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No games? No fans? Sun Belt weighs football possibilities

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, March 26, 2020

The Sun Belt Conference is preparing for all possibilities regarding the 2020 college football season, from starting play on time to — imagine this — no games at all.

Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill addressed several scenarios Thursday in a conference call with reporters, even the possibility of teams playing the season to come in empty stadiums.

The reason: coronavirus (COVID-19), a pandemic already responsible for the deaths of more than 1,100 nationwide.

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“As we think about it, and as we try to model with it,” Gill said, “we’re gonna need to look at all the different contingencies, because we just don’t know what is going to happen.

“So whether it starts on time, to shortened season, to no season — I mean, I really do think the range of possibilities certainly exist, and they’ll all be things that we’ll be talking through.

“That conversation really started in earnest (Wednesday),” Gill added, “so we’ll kind of begin the process of gathering information and kicking around ideas and models and hopefully coalescing around something that makes sense for us.”

Head football coaches.

Athletic directors from member schools.

A newly appointed Sun Belt COVID-19 advisory panel comprised of medical experts from four universities — UL not among them — around the conference.

All will be involved in the SBC conversation, according to Gill.

More: Coronavirus prompts eligibility questions for many at UL

“We actually started that discussion already,” he said. “On our ADs call (Wednesday) we began kind of to talk about concepts.”

Could the season — scheduled for UL to open Sept. 5 against McNeese at Cajun Field — be delayed?

Might it be shortened — perhaps to conference games only?

Those issues have been broached, said Gill, who on Thursday also was asked this question:

How confident is the commissioner that the season will start on time?  

“You know what?” he said. “I don’t want to speculate, you know? … I really don’t know.

“So I’m hopeful. I’m optimistic. But at the end of the day only the virus, and kind of how it proceeds, will tell you that.

“That’s why I think having the advisory panel is gonna be important,” Gill added, “because they’ll help us shift through science and make sure the decisions we’re making will not (adversely) impact the health and safety of the public or our students or anybody who comes to our games and supports us.”

More: Coronavirus could severely impact UL budget

The league already, like all NCAA Division I conferences nationwide, canceled all spring sports schedules due to the coronavirus crisis.

Gill also was asked if he thought it would make financial sense — especially in light college football’s widespread exposure on television and online, and the Sun Belt’s current rights fees contract with ESPN — to perhaps play games in venues with no spectators.

“I think everything is on the table,” he said.

“At the end of the day we’re gonna want to try to play those games, and if we start to determine that is the safest way to play games, then that’s what I think we’ll end up doing.

“But I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s going to look like,” Gill added. “Like I said, I’m optimistic that we’re gonna find some formula that’s gonna work for football. I kind of feel like that’s what our charge is as commissioners and ADs.”

Yet even beyond the games themselves, there are so many issues to sort out.

Spring football was cut short for those programs, including UL’s. The Ragin’ Cajuns’ April 9 spring game was canceled. Recruiting visits were put on hold. The start of preseason camp conceivably is in jeopardy too.

More: UL football spring game canceled due to coronavirus

More: UL’s Napier has a coronavirus message for the Cajuns

Will camps be extended beyond their usual monthlong period to make up for the lost time from the spring?

How long do teams need to be together to safely be ready for the start of a season in early September?

“That’s a great question,” Gill said of the latter, “and that is a question that we are going to work with our advisory panel to figure out.

“That’s why we’re going to work with our coaches to kind of get a sense of what they think makes the most sense. We’re gonna work with health professionals to make sure we have the right foundation period and things like that.

“That being said, though,” he added, “we still don’t know how this pandemic will run its course.”

So many questions, and Gill readily acknowledges that he simply doesn’t have all the answers.

At least not yet.

More: ‘Tons of emotion’ as Cajuns navigate ‘uncharted waters’

It will be up to the medical experts working in conjunction with the coaches, he said, to determine what is safe in terms of not only the virus and its spread but also “the physical rigors of going from just working out to playing football, or any other sport.”

“We’re in the process of surveying our football coaches now so they can make some informed decision about when to return to play and how to do that safely,” said Gill, who added that the advisory panel will meet again next week and at some point it will forward its opinions to the athletic directors and school administrators.

Yet it’s not just at the conference level that decisions must be made.

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Ultimately, NCAA-member programs must answer within a collective framework.

“I think at the end of the day there’s gonna need to be national solutions,” Gill said.

“So as conferences we’ll come up with some ideas, as FBS conferences, then we’ll kind of join together and figure out what makes sense and make sure we’re all on the same page about when to start playing football, because the community is so interconnected.

“So we will need to work together on that with our conferences colleagues,” Gill added, “and ultimately with the NCAA.”