SMQ: Surviving 2020 college football season as a fan without rooting interest

Millions of fans must deal with a 2020 college football season without any team to root for this year. Is a fan without a partisan interest really a fan?

Nine months ago, I was a fan grappling with the issue of too much to root for on a single football field at the end of what was a wildly successful year for two of my favorite teams. I didn’t know which way to root as the Wisconsin Badgers and Oregon Ducks played to a thrilling 28-27 Rose Bowl finish on New Year’s Day 2020. My alma mater and former employer prevailed over the object of my first childhood college football fan interest.

That game came right on the heels of a Wyoming Cowboys blowout over Georgia State in the Arizona Bowl on New Year’s Eve. For the third time in four years, Craig Bohl pushed the Pokes to reach eight wins.

More positive things looked to be in store for each of my three favorite teams heading into 2020. The Ducks looked like a threat to make the College Football Playoff despite losing Justin Herbert at quarterback and a large portion of their offensive line, thanks to a stout and young defense. Wisconsin remained the team to beat in the Big Ten West, while Wyoming had hopes of a third straight bowl win in their future.

Then March hit, leaving the globe in lockdown. Without many answers for a novel coronavirus, we all wondered how it might spread through the populace. Parts of the globe, including areas of the United States, dealt with rapid spikes in transmission. We pondered before April even rolled around how a pandemic would impact the college football season.

Now we have all the answers, and I suddenly went from high hopes for three teams to having nobody to cheer for anymore. In a coronavirus-tinged season where only six of the 10 FBS conferences are playing football this fall, I had the awesome luck of the draw of watching a season become suddenly irrelevant as three different teams in three different time zones all fell prey to the decision of their respective conferences to call off fall football.

On Aug. 10, the Mountain West Conference followed in the footsteps of the MAC and elected to cancel fall sports. A day later, both the Pac-12 and Big Ten decided to follow suit and push their seasons to the spring. Suddenly, I was one fan among millions who had no team to root for this fall.

(Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

I was not alive the last time that Wisconsin went winless over the course of a football season. That season of ignominy came in 1968, when former quarterback John Coatta came back to Madison and started his coaching career with the Badgers with a 20-game winless streak where the losses were broken up by only one draw, a 21-21 tie at Camp Randall Stadium against an Iowa team that went 1-8-1 that year.

My father was just six years old as the Badgers went 0-10 in Coatta’s second season at the helm. Before the 1970s rolled around, Coatta’s time at the school where he set a Big Ten record for completion rate over the course of a season that lasted for a quarter-century was done after a 1969 campaign where his charges went only 3-7.

I was really starting to grasp the game more fully by 1990 when Barry Alvarez took over a school that won just nine games in the previous four seasons under two different coaches coaches.

I was not alive for the irrelevance of John Jardine through the 1970s, or the respectable mediocrity of Dave McClain’s time patrolling the Camp Randall sideline. Still too young to understand much in the one season coached by Jim Hilles or the three where Don Morton took control at the end of the 1980s, it was Alvarez that was my first gateway to Badgers football.

The 1993 run to the Rose Bowl was revelatory, falling within the sweet spot for a fan to develop. I was living in Wyoming by that time, but my father and I latched on to that team as a vicarious connection back to the state where we were both born. It was also my first year in a new school, and it allowed me to lord it over the few UCLA fans among the sixth-grade class at Jackson Hole Middle School.

I enjoyed two more Rose Bowl victories before graduating high school, and the Badgers continued to provide a critical link to a birthplace that became ever more distant as I moved further west as an adult.

(Photo by Todd Warshaw/Allsport)

That 1993 was a pivotal moment for an 11-year-old in more ways than one. It was not only about establishing uniqueness in a new student body but also connections. I also experienced the buzz of the local team standing tall. Joe Tiller led Wyoming to their first (and what ultimately proved to be their only) bowl game under his direction, finishing the year with eight wins as the Cowboys earned their chance (and got throttled) by Kansas State.

The entire state took pride in the achievements of the young men in brown and gold, and I was no exception. When three years later they rattled off win after win and threatened to win the supercharged 16-team WAC, I was right there tracking their exploits in the two local dailies. Every Monday I’d grab copies of the two newspapers and head to class, poring over the AP Top 25 and the Coaches Poll as the Pokes climbed the ladder.

Tiller went to Purdue after that 10-win season. The Cowboys haven’t come close to double digits in two dozen years since that magical campaign went unrewarded with a bowl appearance.

Dana Dimel lasted three years on the high plains before bolting for the Houston gig. Three years was all Vic Koenning would last in Laramie before failure caught up to him. Joe Glenn enjoyed six mediocre years, Dave Christensen five, and then Craig Bohl brought the pedigree of molding an FCS powerhouse to the Equality State.

