College football takes risks during pandemic
Editor’s note: Readers have asked for more sports coverage, and in response, the News-Press today is resuming senior staff writer Mark Patton’s sports column. Every Sunday, he will focus on national sports or, as you’ll see today, a blend of national and local sports. His stories about local sports will continue throughout the week in the News-Press.
Football is the real game of Risk, not that old board game that Parker Brothers hawked as the contest of “diplomacy, conflict and conquest.”
When you have 11 behemoths crashing into 11 other behemoths at break-neck speed, there’s the chance you’ll end up with some… broken necks.
The hazard of the sport, however, is a major attraction for its participants and fans. It best explains why so many universities will be playing football this fall under the threatening clouds of COVID-19.
It’s the nature of the beast(s).
Three of the Power 5 Conferences — the SEC, the Big 12 and the ACC — are taking the dare. The Pac-12 and the Big Ten are taking a hiatus, instead… at least until early 2021.
Boris Lushniak of the Big Ten’s COVID-19 advisory group believes the other leagues realize the risk they’re taking with the health of their athletes, coaches and staff.
“They think they can deal with it,” he told Sports Illustrated. “Do they have the answer to the unknowns? They really don’t, which means it’s on the spectrum of risk-taking behavior.
“I can’t tell people, ‘You are doing the wrong thing.’ What I can tell people is, ‘You’re doing a risky thing.’”
It’s become a classic clash of cultures. Those in the mostly red-state regions of the SEC, Big 12 and ACC root for their football teams as if it’s life or death. Those who run the more blue-stately Pac-12 and Big Ten are more likely to heed Dr. Anthony Fauci on matters of life and death.
Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said several weeks ago that it’s “very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall” if the players were not living in isolation and being tested every day.
UCSB punted its football program nearly a half-century ago when it faced its own game of chance. The risk, however, was financial rather than medical.
The Gauchos began to upgrade their football program when they hired “Cactus” Jack Curtice as their coach in 1963. He was one of the great innovators of the game, having earned the nickname of “Mr. Forward Pass” during a career that included stints at Utah and Stanford.
The Kentucky native quickly charmed Santa Barbara’s sporting public. Before the coin toss in a game at Hawaii’s rain-drenched Aloha Stadium, he instructed his captains to “Take the shallow end of the field.” And after the Gauchos pulled out a 3-0 victory, he wondered aloud if it was actually “a catfish that Steve Ford had kicked” through the goalposts.
Curtice’s folksy approach wooed enough businesses to help pay for a new, 12,000-seat football stadium that would later expand to 16,000. He called it “Going downtown,” according to John Keever, a tight end who has remained an active Gaucho booster.
UCSB’s student body joined the parade of support when Harder Stadium played host to its first football game in 1966.
“The band marched through Isla Vista, and the students followed the band into the stadium,” Keever recalled. “And then the students lined up and made a tunnel outside the locker room, and we came out of the tunnel to the tune of ‘The Lonely Bull.’”
Vince Lombardi brought some limelight to Harder Stadium a few months later by having his Green Bay Packers train there before the first Super Bowl. UCSB added real lights in 1968 and 4,000 more seats in 1969 while joining a new Division I league now known as the Big West Conference.
Curtice also upgraded his schedule with non-league games at Texas Tech in 1970, Washington and Tennessee in 1971, and Wisconsin in 1972. He was even arranging to have Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Air Force visit Santa Barbara in future seasons.
“And should the day come when the new stadium’s seating capacity is tripled,” wrote News-Press sports columnist Phil Patton, “then it might well be possible that UCSB could offer a sufficient guarantee to bring a Big Ten, Southeastern or even Pacific 8 conference here to Santa Barbara.”
But the numbers soon turned ugly for the Gauchos. They lost 63-12 to Texas Tech, 65-7 to Washington and 48-6 to Tennessee… while adding a deficit of $100,000 to their budget.
Risk management soon took control at UCSB, which dropped football from its athletic program after the 1971 season.
The school took another fling at the sport when the student body funded a Division III program in 1986 and later upgraded it to Division II. But the NCAA mandated just a few years later that Division I schools play all their sports at that level, and the students voted against increasing the necessary investment.
Like a greased pigskin, UCSB dropped football for good in 1991.
“A school without football,” Lombardi once opined, “is in danger of deteriorating into a medieval study hall.”
But what floats the boat of a Packer backer in Green Bay may not have the same buoyancy for a Gaucho on the balmy shores of Santa Barbara. UCSB adopted men’s soccer as the new favored sport of the fall after its team advanced to the NCAA final in 2004 and won the title in 2006.
It hurt to lose football, but it wasn’t the end of the Gaucho world.
Harder Stadium even played host to soccer’s College Cup in 2010 and 2018, and it was set to do so again in December until the NCAA postponed its fall championships. UCSB will almost certainly pull out as host even if soccer’s Final Four is moved to the spring.
Athletic director John McCutcheon just wants to focus on safely navigating these risky waters of COVID.
“It’s tricky,” he said, “but it’d be even more difficult if we were one of those big-time football schools, dealing with issues that are in a whole different stratosphere.”
The Gauchos got off that high wire a long time ago.