'We will not cower from it' — Why college football coaches want to try to play in 2020

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
·5 min read

Jim Harbaugh is not a scientist. Jim Harbaugh is not an infectious disease expert.

Jim Harbaugh is a football coach who, per Bleacher Report, once advised one of his Michigan quarterbacks to avoid eating chicken because he considered it, “a nervous bird.”

Unorthodox nutritional theories are just part of his personality quirks.

Yet as college football sits on the brink of being shut down, Harbaugh made as bold, organized and compelling of a case as anyone on why, if nothing else, the season shouldn’t be killed without at least trying.

“We have developed a great prototype for how we can make this work and provide the opportunity for players to play,” Harbaugh said in a statement Monday. “If you are transparent and follow the rules, this is how it can be done.”

Harbaugh went on to cite how the football program has had just 11 positive tests out of 893 administered and zero in the most recent 353. There’s been no spread traced within the facility, no positives among coaches and staff and no pauses in training.

Simply put, he argues, when a school applies the standards above and beyond CDC recommendations, this can work. Michigan is proof.

So why not try?

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh paces the sidelines during the second half of the Citrus Bowl NCAA college football game against Alabama, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Jim Harbaugh is among the coaches who are making a last-ditch effort to play college football in 2020. (AP)

Is anyone listening? Is it too late? Does the fact that Harbaugh isn’t a doctor, yet his boss, Michigan president Mark Schlissel is (and an immunologist, no less), make it all moot?

That’s the fight college football found itself in Monday as the Big Ten and Pac-12 prepared to pull the plug on fall sports while everyone else raged.

Multiple sources say that a major factor in both leagues’ decision-making process is a yet-to-be-publicly-released study from the Pac-12 that determined athletes who contract COVID-19 face significant health risks long term, particularly involving the heart. It’s understandable that such a conclusion could prove to be impervious to the counter argument of all the college football coaches in the country.

Of course, Harbaugh isn’t arguing science. He’s arguing for protocol and common sense. He isn’t alone. Arch-rival Ryan Day of Ohio State said he spent Monday “swinging for his players.” His players and their parents were doing the same. Meanwhile, Alabama’s Nick Saban cited the structure of life within his program’s protocols as a way to protect players, not hurt them.

“Players are a lot safer with us than they are running around at home,” Saban claimed.

Nebraska’s Scott Frost said if nothing else, the possibility of playing games provides players with the “motivation to stay away from situations where they might get coronavirus.”

He even floated the idea that Nebraska might try to play a season even if the Big Ten cancels things, a proposition that seems unlikely unless the school can somehow wrest control of its media rights from the conference. Without television rights, there’s (almost) no money.

In the end, these are just coaches. Powerful coaches, famous coaches, coaches who are used to getting their way and capable of swinging public opinion ... but just coaches.

“I don’t want to speak too much on medical things because I am not a doctor,” Frost conceded.

They are frustrated. They were told to follow a plan to save the season. Many have done so with great success despite incredible challenges.

“This isn’t easy,” Harbaugh said. “This is hard.”

Yet despite doing everything they could, they may not get a chance to proceed. If nothing else, many coaches and players want the opportunity to try, at least until they meet failure.

“It is proven that the conduct, discipline and structure within our program have led to these stellar results,” Harbaugh said, taking obvious pride in a job well done. “We respect the challenge that the virus has presented, however we will not cower from it.”

The sense of powerlessness is clearly wearing them down. Yet that’s life within a pandemic. Nothing is fair.

It may be too late for these arguments or hashtags to save the Big Ten and Pac-12. What about elsewhere? The Big 12, SEC and ACC have not reached the same place in this debate, although almost everyone in college athletics expects that the decisions to cancel the season will follow like falling dominoes.

Still, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said his league will listen to its medical advisors. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has promised to “be patient.”

That said, he isn’t promising anything.

“Can we play?” Sankey tweeted. “I don’t know.”

If this is about medicine, then perhaps not. If this is about public perception, politics or the will to risk liability and ethical concerns, who knows? If there is enough pressure to give the schools who want to try the chance to try, could a conference or three allow it?

If so, Jim Harbaugh, a coach who subscribes to the theory that consuming poultry might impact a quarterback’s decision making in the face of a pass rush did his part to make the argument. Look at the facts, he said. Look at the results.

Maybe Harbaugh, of all people, is saving the SEC season, of all places.

Probably not, but this being 2020, who can say for sure?

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