Jon Wilner: Time for the Pac-12 to get bold and get moving: Let teams play on Halloween if they can do it safely

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The Pac-12 is having its Big Ten moment.

The unified group of conference executives, presidents, athletic directors and coaches that had navigated the pandemic for six months has fractured, with deep frustration at multiple levels, sources say.

The aggravation boiled over after the presidents declined Friday to set a start date for the season, likely delaying the season openers until Nov. 7.

Many teams had hoped to play Oct. 31.

They felt they could do it safely, thanks to the daily antigen tests available at the end of this month.

They felt the players could be ready, at least at many schools.

And some officials wanted to break the news to the public Saturday morning, sources said, grabbing oxygen on the biggest day of the week in the sport.

And then, the presidents declined to move forward.

They did so because not every school can be ready for Halloween.

UCLA, in particular, believes it needs closer to eight weeks because players have not been working out regularly, sources said.

That’s fine. Not everyone’s ready. The California schools have been operating under different restrictions.

So USC can be ready on Oct. 31st, and UCLA can’t be.

We get it.

Here’s what we don’t get:

Why didn’t the conference collectively shift into a higher gear of urgency the day it signed the partnership with Quidel?

That was Sept. 3, the Thursday before Labor Day.

The deal to provide rapid-result, daily antigen tests was justifiably hailed as a “game-changer” by Commissioner Larry Scott because it would solve the medical experts’ primary concern — it would keep infected players off the field.

And yet, very little happened to reflect the change in the game, at least for a week.

(The Oregonian’s John Canzano reported that coaches are frustrated that the conference office lacked a plan.)

From our vantage point, one school recognized the need for action in the most publicly proactive sense.

The letter published by USC players on social media on Tuesday, asking California Gov. Gavin Newsom for help, added energy and urgency to the situation.

The next day, Scott met with Newsom, and the Mercury News asked Newsom for an explanation of his restrictions.

On the defensive, largely due to the USC letter, Newsom agreed to clear a path.

Combined with the Big Ten’s announcement that morning, the Pac-12’s return-to-play shifted into a higher gear.

The timeline required to play safely was an issue, for sure. But sources said that at least half the teams could be ready for games on Oct. 31.

The Arizona and Mountain schools, in particular, have been able to work out regularly with most of their players.

Their ramp time, for instance, could be significantly less than the eight weeks UCLA is said to need.

“Six weeks is the sweet spot,” one coach told us, “if necessary we could do it in four.”

They don’t need to do it in four.

Nobody needs to do it in four.

If the presidents approve the restart when they meet again on Thursday, teams would have five weeks to get ready for a Halloween kickoff.

Those that can do it safety in five would do it in five.

If you can’t, you can’t.

The Pac-12 needs to get out of its comfortable mental space on this and allow itself to move more quickly that it prefers.

Again, nobody gets forced into anything if the players aren’t ready.

But the presidents should provide clearance for Oct. 31 for whichever teams want it and allow non-conference games to be played that weekend.

Yes, non-conference games.

Remember those?

The Pac-12 axed its non-conference schedule in early July because the games weren’t viewed as safe: The opponents wouldn’t necessarily have the same health standards.

And at the time, that was the right thing to do.

But the dynamics have changed, thanks to the partnership with Quidel.

Not only can the Pac-12 teams test their players each day with a process that, according to computer modeling, is more effective than the NFL’s testing plan, but the conference could ensure that the opponent is tested daily.

Ship the Oct. 31 opponent enough tests to cover 150 people daily for five days. At $22 per test, that’s just $16,000.

Then on both Friday night and Saturday morning, have a medical official from the Pac-12 team oversee the opponent’s testing process to confirm the negatives.

As for opponents, well, Army needs a game that day.

The Mountain West teams, who are eyeing a late-October return, could be interested.

If we were running the Pac-12, we would be on the phone with MW Commissioner Craig Thompson today to examine whether matchups are feasible.

Maybe they aren’t, you don’t know without asking.

Or, the presidents should let the Pac-12 teams play each other in games that don’t count in the standings.

Equality is important in the number of conference games. But if the total number played is different from one team to the next, so what?

There is precedent: Colorado and Arizona State played a basketball game in China last November, then squared off during the conference season.

Even if only six or eight teams play on the 31st, that’s something.

It’s opportunity for the players. It’s a vital extra game for any potential College Football Playoff contenders — I’d imagine USC and Oregon would be willing to play on Halloween (not against each other, however) — and it’s revenue.

It’s revenue that could offset job losses and furloughs.

How much? We can back-of-the-envelope the numbers …

The Pac-12 was scheduled to receive $276 million from Fox and ESPN this season for 44 regular-season games and the conference championship, according to the term sheet.

Obviously, the disrupted season will lower the total. But it’s essentially $6.1 million per game if split evenly over the 45.

Let’s assign a higher value to the championship and figure the regular season matchups work out to about $5 million per game.

Even if only six teams can play, that’s plenty worth it.

That will help save jobs.

Why not let teams play on Halloween if they can do so safely?

Why not get outside the comfort zone?

Why not do something that doesn’t quite make sense, until you cast it against the backdrop of 2020.

The presidents and the conference need to push forward.

Leadership isn’t always methodical.

Sometimes, you have to be bold.


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