Since the COVID-19 pandemic halted all sports back in March, it’s been fairly clear: If we’re lucky enough to get them back, 100,000 fans in the Big House is probably a step too far.
That remains the case, even as the NCAA starts to carve out a path to reopening — it voted Wednesday to allow voluntary activities for football and men’s and women’s basketball to resume June 1. And, barring a medical miracle, stuffing the Big House this August will remain an unhealthy choice.
“There is a reason to feel some confidence here,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a radio interview recently. “But we also have to measure (people’s) expectations and say life’s going to be different. We’re not going to be filling stadiums in the fall.”
With that in mind, Michigan football seems more than ready to deal with the new reality.
Defensive coordinator Don Brown spent five years as an assistant coach at Hartford High School in Vermont, from 1977-82, and knows what it’s like to look up in the stands and see just 500-600 people there.
“The one good thing is, people get excited about it that are there, but will there be anybody there?” Brown said Thursday on a Zoom call with reporters. “Let’s hope. The key will be the preparation. And I think this: The Michigan guys, the Michigan football guys that I know, love football. They love it. They love playing it. They love everything associated with it.”
One day prior, in an appearance on ESPN’s “Get Up!” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said playing in an empty stadium wouldn’t be a problem.
“You could definitely test both teams, you could test the officials and everybody, but can you test 100,000 fans coming into a stadium?” Harbaugh said. “Probably not. Without a vaccine, you probably couldn’t do that.
“To answer your question, heck yeah, I’d be comfortable coaching a game without any fans. If the choice were play in front of no fans or not play, then I would choose to play in front of no fans. And darn near every guy I’ve talked to on our team, that’s the way they feel about it.”
Other coaches and programs have been more optimistic — Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told reporters this week he could see holding games at Ohio Stadium with limited capacity — but the overriding desire at Michigan is simply to get back on the field and in Schembechler Hall.
“We’ve got a good group of coaches and analysts and we’re just anxious, chomping to get back into the building and get back to some form of normalcy,” Brown said. “Cause I love my seat in that room (at Schembechler) when I got the two screens. I just feel like I’m in my element there. Sitting in my spare bedroom in Cape Cod sometimes just doesn’t cut it.”
Of course, even that won’t look normal. Brown talked of wearing a mask in the building and holding staff meetings in a team room in order to practice social distancing. But stipulations like that are worth it if it means football can happen.
“Just like coach (Harbaugh) said, hey, I’d rather play in front of nobody then not play,” Brown said. “Cause that could knock me into retirement.”