Facing an exceptional situation following the unprecedented decision to cancel the 2020 season due to the novel coronavirus and the NCAA’s expected response to grant an extra year of eligibility to spring sports athletes to make up for the cancellation, two coaches on opposite sides of the country independently came to the same outside-the-box idea.
It took some creative thinking for both Sacramento State’s Reggie Christiansen and Wofford’s Todd Interdonato to get there. They both know the idea is well outside the norm. And they both emphasize that the most important thing at the moment is for everyone to stay safe and follow the guidelines coming from the authorities and medical experts to combat COVID-19.
But an unprecedented situation and plenty of time for creative thinking led Christiansen and Interdonato to the same place: finish the 2020 season in some fashion during the fall and enter the spring 2021 season with a fresh slate, no extra eligibility needed.
“I know I’m out there on this idea but when you start breaking it down, trying to manage all sides, when you get over fact it’s a very nontraditional idea, it will smooth out issues we’ll embark on if we do what everyone thinks we’ll do (and grant eligibility relief),” Interdonato said.
“We’re looking for solutions to issues that may arise out of this from a student-athlete perspective,” Christiansen said. “Are they getting a year back, are they not getting a year back and the scholarship implications that come with that. I was bored sitting at my house and threw it out there.”
The unprecedented situation began March 12 when the NCAA canceled the 2020 College World Series and conferences canceled the regular season due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only did about three-quarters of the season get wiped out, but the NCAA’s Division I Council Coordination Committee recommended that all spring sports athletes get eligibility relief, which would effectively give every player another season of eligibility.
That decision has been widely applauded. Athletes, through no fault of their own, had their season abruptly canceled just a month into the schedule. But it is also true that giving them an extra year of eligibility raises a series of other consequences that will last for five years, until they all have exhausted their eligibility. There will next spring effectively be an extra class on rosters, as the returning 2020 seniors join the 2021 freshmen, jamming five grades onto one roster. Even setting aside problems with the current scholarship and roster caps, that will greatly increase competition for playing time and throw off roster balance.
Christansen and Interdonato saw the bind that would put players and coaches in and thought maybe there’s a way around those issues that could work for everyone.
Some details differ between their two plans, but the broad strokes are similar. If the pandemic has been contained and sports can resume, college baseball would pick its season back up when school starts in the fall. The schedule would probably have to be composed solely of conference series to limit the amount of missed class time for the players and travel budgets for the teams. Over the course of 8-10 weeks, conferences would play their schedule, culminating in a conference tournament. It’s possible that would be the end of the season or perhaps some fashion of an NCAA Tournament could then be held, probably making a more liberal use of neutral sites than the typical format does. The College World Series, if contested, probably wouldn’t be held in Omaha, due to cold weather, and instead would be held somewhere in a warmer locale or in a domed stadium.
Once that fall season was complete, the 2020 seniors would move on and when the 2021 season began in February, the newcomers – freshmen and junior college transfers – would be eligible to play. No season would be contested with five classes eligible for play and the players wouldn’t need another year of eligibility because the fall season would make up for the lost spring one.
Both Christensen and Interdonato acknowledge the plan is not without flaws and has some serious challenges. But there is no elegant solution to the predicament baseball and other spring sports are in now.
“You better be ready to do something you’ve never done before because you just had something that never happened before,” he said. “You can’t take a nontraditional event and cram it back into traditional thinking.”
The fall ball plan calls for the season to resume Friday, Aug. 28 and run for the next 8-10 weeks, depending on what was agreed to. Midweek games would be eliminated to minimize the amount of class time that would be missed. Conference tournaments would follow (Christiansen favors reducing conference tournaments to four teams so they could be completed in a weekend) and the NCAA Tournament would then be played out over the next month.
In theory, it’s an elegant proposal. Trying to wipe away the 2020 season will be messy and lead to a series of complex problems that will last for several years. Coaches at mid-major schools are concerned about where the money to fund extra scholarships will come from. Newcomers would likely lose playing time to the returning veterans on the roster. The senior class of 2020 is facing difficult decisions about their future. Many have jobs or graduate school lined up already for the start of their post-playing career. Players who are draft eligible are wondering how much leverage they’ll have based on eligibility and age, which has increasingly become part of MLB teams’ draft models. All players will have to decide if another year of student loans is worth it for another season on the diamond. The fall ball plan would erase those concerns for underclassmen and at least ease the burden for seniors, who would only have to add an additional semester to their schooling.
Much of this hinges on what the Division I Council does at the end of the month. If it goes against expectations and doesn’t extend eligibility relief, there’s no need for a fall ball plan. But if it does, Interdonato sees the fall ball plan as a best-of-both-worlds compromise.
“If they give the year back, my first thought was, ‘How do you manage scholarshiping five classes even for one year? How do you manage that from compliance and where does money come from?’” he said. “Then think about residual effects, ‘What happens to APR? What happens to transfer rate, student-athlete experience, where does it go?’
