Mike Locksley and his staff knew the future of the 2020 college football season was a fluid situation. Even days after the Big Ten Conference gave the University of Maryland and its other 13 member institutions updated football schedules, reports and rumors swirled that the conference might scrap the season altogether due to concerns about COVID-19.
The Terrapins had partaken in two helmeted practices Friday and Saturday and were preparing to transition into shoulder pads the following week. But the Terrapins coach decided he had to pause all practices and football meetings until there was a better idea of what the Big Ten and other Power Five conferences planned to do.
“I didn’t feel it was in our best interest as a program to put our players in harm’s way without knowing the direction that we were going to go as a conference,” Locksley told reporters Thursday.
The task ahead for Locksley and the football program: how to prepare for a fall without football games and an uncertain future beyond that, one that may include a reworked Big Ten schedule in the winter and spring.
A Sports Illustrated report Thursday revealed one possible way forward for Big Ten and Pac-12 football: A winter season that begins Jan. 1 and 2, 2021, takes a bye week the week of the Super Bowl and wraps up with conference championship games in early March. In this plan, the Big Ten would hold all games inside five indoor stadiums in St. Louis, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Detroit and Syracuse, New York, to stay out of the frigid winter weather.
Locksley said he’s taken part in some discussions with other coaches and conference officials, and he supports the idea of playing one season in early 2021, giving athletes several months off to recover and fitting in the 2021 season in the same calendar year.
“I feel good about the way the infrastructure looks and I anticipate us being able to pull it off,” he said.
In the meantime, the program will create a new plan for a fall semester that suddenly won’t include games on Saturday or the weekly grind that leads up to those games. Players will be allowed to stay on campus and participate in light, socially distanced workouts, but those who do this must continue to be tested for the coronavirus.
Locksley was less critical of the conference than some of his counterparts — like Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who released a statement Monday citing his program’s low COVID-19 stats as proof that the season didn’t need to be postponed, or Ohio State’s Ryan Day and Nebraska’s Scott Frost, who floated the idea of their programs breaking off to play against other conferences in the fall. (Ohio State is no longer exploring the possibility.)
“I’ve got the utmost confidence in all the people (in the Big Ten) that played a role in this decision that it was made for the right reasons,” Locksley said, “which is the health and safety of our student-athletes first and foremost.”
That didn’t make it any easier for him to break the news to his players. The Maryland athletic department passed down word of the conference’s decision Tuesday just before the announcement was made to make sure athletes heard it straight from their respective coaches.
“We’ve had guys that have gone through some extensive rehabs to get back in an effort to play, (in) the best shapes of their lives,” Locksley said. “We have guys that are ready to go play their senior seasons, which is their last shot. And to tell them that there’s no football now is a tough pill to swallow and hard for all of us.”
Locksley expected the NCAA would grant rising seniors an extra year of eligibility for those whose seasons might not be played in 2020. That doesn’t solve the individual issues of players who might be top draft picks in 2021 — many of whom, from Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons to Minnesota receiver Rashod Bateman, already opted out of the season to prep for the draft.
And what about the ramifications of having a number of scholarship athletes return for an extra year while simultaneously welcoming in a new freshman class?
“From a fiscal standpoint, say you have 25 seniors graduating and you’re bringing in 25 guys and the NCAA allows you to (keep) both,” Locksley said. “So now we find ourselves in a situation where we possibly have 110 guys on scholarship, which, financially, I don’t know if we’d be able to do that.
“So there’s still more questions than answers,” he added, an unsatisfying but inevitable response for both the athletes and fans as college football heads into uncharted territory.
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