COLUMBUS — The growth in confidence Gene Smith has that Ohio State will be on the field this season is unmistakable now compared to two months ago.
That doesn’t mean, though, that the Buckeyes athletic director has all the answers or even that he’s entirely comfortable with all of the ideas that are currently being thrown around to ensure football is played in the fall.
Could the sport be played without fans in the Horseshoe? Maybe, but that’s still not a proposal that he fully supports.
Could changes to the schedule be coming? Quite possibly, but that’s a decision that doesn’t need to be made until July.
Could it potentially still be too risky to even stage games for players at all? There’s never anything safe about playing such a physically demanding sport, but there is a part of Smith that still isn’t sold on all of the health factors related to COVID-19 when socially distancing is impossible in a game of collisions.
“I’m not 100 percent comfortable yet,” Smith said in a conference call on Wednesday. “That’s one of the things about this process, you constantly get educated about the virus, about the disease. You constantly get educated about different tactics you can employ from a safety point of view. We continue to learn different things from different countries and obviously across this country. I’m hopeful, I’m cautiously optimistic that I’m going to reach 100-percent comfort level, but I’m not there yet. Just like I’m not there 100 percent with fans in the stand.
“I think we have to be sensitive to the fact that our medical experts — not athletic directors or commissioners or anybody else — have to give us the proper environment and operations that allow us to play the game. We haven’t had that in-depth conversation yet, and frankly it’s a little early because we’re still studying the virus. … Right now, we’re kind of talking about the future, but we’re also living in the moment.”
That first of order of business this week was simply opening back up the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for workouts, a key step in what will be a measured, gradual process in the return-to-play model with an eye on starting the season on time in September.
Smith continues to defer to experts, and he generally avoids hypothetical scenarios that could muddy the water about where Ohio State, the Big Ten and the NCAA all currently stand in the efforts to get athletes back to team activities. But there was still plenty of insight he could provide in his 45-minute conversation with reporters this week, and here are a few key lessons Lettermen Row learned.
Ohio State planning to have fans in Horseshoe
Ohio Stadium is almost certainly not going to be at capacity. And after some early fears that the stands might have to be empty for there to be games, that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen either.
The Buckeyes don’t know exactly yet how social-distancing guidelines will impact seating arrangements in one of the largest venues in the country, with anywhere from low-end projections of 20,000 fans to potentially being able to fill up half of the seats being kicked around as options. Like just about everything else, no decision has been made at this point and the athletic department is working on as many contingency plans as possible depending on what restrictions are in place by September.
“That’s still an ongoing conversation that all of us are having in the Big Ten and across the country,” Smith said. “I struggled with [having no fans] at the beginning, and as I continue to have conversations, I’m becoming more comfortable if that is where we end up — but I’m optimistic that we won’t. But if we do end up there, I think we can accommodate it.
“It’s still, for me, an interesting challenge to think that we could create an environment where our players who are in contact physically can be safe where we couldn’t come up with a strategy to create a safe environment for X number of fans. I still struggle with that concept, however I could get there if that is ultimately what we need to do.”
Establishing criteria for postseason critical
Certainly it’s no secret that college football is more important in different regions of the country and the lack of a national voice has always made the sport chaotic. That’s obviously a problem right now when conferences that endlessly compete for power must come together to form a plan for emerging from the pandemic with as much of a level playing field as possible.
What happens if the PAC-12 decides to move to a conference-games-only schedule? As the SEC barrels ahead with plans to try to resume team activities and start the schedule on time, will that pressure force others to do the same or risk falling behind? How many games must be played to ensure the College Football Playoff field is selected fairly?
Since the NCAA generally does so little to actually govern the sport at the highest level, the pressure is going to be on the conferences around the country to forge a consensus to get through what will obviously be a unique season.
“The perfect scenario is that we have a national solution where there is some consistency,” Smith said. “For example, do we just play conference games? And then what is that number? You would hope that there is a national consistency in that and that it ties into your postseason in some form or fashion and the selection criteria for postseason changes and accommodates that national solution. That is the best scenario. Of course, if you’ve got 12 games then it’s all moot.
“I think we need to not rush this. I know everyone is anxious to do that, but we need to have the opportunity for our medical experts to continue to collect data, see our human behavior responds in the reopening environment across the country. … Different schools will make different decisions about reopening at different times, so we need to allow that to cascade over time. I think somewhere in early July we need to have clarity on what we’re doing. One, we need to think about the student-athletes and their families and what their schedules look like in their world. Then, of course, we need to consider the operational time that needs to be put in place to manage whatever we ultimately do. I would say early July would be our timeframe.”
Ohio State taking safety measures at practice facility
At this point there are no plans for specific COVID-19 tests to be administered for the Buckeyes when they return to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center in early June.
But the first of numerous safety-nets will be temperature checks for anybody reporting for voluntary workouts next month, and from there Ohio State will continually perform rigorous cleaning routines while limiting the number of players who can use the facility. The fact that only nine players at a time can work out together is a reminder of the biggest challenge the sport is facing this year since that number wouldn’t even be enough to fill out a formation for a single play in a game. That doesn’t mean Ohio State and the rest of the country won’t get back to that point in time to start practices in July or August, but clearly this will be a gradual process.
“We’ll have limited access to those facilities,” Smith said. “Student-athletes will have to sign up, they’ll have to go through protocols — not testing. But they’ll go through protocols with temperature checks and things of that nature, and we have all the hygiene and sanitation requirements. So, basically X number of players will work out, nine or 10, they’ll disappear, the room will be cleaned and then another group will come in and work out. Then the room is cleaned. So, we think between the two facilities [Woody and Schumaker] over the course of a day, we can host the 50 athletes [in the area].”