“You’re looking at embarking on something that could get really snippy and personal. How do you give these guys a year back, if the NCAA choses to do so, without causing five-year problem? You just have to finish 2020 before you start 2021. All of us were disappointed in cancellations. Every day that goes by you get more understanding. But if you can figure out a way to give all these spring sports athletes a year back without impacting four-five years down the line, that’s the best of both worlds.”
There are, however, significant hurdles to playing a fall schedule that counts. First, the nation must get back to a place where playing college sports is safe and sensible. If we assume that is the case for this exercise, there are still other issues that must be accounted for. The biggest are football, money, the draft and time.
Football is college sports’ behemoth and it sucks up numerous athletic department resources in the fall at all levels of college sports. It is probably the obstacle most cited by other coaches as to why a restart in the fall isn’t an option. Athletic departments often lack the resources needed to staff baseball and football. Campuses all but shut down during football Saturdays, making scheduling around them very difficult. Could Auburn, which plays in the shadow of Jordan-Hare Stadium, host a baseball game at noon if the football team was playing that evening? Could a hotel for the visiting team be secured in State College, Pa., if Penn State football was home the same weekend?
Football’s impact would be felt at Power Five schools with its massive stadiums and spectacles. But in some ways, it would be even more acute at smaller schools where athletic departments are smaller and throw every available resource at football and their other fall sports.
Money is also a key issue for fall ball to tackle. There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding what will happen to payouts to schools after the cancellation of winter and spring tournaments, especially men’s basketball. The loss of that money may be offset by spring sports’ travel being canceled. But fundraising will also likely be down this spring due to canceled events and the hit the stock market has taken. Given all that uncertainty, will athletic departments be willing to put money into a second season for baseball (and other spring sports, because if baseball did this others would surely be interested in joining)? It could be a tough sell. A counterargument is that a fall season would be cheaper than the cost of a couple extra scholarships that would be necessary for eligibility relief.
Football and money are all within the schools’ control. The draft, however, is not. MLB is preparing for all possible scenarios for the draft but it’s unlikely to take college baseball’s preferences much into account before it makes a final decision as to if or when to hold the event. If the draft remains in June, it creates a huge hurdle for the fall ball plan. Would MLB teams be wiling to let drafted players return to their college teams to play out the fall season before signing? What would happen to a player who was drafted and got hurt? If MLB didn’t let players hold off on signing, what would a team do to replace a player? Would they be able to call up a newcomer and would that burn a year of eligibility for that player? What would happen to teams like Arizona State and Georgia, which project to have the most players drafted? Would they have enough pitchers left to form a team? Would anyone feel right about contesting a 2020 season without Spencer Torkelson and Nick Gonzales and Asa Lacy and every other premium draft prospect?
Time is also a significant factor outside of the control of the schools. A lot must happen in the next few months just to get to a point where sports that are typically scheduled for the fall can be played. Creating a baseball season in the fall will take a lot of time. Is there enough of it? How quickly can an idea this outside-the-box go from a spark to a reality, especially with so much uncertainty about what the next week, let alone month, holds?
There are a host of smaller issues to work through as well. Arm care is a real concern that would have to be worked through. How do you balance conference schedules that range from 18 games to 30? What if one conference – or 10 conferences – chose not to play in the fall? Would their players still get eligibility relief, creating a potentially uneven playing field in the spring?
Interdonato has done his best to think through answers to all these questions. Not everything has a clean, crisp solution. But as the plan has circulated, he hasn’t heard much hard opposition.
“No one has had an argument against it yet other than we’ve never done it and it’ll be tough to schedule baseball and football and soccer,” he said. “My question would be, ‘Would you rather have a challenge logistically or a five-year challenge raising money and with APR and roster fallout? What does that look like in 2024?’”
Christiansen and Interdonato are an unlikely pairing in advocating for the fall ball plan. They didn’t know each other until they happened to stumble upon the same idea at opposite ends of the country. Now, they’re texting just about every day about everything from baseball to their everyday lives.
Both are pragmatic about the likelihood of their plans being adopted. But they want to have a discussion to see some other ideas, rather than let inertia drag the sport through a lengthy process to compensate for the lost 2020 season.
“I’ve talked with my sport supervisor and athletic director,” Christansen said. “Everyone thinks it’s a good idea, but is it practical? There’s a lot of things you can point to. My biggest thing is let’s have some other ideas that come out of it. Somebody else has to have ideas and thoughts as well.”
“We know it’s not perfect, there’s no perfect answer,” Interdonato said. “My challenge to people is don’t just argue against something, you have to argue for something else. You don’t get to argue against it, you have to argue for a solution.
“I’d be open to anything, to anyone that had a creative, nontraditional idea.”