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

Dan Wolken

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.

WHAT WILL GO DOWN:Predictions for the College Football Playoff championship game

THE REALITY:Alabama-Ohio State title game lands in sea of COVID-19 in Miami area

“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.

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.

'I worried sick'

Three times a week, the Liberty football team showed up before sunrise to get tested for COVID-19. It would often take 16 or 17 hours to get the results, and until they came in it was hard for coach Hugh Freeze to get to sleep.

“It was full of anxiousness,” he said.

But the time the snowball of positive tests reached Freeze himself during the most anticipated week of Liberty’s season, he had already resigned himself to the outcome.

“Of course I start worrying about my wife and kids then, and I can only imagine the people who are older or who have a child or a wife who have some type of health issue,” Freeze said. “Can you imagine that worry that those coaches have from being around all of these players and all of the staff and wanting to be around your family? I worried sick over mine, and mine are healthy.”

On Nov. 30, ESPN announced that the iconic College GameDay show would broadcast that week from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the site of Coastal Carolina-Liberty — a huge honor for two outsider programs having historically good seasons. But by the time Liberty learned it was going to be part of GameDay, trouble was already brewing.

Malik Willis, Liberty’s quarterback, had tested positive for COVID-19 during the Sunday test along with multiple defensive coaches. Freeze’s heart sank but he tried to reassure the team and told players to focus on what they could control. Liberty continued practicing, with Freeze even moving over to coach the defense.

“We felt like we owed it to college football to try to play, particularly on that stage,” he said.

But when Wednesday’s tests came back, it was more bad news: Another 15 positives, including five coaches, leading to a pause in all football activities. Freeze had been in meeting rooms for hours on end with those assistants trying to take up the slack. So it was no surprise to him that by Friday’s test, he had also been swept up in the outbreak.

“I was fortunate compared to others.” he said. “I’ve been pumping in my body since all this started with enormous amounts of vitamin C, D, Zinc, whatever I read about. Just pumping it in. I had two nights where I was very uncomfortable but not breathing-wise, just my bones, my back and where I had surgery. My doctor said this virus has been known to attack some arthritic type places and that was the worst part of it for me.”

After an eight-day shutdown, Liberty got back to work preparing for the Cure Bowl, where it finally got a shot at Coastal Carolina. The Flames won, 37-34 in overtime, to finish 10-1.

There were a lot of positives Freeze can point to out of what they went through. It was rewarding in its own way.

“Now do I want to have another season like this? Not really,” he said. “I have not talked to any coach that isn’t glad it’s over.”

Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze holds up the trophy in front of his team after the Cure Bowl.

'There was a safe way to do it'

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of the tapestry of experiences teams went through, whether this undertaking was truly worthwhile. College football was extremely fortunate, in a sense. Even though younger people do not tend to be in the high-risk category for bad COVID-19 outcomes, there was an unspoken fear throughout the sport about a player or coach dying. Thankfully, that never came to pass.

But a lot of people did get sick – many not too badly, others seriously. There are documented cases of players recovering from COVID-19 and discovering myocarditis, or heart inflammation, which can put athletes at risk of a sudden cardiac event if not treated.

There were teams that ended up with 75 or more cases of COVID-19 cumulatively through the year. We won’t know for years if there are any long-term effects.

There’s also the cascading and impossible-to-measure impact of playing: the risky social gatherings in small college towns and big cities where fans watched games that made people feel a sense of normalcy while contributing to the out-of-control spread of a deadly virus.

How do you measure that against an alternate reality where there’s no football this fall, more jobs are lost and the mental health of players is an even greater worry than it was anyway? The truth is you can’t.

“We were never going to compromise anything about safety, health or welfare. Never,” said Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione. “I can say without reservation that has been the strongest element of everything we’ve done. It’s been non-negotiable. Either it’s the right thing medically, it’s safe and in everybody’s best interests for their welfare or we weren’t doing it. ... 

"I think maybe one of the underappreciated accomplishments of this season is that we were able to prove there was a safe way to do it.”

But along the way there were many different versions of the experience, from the pomp and circumstance that surrounds a national title game to the despair of a 35-year- old head coach at a small program like Charlotte laying down in the stands when his season abruptly ended. They are all part of the story of 2020, a season that has finally made it to the finish — for better or worse.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken