Gene Smith hopeful there will be football in fall for Buckeyes

Fans watch a game between Ohio State and Cincinnati on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, at Ohio Stadium in Columbus. David Jablonski/Staff
Fans watch a game between Ohio State and Cincinnati on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, at Ohio Stadium in Columbus. David Jablonski/Staff

One day before the spring game would have been played at Ohio Stadium, Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith spoke on a teleconference with reporters, touching on a number of subjects mostly related to the upcoming football season.

Debate has already started about what that football season will look like and what will need to happen for it to begin. All sports in the country have come to a halt because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s such an unprecedented time, no one knows what will come next. Every possible scenario has been floated across the country: moving the fall football season to the spring of 2021, for example.

In recent weeks, Smith has been focused on decisions of the moment, such as educating coaches on compliance during the COVID-19 crisis and figuring out how to deal with the spring-athlete issue. Late last week, they started discussing return-to-play protocols.

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The Ohio State Buckeyes lost most of their spring season and the strength and conditioning that would have gone with the practices. When they return, the risk of injury will be a concern. They will need time to get in shape for games.

“They can’t just come back and play,” Smith said. “Those days are gone.”

The season is scheduled to open Sept. 5. The Buckeyes play Bowling Green in the opener at Ohio Stadium. Normally, they would start practice in the last week of July or the first week of August.

Smith wonders if the team will need more time to prepare now: maybe two weeks of workouts with pads, for example, before the true preseason practices begin. He said doctors and trainers across the country will need to collaborate to decide what’s best for the players.

Smith hasn’t begun to analyze scheduling models in which the season starts later than Sept. 5. He knows others have done that. He also knows the decision to start practice and games won’t be made solely by Ohio State.

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“This is a collective decision around the country,” Smith said. “There has to be a national resolve for this. We have athletic directors, conference commissioners, the American Football Coaches Association, the NCAA committee on competitive safeguards and medical aspects of sports, the Football Oversight Committee. There’s an NCAA COVID-19 advisory panel. We have one in the Big Ten. All these entities have to collaborate to get to a point where we can even think about, ‘What would be the right model for the season?’”

Playing games without spectators is an idea Smith has pondered.

“When I first heard that, I thought, ‘OK, that could work,’” he said, “but then I figure that if we don’t have fans in the stands and we’ve determined it’s not safe for them in a gathering environment, why would it be safe for the players.”

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There’s little question in Smith’s mind the university itself will have to be open before the football players return.

“If students aren’t on campus,” he said, “that means the institution has made a decision it’s not safe for those students to be here on campus. Right? So why would it be safe for student-athletes?”

Smith remains hopeful there will be a football season in the fall in some form or fashion. He said that may be naive on his part, but he believe something is going to happen. He has not talking with anyone about moving the start of the season back in the fall or pushing everything to the spring. In a worst-case scenario, he said, those discussions will occur.

“We’re not going to rush this,” Smith said. “We’ve got a major societal issue. Football is important. I know that. But at the end of the day, we’ve got people dying. I’m of the opinion that we wait, follow the lead of our experts, follow the lead of our ultimate decision makers, our governors, our president, all that, and then we’ll deal with whatever. That’s the great thing about ADs. We adjust.”

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