The Pac-12 announced the resumption of football, basketball and winter sport seasons Thursday, setting the stage for the return of college athletics on the West Coast.
When most other Power Five conferences began their football seasons in early September, the Pac-12 Conference remained on hold, and the future of its fall sports was widely unknown due to the coronavirus pandemic.
To some USC football players, watching other teams play without any plan in place to play themselves was frustrating enough to compel them to act. Leaders within the football team organized a meeting where the players drafted a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom with a simple request: “Please, let us play.”
“I was watching the Packers game, I was watching NFL football [being played] … and I was just thinking to myself, you see all these games and we’re over here sitting on the couch,” junior wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said in a virtual press conference following the Pac-12’s announcement of its return. “So I called [head coach Clay Helton] that Sunday, and I asked ‘What can we do as a team to try and possibly play the season?’”
On Thursday, the Trojans got what they had asked for: a season.
“Our team and our staff are extremely excited and appreciative for the opportunity to compete and to play the game that we love,” Helton said. “We’re very appreciative to the presidents and chancellors that showed the patience to be able to wait for an opportunity that provided the safest environment for our student-athletes.”
The Pac-12 Conference cited three main reasons why it was deemed safe to resume play: an increase in coronavirus testing capabilities, decreases in local and national case numbers and decreased concern of cardiac issues as a result of the coronavirus.
Football team practices are scheduled to start up Oct. 9, with a four-week training camp leading up to the start of the season Nov. 6. Staying fit during the postponement period was crucial for the players.
“[I wanted] to take advantage of that time off,” sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis said. “To me, it seemed like an extra opportunity to further my care of my arm and my mechanics.”
An abbreviated seven-game schedule for the regular season means teams looking to play for the Pac-12 Championship and potentially qualify for the College Football Playoff will not have much, if any, margin for error.
“With fewer opportunities, each game gets magnified,” Helton said. “You get six opportunities and half the games [of a normal season] to be able to present the best resume possible for postseason play.”
Helton emphasized the importance of not overlooking games in such a compacted season.
“Every game is critical and you have to approach each game like it’s a championship game, because it could cost you,” Helton said. “In this league, [with] how competitive it has been in the last decade that I’ve been in it, you better bring your A-game to this league or you’ll get your butt beat.”
While both Slovis and St. Brown expressed their willingness to return to play, the decision is still up in the air for some players. Helton will announce which players will be available and which will opt out by Oct. 9, saying that he wants to respect their privacy until then.
“These are conversations that are being had with players and with [their] parents and families,” Helton said. “They’ll make great decisions for themselves either way, and we will be there to support them.”
The conference also announced that fans will not be allowed at any athletic competitions through the end of the year, with a reevaluation set for January.
With no fans in the stadiums during games, Helton said the Trojans must get a competitive advantage from their own sideline.
“It’s going to be different [without fans],” Helton said. “There’s going to be an extreme sense of urgency for players and coaches alike to … manufacture their own energy and to let it ripple through the team.”
Regardless of the circumstances, it’s clear that Helton, Slovis, St. Brown and many others are ready to return to their sport. The conference is set to release the full schedule in the coming days.
“I think we’re all ready for a season and we’ve been preparing for the last two or so months,” St. Brown said. “So I’m ready to rock.”