While it’s still uncertain as to what a college football season will look like this fall, or if games will even take place at all, Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk is hesitant to make any major decisions on that as of right now.
The NCAA announced this week that individual conferences and states will mandate when sports return to campuses amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Different timelines and plans could apply in different parts of the country.
As far as Missouri and the Southeastern Conference, the plan remains to have football and other fall sports play as scheduled, though plans could change in the coming weeks and months, Sterk said.
“Anything of an opinion right now is a guess and it’s most likely going to be wrong,” Sterk said during a Zoom call with reporters Thursday afternoon. “So we’re going to wait until the middle of July before anyone makes a decision about the fall. We’ve got a couple months yet to go and see where things are and then make the best decisions possible by that time.”
The presidents and chancellors of SEC institutions are scheduled to meet May 22 to discuss a possible return to campuses for student-athletes, who could be back as early as June 1.
That would include on-campus workouts and the use of weight rooms, Sterk said.
The SEC represents 11 different states, including Georgia and Florida, two states that were among the first to reopen after stay-at-home orders related to COVID-19.
“It’s a work in progress. ... If (campuses are) operational, we can have sports,” Sterk said. “Now classes are a different matter. ... It's not an all or none. If a school is online, it doesn't necessarily prevent athletic events from happening, because if a campus is optional, we could possibly have athletic events.”
The factors of what makes each campus operational will come from health officials and members of a coronavirus task force developed by the SEC.
Missouri’s task force representative is Dr. Stevan Whitt of MU Health Care.
Missouri athletics has slowly been reopening certain facilities to employees, with the South End Zone being the first to repopulate. Staffers are taking the temperature of anyone entering the building on a daily basis before gaining access.
Tigers head football coach Eliah Drinkwitz is holding separate meetings with his coaching staff to have smaller gatherings: offensive staff reports in the mornings and the defensive staff comes into the office in the afternoon.
When student-athletes return to campus, more health and safety measures will be put in place because of their arrival to Columbia from different parts of the country. Those exact precautions have yet to be determined, Sterk said.
As far as hosting events, Sterk is hopeful no more games will be postponed or canceled, with no such discussions happening about football nonconference games yet.
Faurot Field can seat around 62,000 at full capacity for football games, but that doesn’t mean large crowds should be expected come Sept. 5 for the Tigers’ season opener against Central Arkansas.
“I want to see events happen in the fall. What we have to do is make people feel comfortable by the fall of going to an event as best we can,” Sterk said. “Does that mean 10%, 20%, 50% to the facility? I don't know. A full one right now without a vaccine probably is not something you'll see. ... It can be done. We’ll look for the best way to do it.”
Sterk mentioned a historical precedent in place for changes to sports schedules. He remembered seeing a photo from 1918 amid the Spanish Flu pandemic with fans social distancing and wearing masks at a Georgia Tech football game. Sterk added during World War II, the SEC didn’t play a full football schedule.
As far as who gets access to Faurot Field if fans are allowed: “I’ll kick that can for as long and as far as I can,” Sterk said.
Sterk and the SEC hope to have all plans for the fall in place by July 15.
Sterk is also expecting a 20% loss in ticket sales and donations this fall, but no non-revenue sports are expected to be cut.
Furloughs and layoffs could happen within the athletic department, Sterk said, but only voluntary pay cuts to the six highest-paid MU athletics employees were announced to have taken effect so far.