When Jim Harbaugh sat down in front of his computer Wednesday afternoon for his first press conference since Jan. 1, he knew the looming question would be one he’s never faced during his 16-year head coaching career.
Normally around this time, he would be joining the Big Ten’s 13 other head coaches in Chicago to talk about quarterback battles, how the freshmen look and who’s in the best shape of their lives. This year, of course, isn’t normal. There are no Big Ten media days and come early September, there may not even be a season — an ever-growing possibility as COVID-19 cases escalate across the country.
But with that scheduled start of the season just over eight weeks away and 50,304 new coronavirus cases confirmed in the US on Tuesday, Harbaugh re-affirmed his hope for the season to unfold as planned.
“If students are on campus, then my personal belief as a parent of a daughter who would also be on campus is that this is a safe place,” Harbaugh said. “As safe as possible, would be within the University, in our athletic buildings and complexes. The safety precautions that have been put into place, I would feel good with the medical oversight of the students, student athletes. I would want the responsibility.”
Harbaugh acknowledged the importance of that caveat — if students are on campus — saying “it’s a different conversation if there’s no students on campus.” This week, it’s an especially relevant caveat with Rutgers becoming the first Big Ten school to announce its classes will be almost entirely online in the fall. And with new cases on the rise in every Big Ten state, the Scarlet Knights could just be the first domino to fall.
For now, though, Michigan and most teams on its planned 12-game schedule are holding firm on plans to hold at least some classes in person. And if that’s the case, Harbaugh wants football to follow, issuing the controversial and now viral statement that “COVID is part of our society. Wasn’t caused by football or caused by sports. And there’s no expert view right now that I’m aware of that sports is going to make that worse. It’s part of our society, we’re going to have to deal with it.”
Of course, the virus wasn’t caused by football — a truth that doesn’t negate the dangers of hundreds of college athletes congregating each day and then returning to their communities, unlike professional athletes in leagues that plan to resume their seasons in isolated bubbles.
Harbaugh, though, isn’t an epidemiologist. His focus isn’t on viral diseases, it’s on his team and his players.
“I share the same opinion as our players,” Harbaugh said. “They want to play. As I said, they’ve been training their whole lives for this and these opportunities. Put the question to them, which I have, they would rather play than not play.”
That single-minded focus is why Harbaugh remained mum on the possibility of a spring season. It’s why, when asked about the likelihood of playing Washington in Seattle on Sept. 5, he said, “Not gonna offer my personal opinion. Athletic directors, presidents, school presidents and the medical experts can decide what’s best there.” A notably different approach than what he took when asked of the virus as a whole.
But what he is doing is making sure his players are doing what they can: wearing masks and following social distancing protocols put in place by health officials and athletic department specialists. “They’ve been really great about following those,” Harbaugh said. “I think they really understand there’s great value to keeping their own personal health but that of their teammates.”
The point of all that? To get to Harbaugh’s ultimate goal: have a season.
“The scenario that they’re playing is the one that you’re hoping and praying for,” Harbaugh said. “These youngsters have put in a lot of training, really their whole lives, for these moments.”