Speculation casts doubt on fall football; Yurachek says SEC to make own choice

By: Bob Holt
Published: Tuesday, August 11, 2020
Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek listens to Gov. Asa Hutchinson speak Wednesday, July 22, 2020, during his daily covid-19 briefing at the Center for Exercise on the campus of Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville.
Photo by David Gottschalk
Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek listens to Gov. Asa Hutchinson speak Wednesday, July 22, 2020, during his daily covid-19 briefing at the Center for Exercise on the campus of Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- University of Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek said the SEC won't blindly follow other Power 5 conferences that might decide not to play football this fall.

There have been multiple reports from national media outlets that the Big Ten strongly is considering not playing football this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic, and if that turns out to be its decision, the Pac-12 will not play football as well.

"We've got a plan, and we want to continue to work that plan, and we're not going to panic because another Power 5 conference may be making a different decision than the Southeastern Conference," Yurachek said Monday on the Paul Finebaum Show on the SEC Network.

Yurachek praised the SEC's patient approach, which is led by Commissioner Greg Sankey.

The SEC has announced it will play a 10-game conference-only schedule, and pushed back the start of the season by three weeks from Sept. 5 to Sept. 26. The start of preseason practice was moved from Aug. 7 to Aug. 17.

"If we can get to the starting line, we feel like we can get to the finish line," Yurachek told ESPNU radio about having a football season.

Early Monday morning, Yurachek tweeted support for the "WeWantToPlay" movement started by many college football players on Twitter late Sunday night.

"I think they have found in the last several months that they have a voice, and they're coming together with that voice," Yurachek told Finebaum. "Not only to tell their AD on their local campus what their thoughts are, but to have that voice heard nationally.

"I think sometimes they're as organized as student-athletes as we are as administrators. That's why I put my tweet in support of them early this morning. Because I believe that the 'WeWantToPlay' movement is the right thing right now.

"That could change two to three weeks from now. I may change my opinion on that based on some additional information that we may receive. But I'm really proud of how the student-athletes nationally are coming out and expressing their opinion on this."

Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman also tweeted his support for the players.

"The way our student-athletes have handled these uncertain times is incredible and our staff is so proud of them," Pittman wrote on his Twitter account. "As the Head Coach of @RazorbackFB #WeWantToPlay."

Alabama Coach Nick Saban said that players are safer from the virus if there is a football season this fall.

"I want to play, but I want to play for the players' sake, the value they can create for themselves," Saban told ESPN. "I know I'll be criticized no matter what I say, that I don't care about player safety. Look, players are a lot safer with us than they are running around at home.

"We have around a 2% positive ratio [for having tested the coronavirus] on our team since the Fourth of July. It's a lot higher than that in society. We act like these guys can't get this unless they play football. They can get it anywhere, whether they're in a bar or just hanging out."

Yurachek said he's confident in the safety protocols Arkansas has implemented since players began returning to campus for workouts June 8.

"If you look at our testing right now for our football program, we have zero active cases and we have zero football student-athletes currently in quarantine on our campus," Yurachek told Finebaum.

Dan Patrick said on his national radio show Monday that he had been told the Big Ten and Pac-12 will announce today that they won't play football this fall.

"SEC ain't goin for it," Arkansas receiver Mike Woods tweeted in response to Patrick.

Some Big Ten coaches clearly aren't on board with that plan, either.

"Our football team wants to play and we want to fight for their opportunity to play," Nebraska Coach Scott Frost said at a Monday news conference. "Without the structured environment here, I worry about our kids.

"If I had a son, I'd want him playing football. I think this is the safest place he could be. I'm sure a lot of schools around the conference feel the same way."

Frost went so far as to say that if the Big Ten cancels its season, Nebraska will try to find a way to play games.

"We want to play a Big Ten schedule," Frost said. "I hope that's what happens. Our university is committed to playing no matter what -- no matter what that looks like and how that looks.

"We'll see how those chips fall. We certainly hope it's in the Big Ten. If it isn't, I think we're prepared to look for other options."

Ohio State Coach Ryan Day said he and his staff support their players' desire to play this fall.

"We cannot cancel the season right now," Day said on ESPN2. "We have to, at the very least, postpone it and allow us a little bit of time to re-evaluate what's going on.

"That's the reason why we put this schedule together, to have some flexibility. If we need to take a deep breath, let's take a deep breath. We owe it to these kids to exhaust every single option we possibly can, and then we go from there."

Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh and Penn State Coach James Franklin also made statements in support of their players wanting to have a season this fall.

Harbaugh wrote in a statement posted on social media that of 893 coronavirus tests administrated to Michigan players, there were only 11 positives.

"I'm not advocating for football this fall because of my passion or our players desire to play, but because of the facts accumulated over the last eight weeks since our players returned to campus on June 13," Harbaugh wrote.

Saban said it will be a challenge for players to keep from getting the virus when students return to campus.

"But we really don't know what that entails until it happens," Saban told ESPN. "It's a big reason we pushed the season back, to assess that, which is the prudent way to do it."

Several politicians weighed in on the decision facing the Power 5 conferences, including Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

"No, I don't think they should cancel the college football season," Hutchinson said Monday. "I've only spoken with Hunter Yurachek at the University of Arkansas in terms of SEC football. And so, that's the only inside information that I have."

President Donald Trump tweeted, "The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be canceled."

The Mountain West announced Monday it was postponing all of its fall sports, becoming the second FBS conference to do so along with the Mid-American Conference.

Yurachek said if the Big Ten and Pac-12 decide not to play football this fall, it can't be ignored by the SEC.

"I wouldn't be transparent if I said that doesn't have any impact on us," Yurachek said on ESPNU radio. "Obviously, if two of our Power 5 conference members bow out of fall sports, and ultimately what that means is football season, does that have an impact on our decision? Absolutely.

"But is that going to be the sole determinant for us as the Southeastern Conference? Absolutely not. That will be one of the tools in the tool box for which we make decisions that we feel are in the best interests of the Southeastern Conference."

Sankey wrote about his approach in a Twitter post Monday.

"Best advice I've received since COVID-19: 'Be patient. Take time when making decisions. This is all new & you'll gain better information each day," Sankey wrote. "@SEC has been deliberate at each step since March ... slowed return to practice ... delayed 1st game to respect start of fall semester.

"Developed testing protocols ... We know concerns remain. We have never had a FB season in a COVID-19 environment. Can we play? I don't know. We haven't stopped trying. We support, educate and care for student-athletes every day, and will continue to do so ... every day."

Yurachek told ESPNU radio he has read some articles about college football during the Spanish Flu pandemic that hit the U.S. in 1918.

"Back in 1918 and 1919, some schools played four or five games, some played seven, eight or nine," Yurachek said. "I don't know that they definitively declared a national champion, but they played college football.

"Last year was the 150th anniversary of college football. College football has survived a number of things during the past 150 years, and I truly believe that college football in some way, shape or form can also survive what we're going through right now.

"It may survive without all of the teams in the Power 5 or FBS participating this year. But college football will survive."

Democrat-Gazette staff writer John Moritz contributed to this report.

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