Big Ten finally ends slapstick routine, brings back college football

Dan Wetzel
·6 min read

For a few hours on Tuesday, the first to know that the Big Ten was about to reverse course and attempt to play football this fall appeared to be a retired lieutenant general from the United States Air Force named Bob Hinson.

What does Hinson have to do with Big Ten football? Absolutely nothing, which somehow made perfect sense for this meandering, maddening, madcap, Midwestern, Shakespearean saga (“to play, or not to play”).

The league finally ended months of pouting, protests, politics, lawsuits, drama and backroom dealing early Wednesday by officially announcing that it would attempt an nine-game regular season starting the weekend of Oct. 23-24.

The league title game will be played Dec. 19, keeping any dreams of entry into the College Football Playoff alive. Additionally, every team will play that day, with the matchups determined by division standings (East No. 1 vs. West No. 1, East No. 2 vs. West No. 2, etc.).

If this was done in 2019, Northwestern (1-8) would have hosted Rutgers (0-9) in the last-place game. So maybe it’s for the best that the league will not allow any fans (other than family) to attend games.

Big Ten football will be played this fall after all. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Big Ten football will be played this fall after all. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

The league cited the expected availability of cheap rapid testing as the chief reason it will now play. That should make practicing and playing during the coronavirus pandemic safer. It also believed that concerns about myocarditis, or the inflammation of muscles around the heart, to be alleviated.

“Medical opinions changed,” said Northwestern president Morton Schapiro, echoing that the lack of testing made it “impossible” to go forward in August. “Paul Samuelson, the great economist was once asked why he changed his mind. And he said, ‘When the facts change, the mind changes.’”

There is also the money, hundreds of millions of it, of course, but on a day of delayed celebration for the league, why dwell on that?

First, however, let’s get back to Hinson, who currently serves as the executive director of the National Strategic Research Institute. He just happened to be at a media conference Tuesday with University of Nebraska president Ted Carter, when Carter told him the league was returning. The conversation was caught on a live microphone.

“We’re getting ready to announce the Huskers and Big Ten football tonight,” Carter told him.

“Oh, really?” Hinson responded.

Carter soon blamed the hot mic for taking his quotes out of context. How? Who the heck knows? It didn’t matter, since Carter wasn’t even correct. Apparently not even a Big Ten president could accurately report what the Big Ten presidents were going to do.

Instead, it took another day for the league to billow some gray smoke out of its headquarters in Rosemont, Illinois, signifying kickoffs would fly in the fall air again.

For a league that often lines up perfectly like rows of corn, this entire soap opera was unhinged.

In early July, the league canceled non-conference games weeks before its ACC, Big 12 and SEC brethren did. Then on Aug. 11, it canceled the whole season, fully expecting everyone would soon follow. Except they didn’t. Only the Pac-12 went along, basically because half of its teams are currently barred from gathering due to local ordinances.

In the Big Ten they can gather and practice, though. As such, many critics couldn’t understand the rush to postponement. Fans shouted on social media and talk radio. Players begged to play. In Nebraska, a group of Cornhuskers even filed a lawsuit. Coaches railed at press conferences. Jim Harbaugh’s brother even jumped in — “Free the Big Ten,” Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh declared.

A parent protest was held in front of an empty Big Ten headquarters. (The Fogo de Chão next door, however, was open.) The leader was Randy Wade, whose son, Ohio State defensive back Shaun Wade, would soon declare he was opting out of the season. Of course.

Intrigue grew over a “vote” tally that may or may not have occurred. Both Joe Biden and Donald Trump used the cancellation as a campaign issue. One guy on Twitter declared he had sources saying the league was returning. He reported this nearly every day for like a month and was eventually proven correct.

How much the tumult impacted the reversal is unprovable, but it did rock a league that used to pride itself as the buttoned-up corner of college football’s three-ring circus.

Not anymore. The Big Ten is just the SEC, only with far fewer Waffle Houses and modern national champions.

Claims that the league’s reputation is irrevocably harmed are way overblown though. Recruiting went along fine during the “pause.” The schools, fan bases and brands are too big to be damaged by much. This will all be remembered mostly as a comedy act.

There is no guarantee, of course, it will even work. That’s the same for the other leagues. The ACC and Big 12 have already had multiple games postponed and impacted. The SEC doesn’t start until Sept. 26, but you’d be a fool to think it will all go to plan.

You can’t underestimate the challenge here and claim that COVID-19 ain’t played nobody. Like Ohio State against Rutgers, it will do as it wishes.

This is a bit of a crapshoot even if daily rapid testing is available (a development that could bring the Pac-12 back to action as well).

The Big Ten is looking to play nine games in nine weeks — a daunting task in the best of times. It calls for any player who comes down with the virus to sit out for 21 days – which could deplete depth.

Then there is the league’s green/orange/red COVID mood ring that factors in both the team positivity rate and the “population positivity rate.” If the first exceeds five percent and the latter seven percent then a team must stop practice and competition for seven days and this Jenga tower begins to tumble.

So … buckle up.

With nearly no fans, a dead-empty Horseshoe or Big House will be haunting. And as for outdoor games in early and mid-December, here’s hoping the cold stays away from the Upper Midwest, because that could be rough for college kids.

In the end though, whatever. They are playing. It hardly matters that the Big Ten was a dysfunctional, public relations disaster or that Warren was battered or that Scott Frost and Nebraska pushed people around above the Cornhuskers’ win-loss weight class in forcing the issue.

The league says science won out, and whether people believe that or not, they have a point. Without rapid testing, trying to play college football is just a roll of the dice. The chances of this working are far higher now.

The Big Ten did their own thing on their own timetable and now some games should be played. It’s win-win.

And if you were just looking in from afar, it was one wildly entertaining battle royale to get there, hot mics and all.

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