Rites of fall: Losing college football stings across America

Published 5:57 pm Friday, August 14, 2020

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Michigan’s Big House will be sitting empty when the leaves start to change this fall.

Southern Cal’s famed white horse, Traveler, won’t be galloping triumphantly after a Trojans touchdown.

No one at Ole Miss knows for sure if partying fans will be belting out a well-lubricated “Hotty Toddy” in The Grove.

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From Ann Arbor to Los Angeles to Oxford, that most American of pursuits — college football — has either given up hope of getting in a traditional season or is flinging what amounts to a Hail Mary pass in a desperate attempt to hang on in the age of Covid-19.

Even if some schools manage to take the field in the next month or so, it will be a different looking game.

Chances are, Saturdays will never be quite the same again.

“Our lives are changing forever right before our eyes,” Arizona offensive lineman Donovan Laie said.

While every aspect of society has been jarred by a worldwide pandemic that has claimed more than 160,000 American lives, the potential loss of college football feels like another collective punch to the national psyche.

For all the ills of big-time college athletics, it might the closest thing to a national religion.

“Since the virus hit, we’ve all lost a sense of our normal lives,” said Charles Reagan Wilson, professor emeritus at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi — better known to college football fans as Ole Miss.

“College football could be the balm for our spirit because it’s such a part of our familiar autumn life,” he added. “I think to not have it would up the ante on that sense of abnormality we’re all living through.”

That reality has already arrived for fans in two of the country’s most prominent conferences. On Tuesday, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 both called off their attempts to play this fall, saying they might try to play in the spring if the virus subsides.

The remaining Power Five conferences — the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Big 12 — are pressing on with their attempts to kick off the season next month, though all are quick to acknowledge that the virus could force the to cancel.

Ohio State fan Jason Streeter finds it difficult to grasp the concept of a fall without football.

“Devastation,” said Streeter, sounding as though a tornado had just swept through town. “It’s just a way of life in Columbus, honestly. It really is. You look forward to those fall Saturdays on the banks of the Olentangy.”

He talked longingly of traditions that are unique to his school, such as the band’s famed script spelling of “Ohio” during its halftime shows in the center of a nearly 103,000-seat stadium known as “The Horseshoe” — capped ff by a lone member high-stepping across the field to “Dot The I.”

“It’s a part of life here, it really is,” Streeter said.

Further down the college football food chain, smaller leagues have pulled the plug on their seasons as well.

The sting is especially painful at historically Black colleges and universities such as North Carolina A&T, where one of the highlights of football season — really, the entire year — is a week-long homecoming celebration that draws tens of thousands to Greensboro.

“It’s been an insular community for so long, by necessity,” said Earl Hilton, the athletic director at North Carolina A&T. “These are places of retreat, places of sanctuary, places of protection. There’s a feeling that we are in a safe place where we can celebrate and enjoy and appreciate each other in ways that are genuine and authentic.”

Not this year. There’s no football, no homecoming, no chance to watch the school’s famed band perform one of its dazzling halftime shows.

“The leaves change, it gets a little cooler, and it’s just what you do on a Saturday afternoon,” mused Hilton, sadness clear in his voice. “I’m at a loss for words to describe what it’s going to be like.”

For a country already in the midst of a devastating economic downturn, the loss of college football will have a crushing impact on bars, restaurants and other businesses that rely on football fans.

That is especially true of college towns like Oxford, Mississippi and Clemson, South Carolina and State College, Pennsylvania.

“I was talking to a restaurant owner here in Oxford who said 50 percent of his yearly profit comes from college football season,” said Wilson, the Ole Miss professor. “Even if people are able to come back next year, it won’t be the same. Some of the restaurants they loved won’t be here. Some of the clothing stores, some of the bars, they won’t be here.”

Oxford has a a tax base of about 25,000 residents, and the population grows closer to 60,000 when classes are in session.

But on a big football weekend, the town can be swamped by nearly 200,000 people. Those people spend money, lots of money. About a third of Oxford’s operating budget comes from sales taxes.

“We count on those six to seven weekends a year,” Mayor Robyn Tannehill said. “There are businesses in this town that can weather a slow winter or spring because because they know football’s coming.”

The SEC has already cut back on its normal 12-game schedule, hoping the league can complete that a 10-game slate of conference games. Even the games that are played will surely be in stadiums that are empty or let in only a fraction of their normal capacity.

The universities will likely crack down on popular tailgating spots such as The Grove.

“The Grove, the weather, the tailgating, the feel of a big Saturday morning game day,” Tannehill said. “I can’t imagine Oxford without it.”

Even in a larger city such as Columbus, the loss of a Buckeyes season is a huge blow to a sports bar such as the Varsity Club, which opened in 1959 about two blocks from Ohio Stadium.

On a football Saturday, the place is overrun with crowds that spill out the door before the game, during the game and long into the night.

“Those are eight massive days a year for us,” said R.J. Oberle, a manager at the Varsity Club. “We really thrive on those events.”

If it wasn’t apparent before, it surely is now.

Life is not returning to normal anytime soon.

Not without college football.