Walking into the Iowa football complex Wednesday, Hawkeye receiver Brandon Smith was caught on camera wearing a mask that struggled to shield a wide smile.
“Happy to be back," the Iowa senior said, echoing the sentiments of players, coaches, administrators, parents and fans after the Big Ten reversed course and announced plans to start its previously postponed football season on the weekend of Oct. 23.
Big Ten teams will play an eight-game regular season that will end with a unique ninth-week twist.
In addition to playing a conference championship game featuring the champions of its two divisions, the Big Ten will pair opponents who finished in each corresponding position in the two divisions all the way down to a match-up between seven-place finishers on the final week of the season.
The conference announced Wednesday morning it will move forward with a football season after the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors adopted significant medical protocols including daily antigen testing, enhanced cardiac screening and an enhanced data-driven approach to facilitate decisions about whether practices and games can take place.
The same group of campus leaders had decided on Aug. 11 to postpone all fall sports in the league because of concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and the ability to protect the health and safety of student-athletes.
Morton Schapiro, the president of Northwestern University and chair of the Big Ten administrative group, said medical advancements and additional research into the coronavirus and myocarditis ultimately led the conference to its decision.
“When the decision was made five weeks ago, we were told there was virtually no chance to have a season safely, but medical opinions have changed," Schapiro said. “When facts changed, minds changed."
Big Ten presidents and chancellors studied those changes last weekend, hearing Saturday from the Big Ten’s return to competition task force medical committee and gaining additional information Sunday before ultimately reaching the decision to move forward.
Iowa director of athletics Gary Barta said “the frequency, availability and reliability of daily testing was a game changer."
Barta credited the work of medical professionals on every Big Ten campus for tireless work in creating strong protocols that can be consistently applied on every campus.
Daily testing for student-athletes, coaches and staff members will begin on Big Ten campuses as soon as possible and will be in place by Sept. 30.
Teams will take the field for their first games three-and-half weeks later.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz called that “welcome news for all of our players, coaches and fans."
Like their peers throughout the conference, the Hawkeyes have continued to train since fall semester classes began and will move into more of a preseason camp mode in upcoming days.
“We are raring to go, but we’re hardly ready to go and that’s a big concern I have right now," Ferentz said in an interview with the Big Ten Network. “But, just to get some clarity and be able to tell our guys that there is a specific start to the season is great."
Ferentz said his players have maintained a good attitude and work ethic throughout several weeks of uncertainty.
“The players are very excited to play and the coaches are excited to coach them," Ferentz said.
The Big Ten decision comes days after teams in two other power-five conferences, the Atlantic Coast and Big 12, started their seasons. A third, the Southeastern Conference, will kick off its season next week.
That added to outside pressure Big Ten leaders felt from players, coaches, parents of players and fans who had lobbied for the conference to revisit its Aug. 11 decision, although Schapiro said the changing medical opinions carried the bulk of the weight.
“Whether parents around the Big Ten played a role in this all really doesn’t matter as long as the conference reversed its decision and is giving the young men a chance to compete," said Jay Kallenberger, the father Iowa offensive lineman Mark Kallenberger of Bettendorf and one of a number of Hawkeye parents who rallied for the result they received Wednesday.
He said the situation brought parents of players together from throughout the conference.
“I know it brought us closer as Iowa parents and I suspect it did the same throughout the Big Ten," Kallenberger said. "I’m just happy for the players that will have a season that they’ve been working toward. For us, that is what this has all been about."
Wisconsin director of athletics Barry Alvarez, who chairs a return to competition task force scheduling committee, said his group presented four schedule models to the Big Ten Council which selected the start date and the eight-plus-one plan.
“It will create a very unique champions week," Alvarez said, adding that putting together a nine-game season for all teams has benefits for student-athletes.
“The feeling was that nine games makes the season more meaningful. A number of players are trying to make decisions about whether to opt in or opt out and with nine games, it creates a more meaningful option."
Alvarez said the schedule is still being finalized but should be released the Big Ten within the next week.
He said it will include four home and four road games for each team with games played on Fridays, Saturdays and possibly on Mondays.
The decision to proceed will allow Big Ten teams to compete for spots in the College Football Playoff field, with the league title game expected to be scheduled one-to-two days prior to the Dec. 20 announcement of the four-team field for the postseason playoff.
Fans will not have the option of attending games this season.
Penn State vice president for intercollegiate athletics Sandy Barbour said all 14 Big Ten schools have agreed not to sell tickets to games to the general public in 2020.
She said the conference is working details which would allow parents of participating players to attend games.
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said the plan as approved is the product of a collaborative effort between administrators and medical personnel throughout the conference and meets the objective of ensuring the health and safety of participants as they return to competition.
“Our goal has always been to return to competition so all student-athletes can realize their dream of competing in the sports they love," Warren said.
Wednesday’s decision applies only to football.
Warren said administrators will begin discussions Thursday about the possibility of other fall sports that were postponed resuming competition this fall using the same medical protocols as football.
Some sports, he said, may continue to move forward with plans to compete in the spring as the NCAA has moved national championships in several to the spring semester.
Shane Lantz covers sports for the Globe Gazette. You can reach him at Shane.Lantz@GlobeGazette.com, or by phone at 641-421-0526. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneMLantz.
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