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SABIN: Big Ten coaches' push for Thanksgiving football start looks like 'Hail Mary'

RAINER SABIN
Detroit Free Press (TNS)
Big Ten

The cries initially came swiftly.

Fans grumbled, media members  moaned, players groused and parents protested.

The Big Ten’s Aug. 11 decision to postpone the football season indefinitely was met with a tide of negative reaction.

In the weeks since, it hasn’t receded.

Thursday, eight Nebraska players sued the conference. That came less than a week after the family members of several Big Ten players descended on the league’s headquarters and staged a rally.

Thanksgiving start: Now, there is a movement coming from within — led by coaches and athletic administrators — to consider starting this season at some point in 2020.

A source with knowledge of the situation said the push for the return of fall football has been motivated by the recent breakthroughs in accelerated tests for COVID-19, as well as the fear of how the Big Ten’s postponement could affect the recruiting calendar.

A start date during Thanksgiving week has been thrown out as a possibility, which would call for games staged during the coldest period and necessitate practices being held indoors, where science says the virus has a greater likelihood of spreading.

A Hail Mary: Regardless of how feasible the plan is, the desire here is to bring the league in closer alignment with the Big 12, ACC and SEC — the three other Power Five conferences that have forged ahead with schedules that begin at some point during September.

But this latest attempt to revive Big Ten football may be the equivalent of a Hail Mary throw from the 36-yard line with six seconds left in regulation.

After all, Big Ten conference commissioner Kevin Warren wrote in an Aug. 19 letter that the decision to postpone fall sports will not be revisited.

That was after the member schools’ presidents and chancellors voted, to use his words, “overwhelmingly in support” of punting on the season until further notice.

Academia vs. athletics: They’re the ones who make the big decisions on these matters — not the coaches and athletic directors. The spread of the novel coronavirus has deepened a lot of fault lines that have always existed at all levels of society. In the world of higher education, it’s no different; the worlds of academia and athletics are as divided as ever.

On the same day the Big Ten announced its decision to shut down fall sports, Michigan president Mark Schlissel endorsed the move, saying “there are currently too many poorly understood health and safety concerns” to move forward with competition.

Harbaugh displeasure: That same day, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh held a practice and voiced his displeasure.

Speaking of the players, he said, “They have committed, trained and prepared their entire lives for this opportunity, and I know how much they’re disappointed at this time. I share in their disappointment today.”

Harbaugh, of course, isn’t used to taking orders. He’s the one who spends this time of year delivering them.

Even with a 10% pay cut applied to this year, Harbaugh is scheduled to make more than $7 million, which would dwarf the $900,000 salary Schlissel received in 2019-20.

Presidents have more important issues than football: Yet when it comes to playing football, the power lies with the academic — not the coach.

Schlissel and his peers have more important issues to consider than whether a postponed season could disrupt the recruiting calendar. They have to take into account the welfare of the students and faculty, the potential liability associated with COVID-19 and the mission of their universities as educational institutions.

Football isn’t a priority in their world.

For coaches, it’s all that matters.

They may want to put the ball back on the tee. But this is one of the rare instances they don’t get to make that call.