This is what constitutes leadership at the college football level.
Herbstreit’s comments set off what became a months-long information war over how the coronavirus could affect college sports. College athletics leaders, realizing the devastation early on if Herbstreit’s prediction proved true, kicked off a battle to control the narrative. For some within college athletics, that meant publicly projecting optimism and reiterating they planned to go ahead like normal. There was too much money at stake, they reasoned privately, to give credence to such potentially disastrous hypotheticals. They preached patience, hope, resolve — anything they could think of to give fans reason to believe football would still happen.
College administrators were petrified of other prominent figures joining Herbstreit in deeming this year’s season a lost cause, fearful it could speak their worst-case scenario into existence. If no one thinks football will happen, they worried, why would anyone buy season tickets? Or donate money? With revenue streams already disrupted by COVID-19 and athletic departments facing potential financial ruin without football, there was no incentive to publicly project gloom and doom.
Even if they knew better.
“We all need to be positive and not negative at this time,” one AD said at the time. “Being negative like Kirk was (in his comments) is not helpful to anybody. A lot of people are really disappointed and surprised he would do that.”
Another athletic director described the early pessimism as a targeted PR campaign and warned against watching too much cable news COVID-19 coverage because “you can convince yourself things are far worse than they really are.” Athletic directors and football coaches with similar viewpoints felt the need to fight back against the early narratives football wouldn’t happen, banking on the situation markedly improving by July or August.
Gotta get those deposits in the door first, then we can worry about the pandemic later.
Step two: faking common ground.
The Power 5 conference commissioners held daily conference calls during the pandemic and promised to stick together. On a May appearance on Finebaum’s show, Sankey said the notion that one of the Power 5 conferences would break off to do its own thing was “not attached to reality.” Yet, despite the talk of better connectivity than ever among college football’s top conferences, their leaders seemed to undermine each other almost daily with conflicting comments. Early on, no Power 5 commissioner was more candid than the Big 12′s Bob Bowlsby, delighting reporters and invoking grumbling from others in college athletics. With all the different approaches from college football’s power players, it became increasingly difficult to present an actually unified front.
NARRATOR’S VOICE: There never was a united front.
“They want to put a happy, smiley face on everything in the public eye, but behind the scenes, make no mistake, the SEC is going to do what’s best for the SEC, the Big 12 is going to do what’s best for Big 12 and you can say that with every conference,” McMurphy said. “After that’s decided, if they can do something that’s good for college football they’ll do that without compromising their own conferences. I don’t think it’s selfish; it’s just how college football is.”
All that’s left now is to plead with the folks they’ve crapped on.
The SEC, Big 12 and ACC are all looking at the end of July to make a decision on the viability of the upcoming season. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have already made big moves but the Big Ten’s Warren recently warned the conference could still cancel the football season altogether. In theory, college football has two weeks to figure out whether it can start a fall season as planned.
During those two weeks, college athletics leaders will closely monitor the coronavirus case trends, testing capabilities, the capacity of local hospitals to handle infected patients and any new developments in treatment plans or vaccines. But the most important thing they’ll do is beg, plead and cajole the public to take the pandemic seriously if they want football this fall.
Yeah, if we want football this fall.
“I fully understand why athletic directors and conference commissioners have fought vigorously to get college football going,” Finebaum said. “You don’t need a Ph.D. in mathematics from M.I.T. to understand that. It is about the money.”
When they say it’s about the money…