Scott Frost stayed “intentionally quiet” for weeks. On Monday afternoon, the Nebraska coach emphatically made his case for a college football season.
Not normally one for issuing statements to open press conferences, Frost spoke for more than 10 minutes before taking a question about why playing football is the best course of action this fall — not canceling or pushing back the 2020 season.
The 45-year-old coach’s voice cracked with emotion more than once, reminiscent of his Orange Bowl speech in January 1998 when the former quarterback lobbied to help Nebraska win a national championship. With heavy consequences looming again, he laid out myriad reasons why the Huskers and college football should journey forward.
Economic fallout? Absolutely, Frost said. How about a hit of $80 million to $120 million to the Nebraska athletic department, $300 million to the city of Lincoln and hundreds of millions to the state. Furloughs and layoffs for workers would increase. Other college sports programs may be eliminated, never to return.
Player well being? Nowhere is safer than within the program, Frost said, at least at NU. The Huskers could contract COVID-19 anywhere, but inside the fold of the athletic department they have routine testing and medical care. Send them away, and they’re removed from vast university resources — academic help, nutrition, accountability and a steady daily routine.
“Without the structured environment here, I worry about our kids,” Frost said. “… Truly, at the bottom of my heart, I believe that our kids are safer in this environment than they are somewhere else.”
And while other coaches and teams have made similar arguments in recent days — Big Ten coaches Jim Harbaugh (Michigan), Ryan Day (Ohio State) and James Franklin (Penn State) all stumped for football Monday — Frost said no school in the country is more aligned in the desire to play football this fall than Nebraska. President Ted Carter, Chancellor Ronnie Green and Athletic Director Bill Moos are all in favor of moving forward, creating a consensus of administrators and coaches that many Power Five institutions don’t enjoy.
And while players from roughly half of the Big Ten programs have opted out of the season, no Huskers have done so, Frost said. Quarterback Adrian Martinez, offensive lineman Matt Farniok and cornerback Dicaprio Bootle all spoke with media members and agreed that starting the season under established protocols is the right decision. Their message was different than Big Ten United, a group that claims to represent more than 1,000 conference football players and demanded more stringent safety protocols and transparency.
“We know those guys, our coaches, have our back,” Martinez said. “If there is safety issues, he’s not forcing us to play. There’s no one being forced to play.”
Said Farniok: “I feel 100% comfortable playing a season and playing to the best of our abilities.”
And Bootle: “We want to be the ones to go out there and be able to do the thing that we all love.”
Until Nebraska gets a definitive word from the league, football will go on. It held its third practice of fall camp Monday. It would have been NU’s first with pads, but the Big Ten on Saturday told teams to stay in the acclimatization period, meaning helmets are the only protective equipment that can be worn during the workouts. Frost said he hopes it lasts only a few days. The team could be ready to play a game as soon as next week and just needs a little time to adjust to contact, he said.
“We had one of the most passionate and energetic practices that I’ve been a part of (Monday),” Frost said. “… Guys that will give everything they have in a situation like that, those are the type of guys I want on our team.”
Bootle said if the offseason has been a roller coaster, then this moment feels like being stuck at the top of the first big drop waiting for someone to come fix the ride. Questions abound. What happens to player eligibility if anything less than a full season transpires? What of the national grassroots effort to organize some sort of players union? How serious is the recent report that COVID-19 may lead to cardiac inflammation, even among college athletes?
Frost said if football was a legitimate factor in contracting the coronavirus, he would be the first to “pull the plug” on the season. But, he added, “If I had a son (old enough), I'd want him playing football. I think this is the safest place that he could be.”
Frost said there’s too much at stake financially to give up on the fall now. Football provides roughly 85% of revenue for the Nebraska athletic department — the sport produced a profit of $59.76 million in the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to financial reports — and essentially funds the majority of NU’s other sports. Without football, the athletic department wouldn’t have enjoyed a total profit of more than $12 million in 2018-19, or the $5 million funding university scholarships for non-student athletes. It's also one of the few college athletic departments not in debt.
Nebraska coaches and players want to play, Frost said. So do most across college football.
“If our goal is to keep every single student-athlete in the country from contracting coronavirus, we’re going to fail whether we play football or not,” Frost said. “If kids do acquire it, I know they’re in good hands here.”