CHAMPAIGN — On Aug. 11, Lovie Smith sat in his office and looked into his computer screen for a press conference — life in 2020 during a global pandemic — and tried to answer questions the best he could following the postponement of the Big Ten football season.
There was disappointment for everyone involved following five days of training camp, but Smith's focus was to keep his team together, knowing well enough that eventually football would be played again — and Smith, the Illinois football head coach, liked his chances when that time came.
“In our minds right now, look out college football when we do get a chance to play," Smith said six weeks ago.
On Wednesday, after months of in-fighting, statements, rallies, lawsuits, meetings, rumors and a call from President Donald Trump, the Big Ten announced a unanimous reversal of its decision and will play an eight-week plus-one football season beginning Oct. 23-24. The big change that allowed the reversal came with daily antigen testing, enhanced cardiac screening for myocarditis and an enhanced data-driven approach when making decisions about practice/competition. The vote to postpone the season in August was 11-3 in favor of postponement.
“We have had a number of hard days over the last six months and this is not one of them," said University of Illinois Athletics Director Josh Whitman. "This is a day we can smile and feel good about the decision we’ve made and the excitement that I hope we’ve created among our fans across not just institution but all 14 member institutions here in the Big Ten and certainly for our student athletes."
No spring season as was originally proposed, no season beginning on or near Thanksgiving. The Big Ten will play in the fall and, suddenly, the team that Smith has publicly lauded as the best in his tenure at Illinois — he's entering his fifth season after playing in a bowl game last year — will have a chance to play football.
A schedule has yet to be released, but Illinois figures to play six division games and two non-division games at stadiums with no general ticket sales, though the conference will try to accommodate for players' family at home and away games. The plan is to play games on college campuses. Smith said the team is back to a 20-hour-per-week model for practices.
“You can imagine the excitement the players have right now," Smith said Wednesday during a Zoom press conference. "It’s a little bit different practicing when you know you’re getting ready to play a football field. For us, it’s just started, it’s eventually about putting a good product on the football field.
“There’s still a lot of work for us to do and a lot of responsibility placed on us do what we’re supposed to do off the football field, which gives us a chance to play. We cherish that. There’s a lot of excitement but can’t wait to get ready to play some football."
University of Illinois Chancellor Robert Jones, who voted to postpone the season ahead of the Aug. 11 announcement, said the two key components were the rapid-response, daily antigen testing, and more information about myocarditis, a rare heart inflammation, and it's prevalence in people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
The Big Ten announced procedures to test for myocarditis, which Jones said was only beginning to make its way onto the radar when the postponement was announced, including "comprehensive cardiac testing."
The testing includes labs and biomarkers, ECG, Echocardiogram and a Cardiac MRI. Following cardiac evaluation, student-athletes must receive clearance from a cardiologist designated by the university for the primary purpose of cardiac clearance for COVID-19 positive student-athletes. The earliest a student-athlete can return to game competition is 21 days following a COVID-19 positive diagnosis.
In addition to the medical protocols approved, the 14 Big Ten institutions will establish a cardiac registry in an effort to examine the effects on COVID-19-positive student-athletes. The registry and associated data will attempt to answer many of the unknowns regarding the cardiac manifestations in COVID-19-positive elite athletes.
“We made the best decision that we could with the information that we had on hand back on Aug. 11," Jones said. "Wouldn’t think about reversing that decision based on the information we had at that time. It was the right decision to make given the gaps that could not give me, as the chancellor of this university, the great confidence sending hundreds of our young men out to play football that they could do it safely and it wouldn’t create a bigger problem for the broader university community.
“Now with this new information, it was very, very clear that a lot of those concerns have been mitigated. Stood by the original decision we made. It was the right decision to make and, as I said, we were very, very clear: We weren’t canceling the season, we were postponing it."
Both Jones and Illinois associate athletic director for sports medicine Randy Ballard called the antigen testing, which will likely include a nasal swap and will be supplemented with the university's robust saliva testing, a "game changer."
“To be able to identify someone who is infected before they can possibly infect someone else is huge," Ballard said.
The Illini practiced on Wednesday under the 20-hour per week mandate and more information about when training camp will be rebooted after an abrupt stop on Aug. 11 is not yet available. Eventually a schedule will come out, which figures to have six division games and two cross-division games along with a championship week that will have the top seeds in each division play as well as No. 2 vs. No. 2, No. 3 vs. No. 3 and so on.
In theory, the conference will still be eligible to participate in the four-team College Football Playoff and any potential bowl games. Last weekend, the Big Ten sat on the sideline while the ACC and Big 12 began their season. The beginning of the SEC season is still more than a week away. Even without general ticket sales and a mostly empty Memorial Stadium, Wednesday's announcement opened the door for a bit of fall normalcy in a year that's been anything but.
“As I think through it, I really feel like the resumption of sports allows us to continue to thread that needle of looking for ways for all of us to get back to some degree of normal or some degree of regular life," Whitman said. "If we can provide hope, if we can provide an example to our friends and community members then I think we owe it to our communities to try to do that."
PHOTOS: 15 Illinois football photos from our archives
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25
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