Big Ten football is a hot mess right now, and the in-fighting has taken away from their status as a leader in the sport.
When the powers who run Big Ten football decided to take 2020 off, they thought they were once again leading the sport and blazing a trail for the rest of the Power-5 conferences to follow. What actually happened could not have been more polar-opposite of that hope.
Since announcing the postponement of the 2020 football season for the Big Ten, conference commissioner Kevin Warren has found himself at odds with players, parents, coaches, and even university presidents within the conference.
What seemed like a no-brainer — canceling football in the midst of a global pandemic — has turned out to be a step directly into a minefield for Warren, and there’s no way out other than going through it.
The sad part is that it didn’t have to be this damaging, and the conference didn’t have to have such bad optics, regardless of which way the decision went.
Was there a vote with all schools agreeing that canceling or postponing the season was the best thing to do? “Yes…well, maybe not. No? Kind of. Let’s just say we had a quorum,” is the message sent by the Big Ten to those who questioned their decision to cancel.
Warren’s statement in response to dissenters had all the charm and warmth of a parent explaining to a child, “Because I said so, that’s why.”
When dealing with a great unknown such as COVID-19, no one expects decisions to come easily, or even to always be right. But what most do expect, and what those pounding on Warren’s office door both literally and virtually have been screaming for, is the ability to pivot and change course when needed.
The SEC, ACC, and Big 12 all had the foresight to do this, leaving themselves with possible exit strategies should things get worse. There’s no reason the Big Ten couldn’t have had a similar plan if things weren’t quite as bad as they’d imagined.
But now, after weeks of grumbling, public statements coming out against the conference leaders, and even legal action being taken by parents, the Big Ten presidents and chancellors decided to reconvene and have a revote on whether or not to play this fall.
It was all made worse when Big Ten coaches, players, and parents had to sit on their sofas watching the rest of the college football world successfully navigate through a full weekend of games. Yes, there were some cancelations and postponements, and the COVID test results after players from different schools spent a few hours on the field together have yet to come, but at least they tried.
So now the Big Ten thinks…maybe…it wants to join the party. The reality of NFL dreams being dashed away for players and huge revenue share checks disappearing for athletic departments set in hard this weekend, so the move to start up the season in October is underway.
But is it too late? As late as Monday morning, talk show host Dan Patrick was reporting that several schools — including Michigan, Michigan State, and Maryland — were planning on opting out.
Conference unity is non-existent in the Big Ten right now, and a splintered Big Ten is bad for the sport, and most importantly, bad for its member institutions.
Can you have a Big Ten football season without Michigan? Without Michigan State? Maybe without Wisconsin? That’s the equivalent of suggesting the SEC play without Alabama, Auburn, or Georgia. A season without those major players isn’t even a season worthy of an asterisk by the eventual champion. It would mean the other teams essentially played two months’ worth of exhibitions.
The dysfunctional family who thought it was a leader has now become the straggler. Even the Pac-12, who canceled their season shortly after the Big Ten, has a better image right now.
Kevin Warren thought he was holding the torch to lead the rest of the college football nation through the darkness. Instead, he and the rest of the Big Ten’s leadership stumbled clumsily into a very dark pit that it could take some time from which to emerge.