BILLINGS — The crisp air, the changing foliage, the roar of the crowd … it’s unmistakable.
Fall in Montana means football.
At least it used to. Soon, we'll know what becomes of the college football season as it relates to an on-time start this autumn.
In a recent social media discourse, Big Sky Conference commissioner Tom Wistrcill spelled out the inherent challenges that exist as spikes in positive coronavirus cases across the country continue to put a strain on the possibility for college football to be played as scheduled in the fall.
Last Friday, Wistrcill wrote on Twitter that he still believes football “will be played this academic year,” but said that it is too soon to know for sure when. Health and safety, Wistrcill wrote, is his office's top objective, from players to coaches to athletic department staff to fans.
Hence the dilemma: How is safety from potential exposure to a contagious virus possible in a sport that is the antithesis to social distancing, be it on the field, along the sidelines or in the stands?
1/ Enjoyed my conversation yesterday w/ @ScottyGZone and @johnhans1280 on @ZoneSportsNet, the leading sports talk station in Salt Lake City, home to the @BigSkyConf. We discussed the pandemic and its impact on athletics and our universities. Listen here:https://t.co/XPIAONMChZ— Tom Wistrcill (@BigSkyCommish) July 3, 2020
One idea that has seemed to gain traction is the thought of pushing the football season back to the spring, when the U.S. might have COVID-19 a bit more under control. And it’s a serious notion — the Ivy League, for one, is expected to make that very decision this week.
During a virtual press conference on Tuesday, Montana State athletic director Leon Costello said he is optimistic by nature, and that plans for a fall season will remain in full swing in Bozeman until he hears different.
But he also said that if push comes to shove and football must be moved back a few months, the Bobcats will make do. They won’t have a choice.
“We will make it work. If that’s what it ends up being, we will make it work,” Costello said. “Everything is really on the table right now. That’s just because we want to be able to provide the best opportunity and the safest opportunity for everybody that’s involved.
“We talk a lot about our student-athletes and our staff and our coaches, but we’re asking thousands of fans to come and join us on a given day. We’ve got to be able to provide a safe environment for them, as well.
“We’re working hard every day to put things in place. And we’ve got to be very flexible. As information changes we’re going to have to be able to adjust on the fly. We’ve been able to do that here, and we’re going have to probably do it for the foreseeable future until we can get everything else under control.”
Costello said he expects a decision about the fall season to be handed down soon, no later than the end of July.
It was reported in June that at least one Montana State football player had tested positive for COVID-19. Though unconfirmed, the report aligned with news of positive cases cropping up in programs across the country, including Power Five schools like Alabama, UCLA, LSU, Clemson, Texas and others.
Several have gone so far as to halt voluntary team workouts to mitigate any further spread.
Costello said he isn’t at liberty to confirm any positive tests within MSU’s program. He did say that any testing that's been done goes through local health officials and the Gallatin County health department, and that those protocols are out of MSU’s hands.
“I can’t really talk about the health of our student-athletes — any information with our student-athletes,” he said. “Sorry to say, I can’t.”
As an aside, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock was in Bozeman on Tuesday, where he appeared with MSU football coach Jeff Choate via videoconference to promote a public health campaign, including a public service announcement with Choate and Montana football coach Bobby Hauck that asks Treasure State residents to wear masks.
Meanwhile, Costello has been considering the larger scope of what college football is about, and whether or not certain objectives can be met if the season is indeed played this fall.
Undoubtedly, it’s about the student-athlete experience. Playing games at a two-thirds empty Bobcat Stadium would not be ideal. Neither would playing an abbreviated schedule, which is another contingency among countless possibilities.
It’s also about setting and achieving goals. Teams suit up every Saturday in an effort to win football games and chase championships. Those ambitions are what drive internal and external excitement.
But clearly it’s also about revenue. Montana State, like most athletic departments, relies heavily on football ticket sales to drive its operating budget. Without those typical dividends, Costello said, it would hurt.
Costello made clear that a fall football season is still his hope, and until a decision is made, it’s still what MSU is banking on.
But time is not really on anyone’s side anymore.
“What are we trying to get out of a season? What is the ultimate goal? Is playing four games really what we want to do? Is that really what we’re set up to do? And by moving to the spring, would it allow us to play more games and allow us to play for something like the playoffs?” Costello said. “Those conversations are coming up very quickly.
“I’ve got to ask myself: If we’re going to play, what’s the reason that we’re playing for? Right now it’s let’s win a conference championship, let’s get to the playoffs and have a chance to win a national championship. If you can only play four games in a regular season, is that really worth what we’re trying to do?”
The answers to those burning questions are on the horizon.