Opinion: As college football reaches finish line during pandemic, was it all worth it?

Halfway through what would turn out to be his football team’s final practice of the 2020 season, Charlotte coach Will Healy spotted athletics director Mike Hill walking toward the field and figured he probably wasn’t bringing good news.

The previous few months hadn’t given Healy a reason to expect anything else. At various points, Charlotte had learned of games being canceled from its charter plane on the way to North Texas, from its team hotel in Boca Raton, Florida, and on a Friday afternoon when Georgia State got a bad batch of COVID-19 test results — only to learn later they were false positives.

All in all, Charlotte had somehow dealt with eight games being canceled or moved by the time the 49ers got to the final week of the season, an emotional roller coaster that even led to Healy breaking down in tears over a Zoom meeting when he had to deliver the news that a game against Western Kentucky had been postponed.

“I was a basket case,” Healy said. “Just lost it because I know how bad they wanted to play. I felt like every time I addressed them as a group it was to tell them a game was canceled.”

And just as Healy expected midway through that Dec. 9 practice, he was going to have to do it one more time. Marshall officials had informed Hill that COVID-19 issues within their program would not allow them to play Dec. 11, and that was that. The 49ers’ season was going to end at 2-4.

“It’s now the ninth game of the year canceled and you’re sitting there saying, 'What do you do? Do you let them keep practicing?' ” Healy said.

From the beginning, he had promised his team total transparency about whatever situation they were facing, and he held to it one last time. He stopped the drills, gathered the players and delivered the news to a lot of blank stares. Some of the seniors spoke and Healy, thinking quickly, organized the team into two lines so the departing players could run through a makeshift tunnel off the field one last time.

“It probably wasn’t the most incredible experience they could have; I just wanted us to thank them as they ran off,” he said. “I wanted it to be as special as possible.”

After it was over, Healy went into the stadium bleachers, found a spot where no one could see him and laid down on the concrete. He knew what had happened to get to that point was completely out of his control, but Healy couldn’t escape the feeling that it was somehow his fault. “All you talk about in recruiting is the student-athlete experience,” he said. “And we couldn’t give them a great student-athlete experience.”

Will Healy during and his Charlotte 49ers had nine games canceled this season. (Photo: Jaylynn Nash, USA TODAY Sports)

All about the COVID-19 tests

The College Football Playoff championship game Monday night between Alabama and Ohio State will conclude the strangest and most contentious year in the modern history of the sport.

In the initial stages of the pandemic, there was dismissiveness about its potential to wreak havoc on a season that was still several months away. Over the spring and early summer, that evolved into utter confusion about how to proceed, exposing cracks in the professed solidarity among the FBS conferences.

In August, the Big Ten and Pac-12 bailed on the fall season while the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast pressed ahead. The Big 12’s decision to side with the latter group is the biggest reason college football was played at all in 2020 and eventually brought everyone back into the fold.

Now that we are at the finish line, it would be fair to say that the decision to play during a pandemic — as cumbersome as it might have been at times — saved college athletics from a financial calamity and allowed players to do what they desperately wanted to do. Many administrators and coaches believe it was worth it.

“I think a lot of people put a lot of time and effort throughout the country, throughout the NCAA, throughout every conference to try to create an atmosphere and environment which gave the players an opportunity to compete, the fans something to root for and look forward to, and I think that’s a real positive thing,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said last week. "I would say under the circumstances that we’re pleased with the way this season has gone and the number of games we’ve been able to play, the players having the opportunity to compete and now to culminate it with a playoff and a championship game.”

But the full story of what happened in 2020 cannot be told without acknowledging how frustrating and emotionally draining it was to pull it off. For every program that was able to play a season, every day was like building an airplane and flying it at the same time.

That meant a lot of unique things we could have never imagined before this season — players meeting with coaches by Zoom, games being scheduled at the last minute, contact tracing shutting down entire position groups — but also hundreds of other moments that bordered on surreal.

Jared Benko, the athletics director at Georgia Southern, remembers the days before the Sept. 12 opener against Campbell College when he was with his staff marking off seats and hanging signs in the stadium to reconfigure it for social distancing for a capacity of 6,250.

“The whole planning process of that took a good week, and it was all hands on deck,” he said. “We had 50-plus people out there, coaches in other sports who have nothing to do with football putting down seating vinyl and reading a map saying, ‘Hey, this one is open.’ It was like trying to play ‘Tetris.’ But that Friday night before the game, I was just sitting there in the upper deck looking over the field and you can see the fruits of that labor. There was a lot of sense of pride in that.”

But for pretty much every program, success or failure of those efforts came down to one thing: What the tests said. They often brought bad news.

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