At this point Bohl had engineered more eight-win seasons in Laramie than Tiller managed during his time at the helm. Bohl has reached that benchmark more times than Cowboys legends Bowden Wyatt, Bob Devaney, and Lloyd Eaton. Only Paul Roach can match that level of sustained success. And now the Cowboys lose the chance to maintain that momentum as they stay sidelined during the fall for the first time since World War II shut down three seasons between 1943 and 1945.

(Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

After high school I eventually moved to Oregon, where I started a protracted path toward a college degree at Lewis and Clark College in Portland. Lasting only a year at a small private college, I eventually cooked my way around the country for a decade. My last stop brought me back to Oregon, where I spent five and a half years catering at the University of Oregon in Eugene. There I became a fan of the Ducks, as I landed in the town at the twilight of the Mike Bellotti era and caught the full glory of Chip Kelly’s reign at Autzen Stadium.

Through football I had a deeper connection to my wife’s extended family that lives in the area, fueling up before games in the Autzen parking lot and losing my voice screaming in the stands next to her uncle. I catered the preseason training table for the Jeremiah Masoli-led squad that won the 2008 Holiday Bowl and flipped Mike Belotti and the position coaches omelets during a recruiting visit.

Eight years later, I had the opportunity to work with Bellotti and Rich Brooks on preserving their respective collections (and even had lunch with the two former coaches) while working for the University of Oregon Archives.

Well, the presentation went amazingly… even got invited to eat lunch with the coaches afterward.

Posted by Zach Bigalke on Monday, August 15, 2016

I was there when the Ducks played their first game ever as the No. 1 team in the country, a 47-point blowout of UCLA before a national audience on a Thursday night in October 2010. I celebrated with friends on my 32nd birthday as the Ducks won the Pac-12 championship over Arizona and booked a ticket into the inaugural College Football Playoff in 2014.

The connection intensified when I transferred to the university in 2013 to complete my final two years of undergraduate studies. Thus I was a student when they lost to Ohio State for the College Football Playoff National championship. I earned my Bachelor’s degree in 2015 from the Department of History, and earned the honor of speaking as the undergraduate speaker during commencement. I stayed in Eugene for two more years to complete a Master’s degree in history.

I had the awesome luck of the draw of watching a season become suddenly irrelevant as three different teams in three different time zones all fell prey to the decision of their respective conferences to call off fall football.

By that point I was embarking on a career as a historian studying sport. I eventually made my way east to matriculate at Penn State for my PhD, but by that point fandom had coalesced around the Badgers, Cowboys, and Ducks. (Not that it would have mattered anyway if I had become a rabid Nittany Lions fan in my first year here, as they are shut down just the same as fellow Big Ten member Wisconsin.)

On one hand, it is a cruel twist of fate that I root for three very different teams and that all three shut down fall play this year. On the other hand, it is a badge of honor that all three put the health of the athletes at the forefront of their (officially-stated) reasons for shutting down the season.

It won’t make it any easier to cover the 2020 campaign, though.

Like millions of other other fans who love college football, I am left without any championship dreams to get me through the upcoming months. There is no bowl game to reach, no reason to scour the Top 25 rankings to look for where the Badgers or Ducks (or maybe even the Cowboys?) landed in a given week.

I still find myself uneasy even watching football this year, especially when both teams travel hundreds of miles to play in another state. Maybe it will eventually feel normal again, but that time is not now.

We already have to deal with the new reality of stadiums with thousands of unoccupied seats, empty parking lots devoid of tailgating smells, and a slew of other precautions taken to try to get the sport moving again. For teams that are playing this season, the imagined community that comprises each fan base cannot congregate in their cathedrals at the critical mass that signifies gridiron passions. That raises real questions as to what college football stands for and who it serves during a pandemic.

For fans like me, who have nothing riding on any particular contest from a partisan standpoint, raising real questions as to how those communities endure and cope with a season on hiatus.

So how does a fan who has no team to root for deal with the pain of a lost campaign? Some have suggested finding a new temporary team to follow during this pandemic-scarred season. Others might opt to focus instead on the aesthetic appeal of the sport, finally able to appreciate the great exploits of everyone on the field rather than instinctively writing off any and every sublime athletic feat of the opposition.

Most important, though, is to maintain those links within the communities that nourish our fanaticism. For the fans of the 54 FBS teams and the hundreds of teams at lower levels whose fall seasons were shuttered, your favorites will eventually return to the field of play. The absence is in no way forever, and eventually we will all congregate again at our favorite haunts. Do not let the community die away while we are all apart.

Find joy where you might, whether it requires a fan to adopt a new team for a year or merely to appreciate the athleticism on display. And remember to center the athletes in your rooting interest, and continue advocating for their best possible conditions of employment both during this COVID-conflicted season and once things start returning to business as usual.