Bill Moos had been nervous for days, understanding the gist of the conversations taking place among the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors, but unable to read the room for himself.
The Nebraska athletic director, in close contact with UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green, the school's representative on the COP/C, knew a final decision was coming, even if he didn’t know exactly when or what it might be. He wished for an on-time start to the football season. Realistically, he hoped for a delay from the scheduled Sept. 5 start date in order to buy more time. It became clear that neither was in the cards, but only at the bitter end.
And even then, when the Big Ten announced on Aug. 11 that it was postponing its football season and all fall sports, the veteran athletic director could hardly believe it.
“Stunned,” Moos told the Journal Star on Thursday. “What was frustrating for me is we’ve had over 120 calls, every day, two hours every morning and sometimes weekends. And then to have that decision made, what was it, six days after the schedule was released?”
Moos paused in his seat at the head of a conference table in his Memorial Stadium office, the bitterness still evident nine days later.
“I don’t want to come across as critical, but we built that schedule to be flexible, to push back or to fill in at the end or with those byes, and it was a really good model,” he said. “Personally, I think we kicked the can down the road for five months. I think we could have gone a couple more weeks and see how it played out.
“It all happened fast and there’s no turning back.”
There is still use, however, in looking back at the six days between the league’s twin Big Ten Network specials — the first on Aug. 5 to announce a 10-game schedule and the second, less than a week later, to officially become the first Power Five conference to scrub its football season — for insight on how the postponement came to be, in part because Round 2 is not all that far off.
Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos' conference (Big Ten) watches from the sidelines, as the "varsity" leagues push forward.
There remain many unanswered questions. The exact topics and nature of discussion among the league’s COP/C, the ultimate decision-making group, remain largely unknown. Even the result of an eventual vote has been closely guarded by claims of council privilege. The details of those meetings, as it happens, are the subject of a demand letter and threatened lawsuit by a group of Nebraska football parents and certainly of Freedom of Information requests from across the country, but they will not easily be pried into the open.
What is known now, though, is that almost immediately after the swell of elation that came with the schedule’s release followed renewed worry about the viability of the season.
In particular, commissioner Kevin Warren’s guarded statements that day and one specific line in the league’s freshly released testing protocols — that any person deemed to have a close contact with a positive test must quarantine for 14 days and cannot leave quarantine early even by testing negative — constituted warning bells.
Yet the Big Ten plowed ahead, green-lighting the start of preseason camp and even going as far as to develop a Request For Proposal for a third-party laboratory to process all of the league’s in-season COVID-19 testing.
Sometime over the second half of that week, though, Warren met with medical personnel from schools around the conference.
Two sources suggested to the Journal Star that the 12-2 vote against proceeding reported by Dan Patrick as a tally of the school’s presidents was actually the result of a survey of school medical teams, with only Nebraska and Iowa fully on board with moving ahead and some other schools somewhere toward the middle of the road.
UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green noted in a recent radio interview on KLIN that the COP/C received an influx of medical information almost immediately after the schedule release.
“Over the course of several days after that, there was additional information that came to the decision-making process from the medical community especially, and from the institutions in terms of how things were working on their campuses,” he said.
The first major public marker came Saturday morning, Aug. 8, when the Big Ten informed teams that they would not be allowed to move into fully-padded practices until further notice. Nebraska was midway through its second camp practice and would have been in pads beginning Monday morning.
The jump to full contact is one the league’s Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases had been concerned about for months.
In June, the chairman of that group and University of Nebraska Medical Center Dr. Chris Kratochvil told the Journal Star that, “We do anticipate that the risk is going to be significantly higher when you move from individual exercise to scrimmages and competitions.”
In a letter Warren penned this week, eight days after the postponement, he referenced the same line of demarcation.
“With the start of full-contact practices and competitions, it became increasingly clear that contact tracing and quarantining would risk frequent and significant disruptions to the practice and competition calendar,” Warren wrote.
By the Saturday morning announcement, the tide had started to turn. Green said the final vote to postpone didn’t occur until Tuesday, but that the matter, “was considered over a period of several days.”
Those days and that consideration involved heated exchanges among the COP/C members. Minnesota president Joan Gabel called it, “a very layered, consultative process.”
Moos, who was not on the COP/C calls and received regular updates from Green, had another description.
“It wasn’t a garden party in there,” he said. “There were sharp opinions on both sides.”
Green acknowledged the difficulty — and, in this instance, the unlikelihood — of everybody coming to exactly the same conclusion.
“So 14 schools spread out, wide footprint, Atlantic Ocean to Wyoming, basically,” he said. “And very different conditions in many of those institutions than what we have here in being able to cope with this pandemic.”
One point of contention, though, was how much weight to give concerns about potential long-term complications from COVID-19, including cardiac complications. The Athletic reported last week that the Big Ten was aware of up to 10 cases of myocarditis, an inflammation of a heart muscle that often heals on its own but can also lead to serious problems and even death. Warren said it was part of the decision, but not a dominant factor. Various national reports, though, said the information presented to the COP/C caused intense concern.
Green this week said the medical advice he received is less than clear.
“I don’t think there are dots that connect there at this point in time based on the science — that’s too early, and there’s not data there to reflect that. I think we need more information there.
“I think we’re going to see that develop over the next few months in a way that solidifies what we should or should not be concerned about there.”
As the COP/C debate proceeded on through the weekend, coaches and athletic directors could only wait for word from their school’s leader and wonder what was being decided.
Moos politely rebuffed interview requests through those days, but said in a text message late Sunday night, Aug. 9, “It’s been a strange weekend.”
On Monday, Aug. 10, NU coach Scott Frost came out swinging during an impassioned news conference in which he called for the season to be played on schedule and saw Ohio State coach Ryan Day, Penn State coach James Franklin and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh join the chorus. Their voices weren’t directly in the COP/C’s virtual meeting room, so they took the bullhorn approach.
By Monday night, though, Moos said he and the NU leadership were essentially resigned to what was coming the next morning. During a 9:30 a.m., Aug. 11 COP/C meeting came the final vote — yes, Green said, an actual vote that “was not a unanimous decision. There were dissenting voices, I’ll just put it that way.”
At 2 p.m. that afternoon, the official announcement: No fall football season for the Big Ten.
In the aftermath, a bungled communication plan from the conference that took a decision already sure to cause intense emotional reactions from players, coaches, parents and administrators and amplified those feelings by providing next to nothing in the way of detail for eight days.
Warren has not been made available to local news outlets, but told Yahoo! Sports this week that he could have handled the situation better. He referenced both the fallout and, more importantly, a decision-making framework that stratified groups — coaches who unanimously wanted to play; athletic directors who felt the same, “but some with more hesitation than others,” according to Moos; school medical personnel; the medical task force and the COP/C — and didn’t cross over between them much.
“In retrospect, what I would have done differently is I would have brought all the parties together," Warren said. "That’s part of the learning and growing and striving to be better."
That part is going to have to happen fast. A better process very well may not have resulted in a different decision, but this is what is going to happen next: Moos and Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez and Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel and the rest of the league’s ADs are going to start trying to figure out how the Big Ten might schedule a contracted second-semester football season. More than 1,000 football players and their coaches will adapt to a modified fall regimen and try to get ready to play in that shortened season under unprecedented circumstances.
And then, three or four months from now, the COP/C will be right back on Zoom, with another deadline looming, contemplating whether the result will be any different the second time around.
“I don’t know if all of them would be bought into this new concept,” Moos said. “It would be nice if, ‘Hey, we’re bought in, let’s go.’
“But the same weight is going to be on their shoulders if we’re drawing close to a January or February season as what they just went through.”
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