Many in the country may not have cared so much that the Huskies will not play football. Many might have spent years walking to tailgates — and then stumbling from tailgates — without realizing Connecticut still played top-tier football. The Huskies went 6-30 the past three seasons. They had gone from the American Athletic Conference to independent. Their home crowds in 2019 numbered from a high of 23,108 on Band Day (the Saturday after Labor Day) to a low of 12,084 on Senior Day (the Saturday before Thanksgiving). The fans of Connecticut got to savor some football goodies from 2006 to 2009 during Edsall’s first go-round there, but they are less inclined than other places to see college football scoreboards as elements of self-worth.
Yet the same would be true for the Ivy League. It, too, makes a faint noise athletically. Even after 66 years of existence, it has failed to figure out the accepted American way of prioritizing scoreboards, stubbornly clinging to academics as its utmost mission and forgoing even more money than it has already. So on the long-ago date of Tuesday, March 10, 2020, it up and canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments set for Cambridge, Mass., a move that did seem remote, a whisper from a sprig of a corner of the land. And in a surprise given such a unified nation, it also got pilloried from around the vast country to which it belongs.
Heck, it also got pilloried from within, with an all-Ivy Harvard guard calling it a “horrible, horrible, horrible” decision — two “horribles” clearly insufficient — and a coach calling the move “the most horrific thing I’ve dealt with as a coach.”
Then came Wednesday, March 11, when the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, and the bigger conferences started to announce spectator-less weekends for their tournaments. At the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis, fans started rearranging their weekends and sneering here and there. Thinking differed back then. One fan told of sitting near a Korean War veteran who had belittled the decision as a signal of a soft era (and, it turned out, committed drastic wrongness, as usually accompanies such blurry nostalgia).
Indiana and Nebraska played the last spectated game of that event on that Wednesday night. Nebraska’s coach left the game while sick, and Indiana won, and Nebraska players wound up spending a few hours in some sort of late-night, locker-room “quarantine.” Then came Thursday, March 12, when the big dogs stopped hunting and conference tournaments in empty arenas finally went kaput and then the whole March Madness followed, leaving the country with a decided deficit of merriment.
The little sound out of the Northeast had gone heard after all.
As to whether that happens with Connecticut and then the rest in college football in the year 2020, much of it pertains to regional emphasis. As the ancient adage surely goes, it’s harder to cancel an event that in normal times could have drawn 100,000 and a bustling TV audience than to cancel an event that might have drawn 23,108 and almost none. Other parts of the country feel college football more deeply than does Connecticut, with some feeling it just about more deeply than anyone feels anything.
There’s the matter of Connecticut’s schedule as an independent. It had taken on four big holes with withdrawals from schools whose conferences had switched to conference-only schedules (or close to it) as a stopgap. There’s the matter of the complication of quarantines for those who arrive in Connecticut (and New York and New Jersey) after traveling elsewhere. All the issues made ironclad the statement from Athletic Director David Benedict: “The safety challenges created by COVID-19 place our football student-athletes at an unacceptable level of risk.”
That differed from the quotation on the SEC conference call, as reported by The Washington Post last weekend and as uttered by an official toward 14 players: “We’re going to have positive cases on every single team in the SEC. That’s a given. And we can’t prevent it.” That sounded like similar candor with a different result and the difference owes heavily to region and to finances born of region, and thus to livelihoods born of region.
Almost concurrently to Connecticut on Wednesday morning, the Big Ten announced its updated, conference-only, week-to-week schedule. It aims to run from early September through late November. That annual cultural juggernaut, Ohio State vs. Michigan, got set for Oct. 24, a dramatic change for all those whose late-November brains light up with its enticement but a promise anyway. View it as something to sustain hope for many while the landscape changes chronically.
Will it happen, even with far fewer onlookers than the 106,588 the last time the teams played in Columbus? Connecticut, which began football in 1896 with a season in which two of its wins came by the too-infrequent score of 4-0, won’t play in 2020. It also didn’t in 1917, 1918 and 1943, for obvious reasons. If the country winds up having to follow it as it once followed the Ivy League — less rapidly, for sure — and if 2020 goes blank in the archival records of many a program, New England again will have served as an unlikely trailblazer through the gloom.
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