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Bacon: As Big Ten football begins, COVID-19 looms large

football stadium signs for MSU and U of M
Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio
Michigan State and the University of Michigan both open their 2020 football seasons on Saturday. The Big Ten's COVID-19 protocols include a ban on fans in stadiums and a shorter schedule.

The Big Ten Conference opens its 2020 football season Friday night, but the games people care about in these parts are happening Saturday. Michigan State will host Rutgers in East Lansing in the afternoon. Michigan will visit Minnesota Saturday night.

Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon joined Morning Edition to discuss a season altered dramatically by COVID-19 before it even begins.

Trying to chart a different course

College football’s been underway for weeks now in other parts of the country. Dozens of games have been postponed or canceled because of COVID outbreaks among teams. Bacon says it's hard to know if the Big Ten is setting itself up for the same kind of results.

"They do have the best protocols of any league out there for a positive test," he told Michigan Radio. "The flip side is it's getting colder. People are going inside and we're experiencing, apparently, [another COVID] wave nationwide. So, the timing in some ways is not lucky."

Off-the-field concerns

On Tuesday, the Washtenaw County Health Department issued a stay-in-place order for U of M students because of rising COVID case numbers. Michigan State has banned tailgating on campus. Fans aren't allowed in the stadiums in the Big Ten this season. Asked if he's worried fans will find other ways to gather for games and potentially spread the coronavirus, Bacon takes a realist's view.

"It's one of the few things that we still do together. ... We're losing that, and at a time I think we need it more than ever." -John U. Bacon on stadiums without fans

"I'm not worried about it because I'm certain that's exactly what they're going to do," he says.

There are bigger weekends just ahead. On October 31, Michigan will host Michigan State at the Big House. Again, no fans allowed at that game, but people like to party on Halloween. They also like to party on the day of the annual Michigan State-Michigan game. What could possibly go wrong?

"It's almost a perfect storm of COVID superspreader events," Bacon says.

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A new face in East Lansing

Michigan State has a new head coach this season. Mel Tucker replaced long-time coach Mark Dantonio who was criticized for his teams' performances in recent years at MSU, but still went out on three straight bowl appearances and two wins.

Bacon says this more-than-unusual fall schedule could be a blessing for Tucker.

"This season has to be considered a free pass because it's so weird. Basically, whatever happens this year, they're going to write off," he says. "The cupboard right now in East Lansing is largely bare. He needs a year to get his act together and to get his [own] recruits in. For him, this is not a bad thing."

Harbaugh's long-term outlook

In Ann Arbor, Jim Harbaugh is entering his sixth season coaching the Wolverines. It’s fair to say that, despite a lot of regular-season wins, Harbaugh has not lived up to the expectations of the Michigan fanbase. His current contract expires after the 2021 season.

How much could the results this fall affect the long-term prospects for Harbaugh in Ann Arbor?

"Only two guys know that answer. And that's Jim Harbaugh and Warde Manuel, his boss, Michigan's athletic director," Bacon says. "He's done extremely well on and off the field, except for one thing: five straight losses to Ohio State. And with [a win], comes Big Ten titles, playoff bids, and so on."

Bacon says letting a coach's contract wind down to the final year can hurt a program.

"I'm a bit surprised [a new deal or extension] has not been signed yet because that affects your recruiting. You have to sign these things two or three years in advance to have continuity for recruiting long-term. Otherwise other coaches will say [to high school players], 'Well, he's only got one year left. Who knows if he's going to re-up at Michigan?' So it is becoming a problem bit by bit. I bet that gets signed pretty quickly."

Win or lose, rituals will be lost

In America, no other sport is so wrapped up in the atmosphere, the culture, the community buy-in as college football, but the game-day rituals that make the sport what it is won't be the same this year. 

"What draws me to college football is what draws millions of fans," Bacon says. "It's one of the few things that we still do together. We don’t care about your politics, your race, your gender, your religion, your age. We really don't actually care if you went to the school. So long as you know when to put your fist in the air in the fight song, you're one of us, and you're welcome. We're losing that, and at a time I think we need it more than ever."

Editor's note: Quotes in this story have been edited for length and clarity. You can hear the full interview at the top of the page. 

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John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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