Army’s football schedule had been set for years. It took about five weeks of this pandemic-stricken summer for it to come apart.
Five home games, like a sought-after visit from No. 5 Oklahoma that was planned more than a decade ago, vanished. So did four road trips. Less than a month before the season’s scheduled start, the Black Knights were down to three games.
The greatest rebuilding projects in college football this year had nothing to do with on-field performance. Instead, the most urgent efforts to resurrect football teams centered on a far more fundamental, widely shared conundrum: having games for teams to play at all.
“In normal times, it would kind of be a mind-melting experience where you start to have little panic attacks here and there,” Mike Buddie, West Point’s athletic director, said last week. “But with what our planet has been through since March, it was just another you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me event.”
What emerged throughout college football during an off-season that saw leagues abruptly cancel or limit games was an amalgam of urgent unions and stopgap schedules contrived over mere weeks in an industry accustomed to setting matchups a decade or more in advance. Contracts that sometimes take months to negotiate were sometimes signed within days, and even as the season started last week, a handful of programs were still scheduling or seeking games.
“When you lose one, it’s one thing,” said Doug Gillin, the athletic director at Appalachian State, which saw the entirety of its September schedule evaporate before a restructuring. “When you lose two, it’s another thing. When you lose numbers three and four, you’re like, ‘Holy cow, how am I going to put this puzzle back together?’”
Gillin’s solution was to assemble pieces from similarly smashed-up schedules: Since Aug. 12, Appalachian State has announced three games for this month, including Saturday’s opener against Charlotte, which also saw its early fall calendar implode. Army has replaced all the games it lost by making moves like scheduling a visit to No. 20 Cincinnati and agreeing to a matchup with Brigham Young, whose cancellations included six games against Power 5 opponents like Michigan State and Stanford.
And yet, after all of the horse-trading, athletic directors acknowledged that there is no certainty that their revised schedules will hold.
“No one knows how many games may have to be moved during the season,” said Dave Brown, a former ESPN executive whose scheduling software, Gridiron, was football’s equivalent of a defibrillator as teams looked for new matchups this summer.
An Atlantic Coast Conference game that was planned for this weekend, North Carolina State at Virginia Tech, was recently moved to Sept. 26 because of a cluster of coronavirus cases in N.C. State’s athletic department. Other games, like Friday night’s Iron Skillet showdown between Texas Christian and Southern Methodist, have been postponed indefinitely.
The first cancellations for major colleges, though, emerged in June, when plans for four games involving historically Black colleges and universities were scratched. More trouble appeared in July as leagues canceled their fall seasons or winnowed them to include fewer, or no, nonconference games. And the turbulence escalated in August as individual universities like Connecticut and Massachusetts — which compete as independents — said they would not play at all this season.
The decisions left many schedules eviscerated. The lifeline, though, was that every one-sided cancellation left a team looking for an opponent.
Gridiron, which most Division I programs use to help schedule games, recorded 886 logins over four days in July and August, more than double the traffic on similar days in 2019.
The Coronavirus Outbreak
Sports and the Virus
Updated Sept. 11, 2020
Here’s what’s happening as the world of sports slowly comes back to life:
- Baseball plans to hold its playoff games at four stadiums in Southern California and Texas, with the World Series held at the Texas Rangers’ new ballpark.
- N.F.L. teams have spent years trying to create over-the-top entertainment for fans inside stadiums. This year, they’ll just be trying to cover up echoes from empty seats.
- September Saturdays at Penn State are usually the apex of a week of hype. Now, as at other college football destinations, the approach of autumn has been unusually quiet there.
Administrators across the country were often focused on three objective criteria: availability, proximity and, potentially, an opportunity for a modest payday. But officials also were trying to assess the likelihood that a prospective opponent would ultimately play — guesses, at best, rooted in geography, politics, virus trends and the football cultures of campuses and their surrounding communities.
“Nobody, including us, was committal,” said Appalachian State’s Gillin.
“Nobody knew what the next ball to drop might be and when the dust was going to settle,” he continued. “For some folks we were talking to, we thought we had a good possibility to schedule them — and then it might have been their conference not playing or something like that.”
To get through this month, Appalachian State ultimately went with games against two in-state opponents as well as Marshall, the West Virginia university with which it already had future games scheduled.
Worried West Point officials, embracing the kind of assess-all-options preparation that would delight the Pentagon, developed more than 200 scheduling plans. Army’s work began in March, in fact, when football executives picked up on chatter that the pandemic could lead leagues to impose conference-only schedules — an unnerving possibility for a football independent, but one that West Point leaders said they saw as an opportunity to perhaps burnish their home schedule or add a television date.
“We would have to be nimble, we would have to be very flexible and very creative, all traits that the Army embraces,” said Bob Beretta, a senior associate athletic director and West Point’s football scheduling maven.
Army began contacting other independent programs, even floating the notion of playing some teams twice in an effort to fill out a full schedule. The officials wanted to lay the groundwork in case chaos came.
Then they waited. On July 8, the Ivy League canceled its fall football season. The Patriot League followed five days later. The schedule kept crumbling, particularly when the Mid-American Conference’s decision to postpone fall sports stripped the Black Knights of three games. In a matter of weeks, Army’s 12-game schedule was down to three opponents: Air Force, Tulane and, of course, Navy.
West Point officials immediately began dialing and texting other colleges, hoping their earlier outreach would now pay dividends.
“Once we lost the schedule, we had a lot of lines in the water, but it wasn’t like we had this master plan,” Beretta said. “It wasn’t like we could go ahead and pick from 10 different opponents and plug and play. It was limited inventory.”
But they soon began to nail down agreements. A game with B.Y.U. was agreed, helped along by a commitment by CBS to air it on network television. New road trips were lined up, and reciprocal games were scheduled into the 2030s. The situation, though, remained so fluid that only hours before Army planned to announce its revised 12-game schedule, one opponent withdrew.
Beretta, who once served as West Point’s interim softball coach, and Buddie, who pitched for the Yankees’ 1998 World Series champions, came to see those weeks as having a similar rhythm to the baseball trading deadline: months of relaxed conversations punctuated by a frenzied run at the end.
All the while, football coaches and players were looking toward a season that seemed amorphous.
“Our philosophy was to prepare, don’t plan,” said Jeff Monken, Army’s head coach. “We just needed to prepare generally as an offense and a defense and special teams to be able to execute our base schemes against whoever they lined up across from us.”
The players, Monken said, had not particularly cared about the precise shape their schedule would take. They just wanted games.
“Our guys just feel very fortunate to be in the conversation and be playing games,” he said. “They get excited about playing football. It doesn’t matter who we play.”