The day the Big Ten brought back football, Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman said rumors the Spartans would not have participated in the resumption this fall “befuddle me.”
National radio host and former ESPN personality Dan Patrick reported earlier this week that MSU, Michigan and other schools were planning to opt out if the league decided to play in 2020. Except after Wednesday’s announcement, all 14 programs — including the Spartans and Wolverines — are apparently on board. And Beekman on a video call with reporters said they never planned to not play.
“Those reports, from my perspective, were absolutely bizarre,” Beekman said. “Michigan State, in this entire process in terms of our representing our perspective to the conference, has been anything other than completely enthusiastic about playing. … I know that every step of the way as we've been talking, if the games could be played in a manner that's healthy and safe for all involved, then president (Samuel) Stanley has always been on board with playing them. So where are those reports came from befuddle me.”
That also doesn’t mean he is convinced all of the teams will play the full schedule, which remains under construction. Beekman echoed the caution commissioner Kevin Warren had Aug. 5 when the last revamped schedule was released, less than a week before the initial Aug. 11 postponement of the season.
“I think it's probably inevitable that of the 14 teams, there will be a time when one or more teams can't play for a week or more,” Beekman said. “And we haven't worked through as a conference all the details of what that will mean and what the implications of that are, but I think that's probably inevitable. And that's just the circumstance we're in.
"But I think our thought was that playing the games in the fall and giving those teams that can stay well and can be responsible the opportunity to participate in bowl games, or potentially the (College Football Playoff) were worth taking that on.”
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The Spartans are in a transition phase after the sudden retirement of all-time winningest coach Mark Dantonio on Feb. 4 and the hiring of Tucker on Feb. 12. The new coach had spring practices canceled four days before they were to begin due to the coronavirus pandemic; watched his team endure a 14-day COVID-19-related quarantine in late July and early August after they resumed workouts; and then heard the Big Ten’s postponement Aug. 11, five days after fall camp began.
“I can't think of a person who's more tenacious, more resilient, who's taken circumstances that sort of were unimaginable for a first-year coach and tried to turn every lemon into lemonade,” Beekman said of Tucker, who was hired after one year as head coach at Colorado. “So he has a ferocious, can-do spirit. And when we told him that we'd be likely playing sometime between Oct. 17 and 24, he said, 'Let me know as soon as possible so we can get the plan in place, and bring it on.’”
Testing protocol, Beekman said, came together rapidly. Concerns about myocarditis lessened based on medical experts’ opinions and a rigorous plan to check hearts of athletes who do test positive for COVID-19. He said the late October start date “also gives us as much space as possible between now and (a) 2021 season that we'd like to have hopefully as normally as possible.”
And the ability to get the conference champion eligible for the College Football Playoff this season factored into the expedited decision, he said.
“As we began to sort of work through the set of medical issues involved, it became clear that it well may be possible to play in 2020,” Beekman said. “And then as we looked at dates, we explored a number of options. But I think the more we thought about it, well, if we can play earlier and we can maintain the ability to participate in bowl games and the ability to participate in the College Football Playoff, then why not?”
The Big Ten is continuing to craft its reworked schedule, which will include eight regular-season games as well as a ninth game during conference championship week Dec. 19. Those opponents will be determined by divisional finish, though the conference could eschew the second place-vs.-second place, third-vs.-third, etc., setup to avoid rematches from the truncated season.
Beekman said those games could be held at some potentially "fun" locations, but nothing is definitive yet.
“That ninth game, we had really talked about as something fun to do for our student-athletes in the sort of very frustrating environment that we're in. It was kind of a fun, new spin on a way to have a last game,” he said. “I don't think that that precludes a bowl season from occurring. I think there are still a lot of unknowns. A couple of bowls have announced they won't be having games this year, so there's just a lot to be determined in that process. But I don't think that the things necessarily are connected to each other.”
Next comes what Beekman termed “the beginning of the race, it’s not the end of the race,” as COVID-19 testing pushes toward daily standards by Sept. 30. He said MSU will continue to release results of its testing: “There's no reason to change that transparency now.”
“I think that implementing a daily testing regimen will help, particularly with the relatively quick turnaround time of the antigen test, so that you can hopefully guarantee that the student-athletes that are participating in practice and competition have all tested negative,” he said.
At the same time, Beekman admits uncertainty hovers over the return of football, imploring athletes around the conference to be responsibleand understand some situations may be out of their control.
“I do think that it's going to be very, very critical that our student-athletes, our coaches, everybody that might be around our team is following all the rules; wearing their masks, being distant from each other when possible, washing their hands regularly, all the sort of basic things, staying away from parties and large gatherings,” Beekman said. “And frankly, even small gatherings. Some of our student-athletes that have tested positive recently weren't at events that were 100 people at a bar, it was three or four friends getting together in an apartment to play cards. But even those seemingly innocent things can pass the virus.
“And I think, frankly, that's a message for everybody in our community. We need to be responsible. And if we're responsible, then we'll be able to field a team and play the games. And if we're not, we won't and we'll have to deal with the consequences of that.”
Still, Beekman remains optimistic.
“You know, a month ago, two months ago, we never thought we'd be quite where we are today. So I think it's hard to predict where we might be a month or two from now,” he said. “... We seem to be in a land of never say never — you just never know quite what's going to happen.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State's Bill Beekman feels COVID-19 disruption 'inevitable'