Would you like to see plans for the Big Ten Spring Football Season that never happened?
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I'm a sucker for a good hypothetical.
I wrote an entire book on great college football What If questions. There's over 10,000 words in that book about the Airplane Conference and the Metro SuperConference, two leagues that never actually happened. I read through hundreds of pages of briefing materials prepared by Metro Conference leaders, and dozens and dozens of newspaper articles and interviews about what the Airplane Conference would have looked like, how it would fit together logistically, and more. I love this stuff.
Even though those plans were never enacted, I still think it was useful to dig through those original documents. They gave clues as to how administrators and coaches approached major decisions, and what data was important in that particular context. And hey, playing armchair athletic director can be fun.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Ohio State responded to an Open Records Request I made several months ago, asking for texts and emails sent and received by Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith regarding the Big Ten's decision to cancel, and then later uncancel, the 2020 Fall Football Season.
I think Ohio State sent over 1,000 pages of documents and texts, so I freely admit, I haven't gone through all of them yet. But a few documents caught my eye as something Extra Points-y.
What were some Big Ten football scheduling plans they didn't end up actually using? What would a spring Big Ten football season have looked like?
Well, thanks to Open Records, we don't have to wonder. We have some receipts.
On June 18, Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman emailed the other Big Ten ADs to flesh out an idea he mentioned at the end of a conference call, the idea of a 12-game Big Ten season.
Whitman's proposed Big Ten schedule would have looked like this:
Unlike the Big Ten schedule that was actually deployed in 2020, this proposal had multiple built-in make-up weeks.
Whitman also asked an interesting question...in a world where it's likely regular season games would be postponed or canceled, would it make more sense to try and play the biggest games at the start of the season? Whitman wrote
Would it have been? Given that ratings for live sporting events struggled almost across the board during the Fall of 2020, I doubt it...but I'm sure it still would have been very commercially successful.
With the benefit of hindsight, I think one could argue that Whitman's proposal would have worked out better, at least on the field, than what the Big Ten ultimately decided to do. A schedule with multiple built-in bye weeks would have given the league more flexibility in rescheduling postponed games, and could have delivered higher value inventory for media partners. Nationwide, COVID cases spiked in November and December, so playing more football in September might have actually been safer.
But that's with the benefit of hindsight. There are positions I advocated for back in the summer of 2020 that I probably wouldn't advocate for now.
Later in the summer, it became more clear that starting in early September wasn't going to be in the cards for the Big Ten. So other proposals were made.
One proposal, dated August 11, was sent from Brian Voltolini, Ohio State's associate athletic director and general manager for football operations, to Quinn Tempel, Ohio State's Director of Operations, as well as Gene Smith. It isn't immediately clear from the document if this proposal came from Ohio State, the Big Ten, or another entity.
This proposal called for the Big Ten to play their entire 12-game schedule to the spring of 2021, with the first game scheduled to kick off on January 29. Since the weather in February and March can be described as "absolute garbage" in most of the Big Ten footprint, this proposal called for each Big Ten school to have the option of playing their first four homes at a neutral, domed site.
The proposal then helpfully listed some Pros and Cons of such an approach.
These considerations speak to just how audacious this proposal was, how difficult it would be to pull off, and how much our collective understanding of COVID, and the logistical realities of holding sporting events in a pandemic, would change.
For one, it isn't immediately clear if anybody had confirmed with Syracuse that this would even be a possibility, seeing as 1) Syracuse isn't in the Big Ten and 2) Syracuse would also need to use their home stadium.
There were also significant travel concerns to alleviate, tough decisions over whether to have fans (and where), whether Big Ten media partners would be interested in this endeavor, and whether any other conference would be willing to follow the Big Ten's lead.
Just as a fun thought exercise, here's what a hypothetical schedule would have looked like, under this proposal, in "Week Two" of the season:
Central Michigan vs Nebraska...in Minnesota! Tulane and Northwestern...in St.Louis! Maryland playing a home game in Syracuse! Does this make a lick of sense in a normal world? No! But 2020 wasn't normal.
It's important to remember the context here, with this being early August. It wasn't immediately clear if other leagues were really going to play in the fall. The MAC announced they were postponing their Fall season just three days earlier. Gaming out what a spring season might look like if multiple other conferences decided to play in the spring wasn't a crazy thought exercise.
This wasn't the only proposed spring schedule.
On August 19th, Rutgers athletic director Pat Hobbs sent out an idea of his own:
This schedule doesn't mention anything about playing in domes or on neutral sites, and ignores potential out of conference games. Gene Smith wrote back, saying that while this proposal was "not something he could support", he said the idea was "well-thought-out."
About a month later, on September 16, the Big Ten announced they would return to play, with the season beginning on October 24.
I like to say that there are no bad ideas in a brainstorm. During the summer of 2020, everybody was working from incomplete information, about COVID, about financial projections, about what their players, parents, professors, students and other stakeholders actually wanted. It would make sense to model plenty of different scenarios. That's part of what being data-informed is all about.
But playing a Northwestern/Tulane game? In St.Louis?!? In this economy?!?
That would have been a surreal sight, even in a season full of them.
Thanks for your support of Extra Points. For story ideas, contributions to our FOIA Directory, article feedback, podcast booking requests and more, I'm at [email protected], or @MattBrownEP on Twitter.