Some Texas businesses opened last week, raising optimism that the coronavirus pandemic is nearing an end. The fresh hope includes Texas A&M student-athletes possibly returning to the practice field.
A&M chancellor John Sharp said last week the plan is to have students taking classes on campus in the fall with the stands at Kyle Field full for football games.
Aggie athletic director Ross Bjork also is encouraged those things will happen.
“I think there’s great data in terms of how our health care system is holding up here in the state of Texas, and we hope those trends continue,” Bjork said Tuesday on a Zoom conference. “We know that as we do re-open we’ll have to monitor this very closely and follow all the news out there. But I’m optimistic and very hopeful that we’re going to play [and] we’re going to play a full season. We want fans in the stands, and that’s how we’re looking at this whole thing.”
The optimism remains bridled because the Southeastern Conference has suspended all team and individual practices and meetings through May 31. The SEC initially shut down activities on March 13 through April 15 but extended the ban, which is in its eighth week.
“So what happens on June 1?” Bjork said. “We don’t have that answer yet.”
But many are working on possible proposals.
The NCAA last week released a tentative three-phase plan to return student-athletes to competition. It came from the NCAA’s COVID-19 advisory panel, which consists of leading medical, public health and epidemiology experts.
“[That plan] really kind of matches that six-week window that a lot of us have talked about as sort of an ideal timeline in terms of preparing the athletes,” Bjork said.
Bjork and A&M football coach Jimbo Fisher both have said football players need to be back by July 1 for the season to open on time. The NCAA’s three-phase plan, which would span 42 days, has some leeway since July 1 is 57 days away.
“So we’ve all done the math on that, and ... those are guidelines,” Bjork said. “It will be a blend with what our university guidance looks like and what our local health community guidance looks like and our SEC situations look like. So really all of those things will be blended together.”
One major question still to be answered is can the entire country start the college football season at the same time.
“And if not, what [will] those numbers look like?” Bjork said. “What do we have, 130 FBS programs? We also have FCS-level programs as well. So that’s another layer that you’d have to throw into this conversation, and we just don’t quite have clarity on that. But we hope there’s uniformity. But if there’s not ... I think we need to have the ability to pivot on that and move if we can.”
A&M’s scheduled season opener is against Abilene Christian on Sept. 5 at 102,000-seat Kyle Field. The Miami Dolphins this week came up with a scenario in which they could following social distancing guidelines safely put 15,000 fans in Hard Rock Stadium, which seats 65,000.
“We really can’t reduce the capacity of our stadium without major infrastructure challenges,” Bjork said. “So we’re not looking at reducing sizes of stadiums and things like that. That’s not in play.”
What is in play for A&M is how it can make the fan experience functional and safe considering concerns over COVID-19.
“How do we make people feel comfortable?” Bjork said. “What does social distancing look like, you know, come the fall? What are all the best practices and protocols that are out there? All those things are on the table, and we’re constantly going through them, and again, these things are all fluid. The good thing is we do have time to make those decisions.”
A&M renewing its football rivalry with Texas is a topic again this week with Kansas and Missouri agreeing to renew the Border War with a four-game series starting in 2025. The series, which Missouri leads 56-55-9, hasn’t been played since Missouri joined the SEC in 2012.
Bjork, who is in his first year as A&M’s AD, said there’s been no conversations with Texas to renew the series and A&M’s position remains the same when it comes to playing the Longhorns in football.
“We’re focused on other things right now,” Bjork said. “If that happens, let’s make it happen in the College Football Playoff.”
NOTES — If Texas Gov. Greg Abbott were to open fitness centers and gyms before May 31, A&M athletes could go there but not on campus under current guidelines. Bjork said he would rather A&M players train at their facilities as opposed to a public facility. ... Bjork is working with A&M’s vice chancellor for strategic initiatives, Greg Hartmann, on what possible testing players and coaches would need before returning to practice facilities. ... Bjork is familiar with the Border War having worked at Missouri from 1997-2003. Bjork also is a native of Dodge City, Kansas, and played fullback at Kansas’ Emporia State from 1991-94.