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Leistikow: For willing Hawkeyes, Big Ten's fall football cancellation brings unsettling finality

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The Big Ten Conference boldly pulled the plug on its fall sports, including football, on Tuesday with the idea of trying again during the spring semester. First-year league commissioner Kevin Warren repeatedly cited recent advice from medical experts and “too much uncertainty” surrounding the global COVID-19 pandemic to go forward with a a sports season slated to begin in early September.

So, there it is.

No football games for Iowa or any of the other 13 Big Ten schools until at least 2021.

Even though it seemed inevitable 24 hours earlier, Tuesday's feeling of finality surrounding football was significant for everyone associated with the game — fans, coaches, administrators, parents and especially players.

"It's disappointing," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said in a late-afternoon Zoom call, "to say the least."

Before getting into what happens next, let’s pause to think about those affected student-athletes. For the purposes of this conversation, let’s focus on the Hawkeyes.

Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz addresses the team on the status of the upcoming season Monday.

For the past five months — since spring football practices were suspended because of early coronavirus concerns to Tuesday’s 2 p.m. announcement from the Big Ten, the first of the Power Five conferences to cancel fall sports — Iowa football players have been largely doing everything they’ve been asked to do to get ready for a fall season.

You could probably find exceptions, of course. But these athletes were (for example) creating home gyms in their garages to follow strength and conditioning workouts while in quarantine during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.; they were meeting on Zoom to encourage each other during stretches of solitude in May.

They showed up in early June for voluntary workouts as some of the first visitors welcomed back to Iowa’s campus for “pilot program” to test health and safety protocols.

They worked out in small groups. They wore masks in the football building, as required. They were tested. If they or any of their roommates or close friends received a positive test, they went into 14 days of quarantine. All with the idea that football was at the end of the tunnel.

Last week, their hope was coming to fruition. The Big Ten even released a 10-game, conference-only schedule to lay out the season ahead. Training-camp practices, without pads, began. They completed three practices.

They never got a fourth.

“They did everything we asked them," Ferentz said. "And they’ve done it in tough circumstances.

“They’ve really been unflappable this whole time.”

And Iowa wanted to play. A source with direct knowledge of the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic, said that Iowa athletics director Gary Barta and university president Bruce Harreld were actively speaking with other Big Ten presidents on Tuesday, trying to convince them to play games this fall.

Ferentz applauded the actions he saw from Barta and Harreld. But those efforts fell short.

The Hawkeyes' hopes for a fall season evaporated early Tuesday afternoon.

Why? Warren spoke mostly in generics in a Big Ten Network interview, saying the decision to cancel the fall season was to protect the student-athletes — the same athletes who were OK’d to train on campuses for the last two-plus months. He declined to answer whether the decision from university presidents was unanimous. 

For such a significant decision, he failed to articulate significant explanations. If the concern centered on long-term effects of myocarditis (an inflammation of the heart muscle associated with COVID-19 that multiple reports said were alarming to Big Ten and Pacific-12 Conference presidents), he should have said so. 

"They’re not professionals," Warren did say. "These are amateur athletes, and they deserve the ability to participate in a healthy and safe manner."

But even with student-athletes’ health as the stated forefront of this decision, those 18- to 23-year-olds deserved better planning, communication and unity from college football's leaders. By Sunday night, a nation of them were using social media to plead with leaders to find a way to let them play.

But it was too late. It's clear now that since March, when the NCAA winter and spring championships were abruptly canceled, Power Five administrators missed the mark on their focus. Rather than worrying about stadium capacities, the singular focus needed to be finding a unified path to safely play football games across all conferences … and then build out from there, if possible.

There was obviously a disconnect between coaches, athletic directors and presidents at many schools. This week revealed an obvious gulf between conferences and others, with no college football commissioner to lead the way. The Pac-12 and Big Ten were going one way; the Southeastern Conference and perhaps the Big 12 and Atlantic Coast conferences were headed another.

For example: Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News, who has been at the forefront of Pacific-12 Conference coverage, reported Tuesday that “the No. 1 issue facing college football is getting all the Power Five set up with one medical advisory board.”

That would have been a good thing to develop back in April and May … rather than focusing on stadium seating diagrams.

ESPN college football analyst Myron Medcalf nailed the situation with a Tuesday-morning tweet: “We’ve had 6 months to think about this, but it really feels like college football’s leaders are trying to finish a term paper the night before it’s due.”

And then Tuesday, the cram session's results were to drop the class and try again next semester.

We’ll see what the spring brings, but seniors may have already played their final down of college football. If there are leagues that play this fall (and that resolution remained to be seen as of Tuesday evening), those Big Ten players have likely lost their best chance to transfer. If there is a shortened spring season, it’s likely that many players with NFL aspirations will be better served to focus on training for their lives after college.

Going forward, there can be no more dithering and hoping things will be better in January. Plans must be laser-focused on how games can safely be played. There needs to be reaching across conference aisles to find unity. A complicated matter of the players’ power is coming hard and fast, too, with name, image and likeness legislation on the doorstep.

And this ultimatum isn’t only for football. A clear college basketball plan must be a high priority, too, whatever makes the most sense to do right by student-athletes who want to play and play safely. (Same with wrestling, which will become a major storyline soon in our state as Iowa brings back national-title aspirations.)

Maybe that means administrators start now to establish a six-game football schedule, division-only, in March and April, plus a Big Ten championship game. 

Maybe that means starting college hoops in January while trying to emulate lessons from the successful NBA bubble, to whatever extent they can.

What the Big Ten bought Tuesday was more time.

More time to do much better next time.

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.