BOISE — As much as Boise State football coach Bryan Harsin wanted to find a way to try and play the 2020 season this fall, it became increasingly clear in recent days it just wasn’t going to be possible.
Small group workouts or position drills are one thing. Trying to hold traditional practices while adhering to proper social distancing guidelines and other COVID-19 preventative measures was another.
So when the decision was made by the Mountain West Conference on Monday afternoon to punt on fall football, the news was disappointing for Harsin but not totally unexpected.
“Once football begins, the distancing and the way you have to prepare, it’s really unrealistic,” Harsin said during a Zoom conference with reporters on Tuesday. “You’ve got to go practice. You can’t keep everybody in groups, you can’t spread it out throughout the day. You have to have your whole entire team out there practicing and tackling, hitting, blocking.
“At the end of the day, when we got closer to that ... I don’t think the medical folks felt like that was possible to do that, and that’s why the decision came down to what it was, postponing until we figure it all out.”
Players were informed via text message of the Mountain West decision around 3:50 p.m. Monday, and Harsin held a virtual team meeting on Zoom 25 minutes later to provide details.
Football fans, players and coaches across the country waited months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March with hopes things would improve and college athletics could return as scheduled this fall. But the coronavirus just wouldn’t cooperate, leaving Boise State without football for the first time since a four-year break from 1942-45 due to World War II.
“There was always a possibility of this happening,” Harsin said. “I think everybody was aware of that ... I think it’s disappointing. There’s a lot of ‘what ifs.' It’s not what we wanted to hear. Not one guy on this team or staff wanted to hear that whatsoever.
“(But) we obviously have to regroup. What do we do? We start preparing again. But for what and when and what’s that timeline?”
Harsin gave his players Tuesday off to digest the news, but the Broncos plan to finish the week of training as previously planned before giving his players a break to focus on school, which starts on Aug. 24. Next steps, including possible fall practices, will come as the NCAA and Mountain West make determinations about a possible spring season.
Full team practices — and games — likely won’t occur until the threat of the virus subsides enough to allow for relaxing of the current social distancing guidelines.
“We’ve got to be able to do things safely and do them the right way in order to prepare correctly,” Harsin said. “We still hadn’t figured out how to prepare properly .... Do we know enough to go out there and get to practice with the physicality and demands of practice and fall camp and getting yourself ready for a season? The reality was, can we do this and at the end of the day. They said no. Not right now.”
Harsin echoed recent comments from Alabama coach Nick Saban about players being in a better spot from a health and safety standpoint when they are together as a team and not back at home taking online classes, saying “I feel this is the best place for these guys to be in .... We come in, we have our protocols, we fill out the information every day.”
The possibility of isolating the players and staff and forming a bubble similar to what the NBA and NHL are currently doing in hopes of playing a 2020 season was something Harsin didn’t see as viable.
“Are we going to go get a hotel room and everybody lives in the hotel and we just go to class and shuttle back and forth and go to practice? No, that’s not going to happen,” Harsin said. “And not just with Boise State. That won’t happen anywhere.”
Harsin did say he believed it was possible to navigate a fall 2020 season with the protocols and testing being put in place from a football perspective.
“Could the process work? I think it could,” Harsin said. “But all the other complications that our medical folks understand much better than I do, I think that’s why we are in the position we are in. They didn’t feel like we could do this right now and do it the way we need to.”
Harsin said he is intrigued about the possibility of playing games in the spring. In fact, in a perfect world he’d love to see the Broncos play the same 12-game schedule they were planning to have this fall.
“Play Georgia Southern, play Air Force, play Florida State, Marshall and then get into the rest of our league,” Harsin said. “I don’t know if that’s realistic, but I’d like to see that. I’d like to play the schedule we had set. But they’ll have to make some adjustment on the back end, for the next season, to accommodate that.”
Any spring season is likely to be limited to around eight games or less and would also likely mean changes to the 2021 season next fall. It would be impossible to expect two full seasons in one calendar year, meaning the regular 2021 season next fall would probably have to be delayed or shortened.
Harsin also mentioned recruiting as a big issue should the Mountain West attempt a spring season. Boise State’s coaches were unable to travel and conduct in-person recruiting this spring due to the virus, and missing out on that again to play games next spring would mean two straight classes — roughly 40 percent of a team’s roster — would be made up of players schools didn’t get to evaluate properly.
Asked about the possibility of trying to play nonconference games this fall similar to what Nebraska is hoping to do despite the Big Ten canceling the fall season Tuesday, Harsin said he inquired about the topic but was quickly told it wasn’t an option.
“That didn’t go very far,” Harsin said. “I asked the question ... but we’re part of the Mountain West and the decision was made and it applies to us, so it didn’t go any further than us. Would I like to do that? Sure. But at the end of the day, when you have the conversation about why we did what we did, that ended it right there.”
The impact of no fall football for the seniors was one of Harsin’s biggest concerns. It's unclear yet whether the NCAA will grant seniors an extra year of eligibility, especially if a modified season is played in the spring. And some seniors might not want to stick around if they’ve already got a degree.
“I don’t want any of the seniors leaving here without that opportunity and experience to finish what they started,” Harsin said. “They don’t want it to end like this. And I don’t believe it will.”
Boise State faces a huge budget issue from the loss of football in 2020. The athletic department estimates a loss of $20 million, which according to a recent interview with athletic director Curt Apsey is “40 to 50 percent” of the entire budget.
“There’s some financial ramifications and things this obviously impacts, but it is what it is at this point,” Harsin said. “We’ll have to adjust and be creative and find other ways to help in that area. But I read a lot about how it’s all money driven and things like that, and that’s never come into this facility, ‘Hey we have to for these reasons.’
“It’s been about the players and it’s been about their safety and health and well-being. We all understand there’s a financial component to this, but at the end of the day it was ‘can we do this safely and is it the right thing to do?’”
To the disappointment of many, the answer was no.