2021 — both the spring and fall seasons — count as one year of eligibility. That would be more than fair to athletes, but obviously some leeway would be needed for teams to exceed the 85-scholarship limit. (Hello, NCAA?)

Ferentz believes early-enrollees will be plentiful, considering many high school players are seeing their fall seasons canceled. Day thinks it could be a good recruiting tool for the Big Ten, especially if other conferences go forward with playing this fall (as the Big 12 said this week it would do).

Purdue's Jeff Brohm also is an advocate of an eight-game spring season, but one that starts in March. That would more closely mimic traditional spring ball and provide for a better chance to have good weather, fans in the stands and a better handle on the coronavirus.

And by the way, if the Big Ten can play sometime this spring … and the Pac-12 can, too … why not have the league champions convene at the Rose Bowl? Pasadena, California, is pleasant any time of year.

Those are some logistical, fun starting points to think about. But health concerns obviously will be priority No. 1. The Pac-12, which has been more transparent about its medical data than the Big Ten, outlined two main areas that must improve to hold a spring season

  • Testing (and subsequent results) must be available within 24 hours of competition.
  • There must be a clear ability to isolate new positive cases and quarantine high-risk contacts.

The disease must be under control nationally by January — or whenever the season is set to begin. That’s a big if, considering the U.S. reported 1,450 new COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, compared with that day's totals of zero in France, four in Canada and six in Italy (for example).

There are more logistics to figure out, but that's an initial framework or two of what a spring season might look like. It may not yet seem probable, but it's certainly possible.

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.