BILLINGS — You must learn to crawl before you can walk, and a return to “normalcy” in the sports world — to say nothing of our national psyche — will be wholeheartedly embraced whenever that day arrives.
It’s been a month since coronavirus effectively forced the closures of schools, the shuttering of many businesses and the outright stoppage of sports across the country, and we’re starting to see glimpses of the impact mitigation is having on the spread of COVID-19 as curves begin to plateau and death-toll projections appear less grim (but in no way less somber).
Sports seem pretty pedestrian these days, but rest assured they will make a comeback.
It’s just a matter of when. And how.
Big Sky Conference commissioner Tom Wistrcill is like every athletic administrator parsing through the what-ifs and why-nots. The NCAA canceled the last part of winter sports as well as all spring competition at the end of March, and every league is now drawing up contingency plans for restoration.
The giant elephant on campus, of course, is the Football Question.
On one positive note, Wistrcill isn’t buying any doomsday scenarios; he is confident college football will be played in the fall. But to what degree, he’s not sure.
As of now, two Big Sky teams — UC Davis and Idaho State — have their season openers scheduled for Aug. 29. Meanwhile, Montana is scheduled to open at home against Central Washington while Montana State hosts Long Island (from the virus’ epicenter of New York state). Those games are slated for Sept. 5.
It’s difficult to fathom that the country will still be dealing with the medical, economic and social impacts of coronavirus four and five months down the road, but that's only if you ignore the warnings of health experts.
Still, there’s hope.
“As I sit here today, what is it, April 14, do I think there’s going to be football played in the fall? I do. I really do. I really think there will be,” Wistrcill said Tuesday during an interview with 406mtsports.com. “Now, what does it look like? I have no idea.
“I don’t know if it’s starting Aug. 29. I don’t know if it doesn’t start until Oct. 1 or later. Who knows? We might only get six, eight games in this season. We have to be ready for everything.”
As talk of “reopening” the country gains momentum at the federal level, individual states maintain that it will be up to them to decide when and how to do it. To that end, the Big Sky Conference has a large geographical footprint, with 13 football-playing members comprising eight different states.
In Montana, proud home of the Cats and Griz, Gov. Steve Bullock recently extended his shelter-in-place order to April 24. The UM and MSU campuses remain closed with all team activities suspended, including on-site weight training.
In California, home to three Big Sky teams, Gov. Gavin Newsom was recently asked if football (in this context, the NFL) will begin on time at packed stadiums. He was quoted, “I’m not anticipating that happening in this state.”
If that’s the case, that decision will obviously trickle down to the college level and the Big Sky.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Montana had 399 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and seven total deaths while California had more than 24,500 cases and over 730 deaths (per Johns Hopkins University).
Wistrcill acknowledged that each state is likely to return to normalcy in different ways and at varying paces.
“We have committees within our conference — a basketball committee, a football committee and an Olympic sports committee. Each of those committees is populated with our ADs and our senior women’s administrators, and each of those committees is starting to meet to plan the what-ifs,” Wistrcill said.
“What if we can’t do anything practice related until Aug. 1 or Sept. 1? And what does that mean for volleyball? For soccer? For football? For cross country?
“One of the things that I think nationally that we’re starting to realize we’re going to have to deal with is that different states are going to come out of this at different times. And so what do we do if Montana and Colorado and Arizona are set to go on Aug. 1 but California, Oregon and Washington don’t get the OK until Sept. 1? And then each of those football teams needs four, five, six weeks to get ready, and so what do we do?”
One of the many hypotheticals Wistrcill said is being discussed within the Big Sky is the idea of a “floating” football schedule. Under this model, teams would draw an opponent on a given week based upon sheer readiness.
That would present plenty of challenges, but as an example, if California’s stay-at-home restrictions aren’t relaxed and Cal Poly isn’t able to make the trip to play the Grizzlies on Sept. 26 or visit the Bobcats on Oct. 10, different opponents would then need to be determined.
“California, with their 40 million people, is not going to be on the same schedule as Montana,” Wistrcill noted. “It’s just not going to happen. That’s why we have to be ready to react to those realities.”
“We’d say, hey, here’s when you’re going to have home games but we don’t exactly know the opponent yet,” he explained.
The viability of scheduled nonconference games is also in question, and that could hurt many Big Sky teams financially because their athletic departments rely so heavily on the guaranteed revenue they receive by jumping up to play against Football Bowl Subdivision competition.
“There’s lots of rumors flying around about the Power 5 and the Group of 5 schools maybe not starting football until Oct. 1, so if they’re not playing their nonconference games, what do we do with that?” Wistrcill said. “Most of our teams need that money for survival.”
Then there is the question of fan participation. How comfortable will people be to return to stadiums without an approved and readily available treatment or vaccine and with testing still problematic in certain areas? Football is not conducive to social distancing, on the field or in the stands.
Will people’s economic situations allow for normal ticket sales, anyway?
What would that mean at places like Montana and Montana State, which build their annual athletic budgets around revenue from home games?
“Trying to put that puzzle together, it’s hard. Really hard,” Wistrcill said. “I’m cautiously optimistic but I’m also a realist about when I can project 20,000 people showing up for a Montana or Montana State football game. It could be a little while. And that’s what scares me.”
Above all, the health and safety of the players is the main objective, but time is of the essence.
Wistrcill said decisions will need to be made sooner rather than later to implement whatever contingencies are necessary.
“We have not talked specifically about a drop-dead date on any of this yet,” he said. “We continue these calls weekly with those different committees and twice weekly with our ADs. What we do think is that April 14 is pretty early to be making decisions. In the next month or so, I think, is when it’s going to really get serious, and we’ll see what happens.
“I’m hopeful that a month from now we’re in a better situation than we are now. But you and I could both guess and we’d probably both be wrong. That’s the hard part.”
As Wistrcill pointed out, all considerations remain hypothetical. But preparedness is paramount, which is a difficult lesson we’ve learned on many levels over the course of the past few months.
There are still more questions than answers. But the Big Sky is readying for all possibilities.