COLUMBIA — Ray Tanner was as usual. South Carolina’s athletic director was optimistic Wednesday, hopeful and encouraging that the Gamecocks’ football season could still happen with no major changes, outside of fan attendance.
But the first domino toward there being a shortened season, if there’s any season at all, fell a few hours after Tanner concluded his monthly talk on 107.5 FM The Game. More fell before the weekend.
He’ll be in Birmingham on Monday with the SEC’s other 13 ADs, and while no decisions are expected from the previously scheduled meeting, there will definitely be a lot more to discuss.
“We’re trying to make the right decisions for us, for the Southeastern Conference,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said on ESPN radio on Thursday. “It does have an impact because I’ve said publicly we’re all linked nationally, so when other people make decisions, yes, there’s an impact, but also we’re going to look at our situation and make a decision that’s appropriate for the Southeastern Conference and most importantly for the health of our student-athletes.”
The Ivy League moved all of its fall sports to the spring on Wednesday afternoon. That by itself didn’t shake much ground, as Ivy League football creates no revenue and none of its teams are eligible for the football postseason.
But the Big Ten, apparently without discussing or forewarning the other four of the Power-5 conferences, then announced Thursday it would proceed with a conference games-only schedule for all of its fall sports, if they could proceed at all. The league left no wiggle room for a reversal — it said it was either conference-only games in the fall, or nothing (the league did not mention any talks about a spring season).
When the Pac-12 followed suit, tremors snaked across the college football landscape. The Big Ten’s decision by itself removed a few games from SEC football schedules, the Pac-12’s a few more.
The ACC and Big 12 have said they will wait until late July to make a decision, like the SEC. But if there’s one more league which declares the same model of football, the remaining two may have no choice but to follow.
Sankey said that the Big Ten and Pac-12 won’t have any effect on the SEC’s looming decision. Tanner, again speaking publicly before all of the other moves were made, had his most definitive comments for USC football but had the familiar caveats that have always accompanied his statements.
“I think we’re going to play football. I’m optimistic we will,” he said. “I’m not so sure I can define the dates as much as I’d like to, but I think at some point we’re going to play.”
Tanner also mentioned a potential seating capacity for the first time, saying 15,000 fans in Williams-Brice Stadium could be a good place to start, perhaps moving to 20,000. But with South Carolina the hotbed of another wave of coronavirus infections, there’s no telling what will happen.
That creates another concern. A spring football season has always been thought of as one of the last options, and if it could be guaranteed to be played, most schools would probably push for it.
Yet no league commissioner can decree that spring is the way to go because their conferences cover so much territory. The SEC touches 11 states, with South Carolina and another emerging COVID-19 hotspot, Texas, included. The decision has to be what’s best for each individual state and then the conference as a whole.
Right now, Monday’s Birmingham meeting or even the end of the week won’t have that answer. The SEC is wisely going to wait until there’s no alternative before it issues an edict, but what that edict will present is as unknown as it was when the virus first hit.
Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.