The Rose Bowl in April? How 1918 can teach college football to embrace the unexpected

NCAAF

Let’s not kid ourselves. As conferences call off their fall sports, as the 2020 college football season remains beyond the grasp of a country desperate for the comforts of an autumn Saturday, it’s impossible to strike the balance between public health and a return to normalcy.

There isn’t an exact parallel, but college football has endured something similar before.

In September 1918, the influenza pandemic began its second sweep across America, finding breeding ground in crowded military camps filled with soldiers training for the Great War. Fort Devens, 35 miles northwest of Boston, held 45,000 men, 10,000 above capacity. The flu struck the fort with ferocity — Fort Devens reported 66 deaths on Sept. 22; 63 on the following day.

Gina Kolata, a science journalist and author of “Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” wrote of the stacked corpses in the camp “autopsy room” blocking the doctors’ path. The scene in the hospital haunted Col. Victor C. Vaughan, a former president of the American Medical Association dispatched to the camp by the U.S. Surgeon General, for the rest of his life.

A little over a month later, on Oct. 26, Boston College began its delayed football season with a 13-0 victory over, yes, Fort Devens.

Yes, college football has been here, or somewhere near here, before and come out the other side. For one thing, the 1918 pandemic would kill 675,000 Americans, about four-and-a-half times the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic to date. For another, the 1918 season had been truncated by the war effort before anyone contracted the flu. Both took their toll on college football.

The Big Ten lists Purdue as a co-champion that season. The Boilermakers were a thoroughly ordinary 3-3, with losses against DePauw, Notre Dame and Great Lakes Naval Air Station. But Purdue went 1-0 in conference play, having beaten Chicago, which played five games, all in conference, and lost them all. The Maroons’ closest loss? To Purdue 7-3. They lost the other four by a combined 70-6.

No team had a wilder ride than Pittsburgh, coached by the great Pop Warner. Over the course of the fall, the Panthers went from not playing at all to putting on one of the great performances in their history.

“Our original schedule for the 1918 season was canceled in late September after the initial impact of the flu epidemic had set in,” Warner said at the time, quotes that resurfaced in an autobiography published in 1993, some four decades after his death. “However, by late October, the problem seemed to be under control and health officials were no longer concerned about the gathering of large crowds.”

And what a team. Warner arranged a four-game schedule, closing against John Heisman’s Georgia Tech, which came to Forbes Field in Pittsburgh with a 33-game unbeaten streak dating back to 1914. On an icy, snowy afternoon, the Panthers walloped their Southern opponents 32-0.

The stunning nature of the upset faded long ago, except perhaps at Pitt. What remains is what Warner said, and what he didn’t. Warner didn’t mention any concern regarding the health of his players (the NCAA hadn’t yet coined the term “student-athlete”). The game took place because civic officials decided a large crowd — more than 39,000, the biggest in Pennsylvania history — could gather. It is easy to presume, with no such thing as radio or television revenue, that if Pittsburgh hadn’t been able to fill Forbes Field, there would have no money to pay a visiting team.

Notre Dame reported its 1918 team returned home from its 26-6 victory at Purdue with a profit of $358.10. When Notre Dame returned to Purdue a year later — the Irish had such a small stadium in the pre-Knute Rockne days that big schools rarely came to South Bend, Indiana — the visitors cleared a profit of $1,579.08.

A century later, athletic administrators will incur the wrath of some portion of the public no matter what decision they make. Allow their programs to carry on, and they’re subject to the charge that they’re putting the financial health of their programs ahead of the health of their student-athletes. Push their fall sports into the new year, as the Big Ten, Pac-12, MAC and Mountain West have done, and they’re ignoring the needs and desires of not only their football student-athletes, but of those in every sport on campus. And for what, that public will ask: “The virus hasn’t even threatened [fill in your campus here].”

College football remains a regional sport, governed by conferences largely regional in nature. As COVID-19 hopscotches across the landscape, college football fans are searching for a national solution. They are going to search for a long time.

Take the decisions, made independently by the Pac-12 and SEC, to push back their start dates to Sept. 26. The wisdom of gaining that flexibility grows clearer with every cancellation by other Division I conferences and schools. And yet the Pac-12 still seemed to have nine toes out the door. The SEC would rather cancel sweet tea than college football. As commissioner Greg Sankey said on “Good Morning America” on Tuesday, the conference won’t make a decision until it must.

A century ago, schools responded with in-time solutions. Some cobbled together full schedules; some played partial schedules; and some stayed home. The University of Texas shut down for a month and canceled its rivalry game against Oklahoma. As John Maher and Kirk Bohls describe in their history of Longhorns football, Texas arranged two games against Radio School and one against Camp Mabry Auto Mechanics, both military installations in the Austin area, and rescheduled its SMU game for late November. All most Texas fans know is that the 1918 Longhorns went 9-0. Those who look closer will see that, a few days after Texas closed its season with a victory against Texas A&M, the flu returned to campus and took the lives of 200 people, including 17-year-old guard Joe Spence.

Kentucky closed its campus on Oct. 7, two days after the Wildcats opened their 1918 season with a 24-7 victory at Indiana. The campus armory became a hospital; the flu sickened 400 on campus, with seven people dying. Kentucky managed to play two more road games, both in November, and finished the season 2-1.

Missouri closed its campus for three weeks in 1918. A total of 1,020 students, about 7% of the area population, contracted the flu. The football team practiced some 250 hours. The Tigers played several intrasquad games. Those would be the only games they played.

That model of varying schedules appears as if it will be repeated. Through Tuesday evening, four conferences had pushed their fall football seasons to the spring, as did UConn, UMass and Old Dominion. With UMass’s announcement Tuesday, Army is down to two games, against Tulane and Navy. Then there’s the five-week roller coaster at BYU. Since July 6, the Cougars’ schedule has dwindled from 12 games to …

10 (goodbye, Michigan State and Minnesota)
… to 7 (adios, Utah, Arizona State and Stanford)
… to 6 (later, Missouri)
… back to 7 (hello, Navy)
… to 6 (au revoir, Northern Illinois)
… and, on Monday, to 3 (see ya, Utah State, Boise State and San Diego State).

The Cougars are scheduled to play Navy, Houston and FCS North Alabama. Word is Nebraska head coach Scott Frost might be looking for a game.

So we look forward to some kind of season. We wait to see if an undefeated BYU (3-0) or Army (2-0) makes the College Football Playoff in January.

We wait to see if the College Football Playoff moves with the schedule, and we spend Easter weekend in the Rose Bowl.

We wait to see if there will be any football player who wins a Heisman Trophy. Maybe the Heisman Trust will award its 2020 trophy to Reggie Bush. He’s the only player out there who has earned one and doesn’t own one.

We wait to see if all those USC fans who thought head coach Clay Helton wouldn’t make it past 2019 will figure that now he will be coaching in 2021.

We wait to see if the MAC resumes in the spring. Ohio coach Frank Solich, who has won 171 games in 21 seasons, is one victory behind Gary Patterson of TCU for sixth place among FBS coaches. Solich won’t catch Patterson this fall. Solich turns 75 next month. This is one case where patience might not be prudent.

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