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COLLINS: COVID-19 forced Big Ten's fall postponement, but money could alter course

DONNIE COLLINS
The (Wilkes-Barre) Citizens Voice (TNS)
President Donald Trump

Money.

Sometimes that word should be right at the top of just about every column I write about major college or professional sports, because it’s obviously so very much the driving force behind everything.  Anyone who debates that is lying to you.

Which is why, no matter how much the Big Ten stomps its foot and insists there is a greater purpose to shutting fall sports and its biggest moneymaker down, I wouldn’t bet against the conference playing football this fall.

This week, which would have ended with football’s opening in the conference had it not been for COVID-19, everyone from Donald Trump to Dan Patrick is chiming in on when play will resume. Trump tweeted the conference is “on the one yard line” with plans to start “immediately.” Sports radio legend Patrick cited sources on his national program that indicated the conference is targeting Oct. 10, if it can agree on improved safety and testing measures.

Of course, the president of Purdue has far more influence on this type of issue than the president of the United States, and while Patrick’s sources proved correct last month when he reported the Big Ten would cancel the season a day before it happened, he hasn’t exactly covered the conference exclusively during his career. Those who have continue to report what the Big Ten has said all along: Presidents and chancellors are aiming for a start sometime in early 2021, and certainly no earlier than Thanksgiving weekend.

The most likely plan might still be the first. The one that makes least sense is the compromise. And as far as the dollar is concerned, you have to wonder how many officials in the Big Ten are starting to see the benefits of getting on the field ASAP.

Two things to consider: The Big Ten did seem to fancy itself a bit of a trend-setter on this issue, and may have figured when it postponed the fall season Aug. 11 that the rest of the Power 5 conferences would follow suit in short order, setting up a big spring.

Athletic departments are already feeling a pinch that’s not going away. Look at Texas, which cut 18 percent of its work force and slashed the pay of 274 employees with plans to furlough others. This is telling, because Texas has the nation’s wealthiest athletic department and is playing football this fall. Imagine what it will be like at the Big Ten programs that practically print money if they don’t play.

Given that, it was worth wondering from the start whether the Big Ten could avoid the nuclear scenario: The SEC, Big 12 and ACC pushing ahead with football, playing for championships, creating excitement, strengthening their respective brands, owning the traditional fall television spotlight and kind of weathering the whole pandemic scare altogether.

Once the Associated Press poll came out and the College Football Playoff committee unveiled its Dec. 20 selection date day, rumors of an early Big Ten return beginning to circulate were rather predictable.

Let’s look at the scenarios. There would be benefits for the Big Ten to start Nov. 28, which is the earliest it concedes it is considering. You can maybe get five games in before season’s end, get half your schedule is out of the way before ‘21. You get a few extra weeks to understand the virus and testing options, and it accomplishes one goal on which coaches seem to agree: Instead of starting in February, you’re done by then, and the physical impact on a full 2021 season in the fall is minimized.

In a vacuum, it makes sense. But it has to occur to the conference that its games — if everything goes well, health-wise — will be going largely against conference title games, the CFP selection show, the Jan. 1 semifinals, the other New Year’s Six games and the national championship game.

So, you can basically get the excitement of the playoff semifinals on New Year’s Day, then have Penn State playing Michigan State for the Land Grant Trophy falling very flat on a national scale the next. Truth is, in a game where you want to be a national power in a money haul, you don’t ever want your league to look regional, especially to the next few cycles of recruits.

Better options: That’s why the other two options for the Big Ten might be better ones.

Start the season after the Jan. 11 championship game, and they at least have the spotlight to themselves. Maybe they can even coordinate with the Pac-12 and play a Rose Bowl game at some point in April. Could be nice.

Or, they can do what Trump wants and what Patrick reported: Try for a more immediate start in mid-October, let the chips fall where they may when the CFP committee picks the final four Dec. 20, and get in on a massive payout.

It may come down to doing either doing football the healthiest way or doing it the least painful way financially.

Guess which option normally wins.