When COVID-19 cancels the greatest rivalry in sports, then maybe sports shouldn’t be happening.
Michigan and Ohio State is a wrap.
The worst regular season in Michigan football season is finally over, as Michigan’s “plus-one” game is also in jeopardy. It’s been a trainwreck of a season for anyone that supports the Maize and Blue. Oct. 24 was the last time I enjoyed a Saturday. Michigan beat Minnesota 49-24 that day, as Wolverine fans across the globe felt the same sentiment.
“Could this team be better than what we thought they were?”
Seven days later we got our answer.
Michigan got upset by Michigan State at home 27-24 to a first-year head coach. Then came a 38-21 loss to Indiana, a basketball school. Then it was a 49-11 beating from Wisconsin. And then finally, Michigan won their second game of the season when they beat Rutgers 48-42 in triple overtime. Last season Michigan beat Rutgers 52-0, 42-7 the season before that, and 78-0 in 2016.
I do not consider beating Rutgers a victory of any kind.
A week later, Michigan fell to a winless Penn State team at home 27-17, and their game against Maryland was canceled due to COVID-19, too. And now, “The Game” is off just four days before it was supposed to happen, as Michigan was a 30-point underdog. Vegas was being gracious. Because if that game happened, Michigan was going to lose by a lot more than 30 points. Michigan canceled Jim Harbaugh’s media availability on Monday and Tuesday, as “the team will continue to participate in limited workouts today,” a Michigan spokesperson told Angelique Chengelis of the Detroit News.
Hours later, everything had changed.
So how did the winningest program in college football history have a season without a home win? (And consider they’ve been playing football in Ann Arbor since 1879.)
The answer to that question is simple: Michigan President Mark Schlissel cracked like a cheap toothpick when push came to shove, as a large part of the school’s economic foundation is dependent on unpaid teenagers playing football.
“Any decision we make for this coming fall is likely going to be the case for the whole academic year. What’s going to be different in January?” Schlissel – an immunologist by training – told the Wall Street Journal in May as he announced that football wasn’t happening in 2020 unless students were back on campus.
The fall semester began at the end of August, as online and in-person classes were available. Last month, the school was urging students not to come back to campus for the winter semester.
When Schlissel made headlines in May with his decision, the first physician-scientist to lead the university looked like the smartest man in the room. He wasn’t going to risk the lives of his students.
But then, he learned a valuable lesson:
Never mess with the money.
By September, Michigan’s athletics department had eliminated 21 staff positions and decided not to fill another 15 open positions. The university was expecting to lose $100 million in revenue without football. A few months earlier, Harbaugh publicly voiced his enthusiasm to play despite Schlissel’s decision as he said, “COVID is part of our society.”
In August, Schlissel was among the 11 Big Ten Presidents who voted 11-3 in favor of canceling the 2020 football season, as Nebraska, Iowa, and Ohio State were the only schools in favor, according to reports. With the SEC and ACC planning to play, and Trump begging for a season in hopes that it would boost his profile in the Midwest, the school presidents still weren’t budging.
A month later, Big Ten presidents changed their minds. An 11-3 vote against football was now an unanimous one for it.
Too much money was being left on the table.
The Big Ten’s total revenue for fiscal 2019 was more than $781.5 million, and a lot of that is because of football. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Michigan made at least $122,270,243 in revenue off football last season. The only school in the country that makes more is Texas at $156,147,208.
So, as Michigan fans look around wondering how a 2-4 season came to be, know that it’s all because the school’s football coach and president – who has biochemical and chemistry degrees – felt that playing during a global pandemic was a good idea.
And by the way, it looks like Harbaugh isn’t going anywhere. I wrote that it would be that way before the season started.
With the cancelation of Saturday’s game it means that Indiana will be the East division’s representative in the Big Ten Championship Game as Ohio State will be ineligible due to a lack of games under the conference’s current rules. If the Big Ten doesn’t change those rules for Ohio State, it could greatly affect the Buckeyes’ chances of making the College Football Playoff.
Some believe that Michigan canceled the game just to stick it to Ohio State. It’s a feeling that can’t be ignored given that these two states almost went to war between 1835-1836 over the city of Toledo.
Ohio won that battle just like they would have won on Saturday.