By Mark Nagi
The 2019 college football season feels like it was another lifetime ago. So much had changed since the Vols went into the victory formation at the TaxSlayer Bowl.
Over the past week or so we’ve seen college football conferences drop like flies. Led by the Big Ten and the Pac-12, some conferences are planning to play in the Spring.
But the SEC isn’t going down just yet. Along with the Big 12 and ACC, the SEC has plans in place to play actual football in a few weeks. The season is set to begin on September 26. It will be a ten game, all-SEC schedule, with a conference championship game to be played on December 19.
This only works, of course, if the member institutions get their ducks in a row. That’s going to be difficult, especially with the return of students to campus. Telling teenagers that they should avoid large gatherings (you know, parties) might be an exercise in futility. Without social distancing and the wearing of masks, this season won’t happen.
“The Southeastern Conference has taken a very deliberate approach to gather data and make decisions as they learn more about this virus, and how it affects our young people,” said Tennessee athletics director Phillip Fulmer. “The health and safety is paramount to our charge to take care of our young people.”
Among the guidelines that have been implemented by the SEC: Guests will be required to wear face masks (over the nose and mouth) while inside the stadium and anytime social distancing is not possible. Also, stadiums will be required to install barriers at concessions stands, and ‘grab-and-go’ options are recommended.
The big question of course revolves around how many fans will be allowed to watch these games in person. The SEC says that attendance will be limited based on local/state guidelines or CDC recommendations for gatherings.
For Tennessee, they are planning to have approximately 25,000 fans or approximately 25% of the 102.455 Neyland Stadium capacity. Decisions still need to be made about who those 25,000 fans will be.
It’s hard to imagine with only 25,000 tickets to be sold that there will be any tickets available to the general public. Donors and students will get the option.
The Vol Walk and the Pride of the Southland Marching Band march to the stadium are expected to also be causalities.
Certainly, this isn’t ideal, but it beats the alternative of no football.
“I’m proud of the efforts that the University of Tennessee has made to make sure that we can enjoy games and that we can have one less cancellation in 2020,” said Tennessee Governor Bill Lee.
Tennessee’s athletics department had nearly depleted its reserve fund a few years back. The coaching buyouts did a number on the bottom line. Fulmer said that he expects the University to lose $30-$40 million in revenue when it comes to football. Playing games is crucial to the financial well being of the department. Ticket sales and donations are important, as is the annual $44.6 million that Tennessee receives from the SEC, mostly as television revenue.
Of course, it’s not the top priority.
“My whole thing the whole time is, can we protect our players? It’s the most important thing,” said Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt. “I don’t know the angle here. I can tell you, as a coach, the number one concern for us is the safety of everybody in this building. Do we want to play? Absolutely. We want to play. The kids want to play. But, the number one thing for us is to make sure that we can protect the people around us and that will never change. That will never ever change. It’s the way we practice. It’s the first thing we think of with any decision that’s made with anybody in our program. What’s the safety? That’s during this pandemic and that was before this pandemic, so that’s not ever going to change here.”
Mark Nagi is the author of “Decade of Dysfunction,” which takes an up-close look at Tennessee’s crazy coaching search of 2017. The book is available of Amazon.