Second of a three-part series on the challenges schools and conferences face with the upcoming college football season.
Scott Carter grew up in football so when he talks about seemingly crazy ideas such as playing college games with no fans in the stands or even moving the season back as far as the spring, he just shakes his head.
“That would be weird, very unusual, but that’s kind of how things are,” Carter, East Tennessee State’s athletic director, said.
Those are just two of the ideas being floated around as the country tries to figure out when it will be OK to return to “normal” as the coronavirus pandemic begins to slow.
The Bucs averaged 8,525 fans at their six home games last season. Five home games are on the 2020 schedule, beginning with a Sept. 5 non-conference game against Mars Hill.
ETSU is planning for a season with fans. Season tickets are being renewed.
“We’re hoping for the best,” Carter said. “I think every option will be explored.”
Another option being discussed is a shortened season with only conference games. That would hurt ETSU financially as well since the team’s second game is at Georgia with a $550,000 payday.
“There are all kinds of things out there on the table,” Carter said. “The ultimate decision is going to be made with the health of the student-athletes and fans in mind to make sure when we do get back to competition that everybody’s health is taken into consideration.
“There’s still a lot more questions than answers.”
If something as drastic as moving football to the spring happens, Carter said he wonders how it would affect the following season.
“The hardest thing is on the back end,” he said. “How do you get back into the fall. It’s tough. All that’s on the table.
“If you ask any football player, they kind of get in rhythm with the season. It’s the way we’ve always done it. If we need to do it differently could we? Absolutely. We have to be flexible.”
That flexibility is important as no teams will be going through summer workouts and most had their spring practices canceled. It was particularly tough for an ETSU team which went from sharing the Southern Conference championship two years ago to finishing last in 2019. Coach Randy Sanders said if any team ever needed spring practice, this one was it.
Now, they’re forced into a temporary hold, not knowing when they can start working out or when — and if — the season will even be held.
“Whether it’s starting in October, November, December, whenever, everybody will be eager and excited,” Carter said. “But we have to appreciate what this is. It’s a pandemic. It’s something we’ve never lived through before and hopefully we don’t again. It’s our responsibility to stay positive. We have to plan for the best and prepare for the worst.”
Carter said he has enjoyed watching NASCAR’s iRace events, seeing how that organization has handled not having any live action.
“When I watched Bristol, I called Jerry Caldwell to tell him how cool that was,” Carter said. “It’s like making lemonade out of the lemons of our time. That’s what we have to do. I still think there’s so much good coming out of people. The mother of invention is necessity. There’s a lot of unique things right now that we’re still working through.”
Until any decisions are made by whomever will be making them — the state and federal government, the NCAA, the schools and conferences will all have a say in it — nobody’s sure what the future holds. Even though it’s just May, what is traditionally football season will be here before too long. Whether or not there will be any football played remains to be seen.
“We want to be safe but we also want to get back to normal,” Carter said. “Everybody wants to do that as soon as possible. We just don’t know when that’s going to be. Whenever the word comes down, we just have to be ready to do our part with people’s best interest and health in mind. We have to understand more than anything that’s the most important thing.”