University of Michigan head: What school decides for fall will likely stick for year

Spring college football due to coronavirus could be ‘financially devastating’: Lou Holtz

College Football Hall of Fame Coach Lou Holtz discusses the impact of coronavirus on college football.

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The University of Michigan won't have a football season this fall unless all students are able to be back on campus for classes. And, according to President Mark Schlissel, that isn't a sure thing.

Dr. Schlissel, an immunologist by training, said he expects to make a call in the coming weeks on what the new school year will look like for the prestigious public university, which has about 46,000 undergraduate and graduate students and a football program that is a perennial powerhouse.

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"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?" he said, noting public health concerns could be even worse then as flu season ramps up during the cold-weather months.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh calls a timeout in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game against Ohio State in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Nov. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

Dr. Schlissel's measured approach strikes a different tone than the rosy predictions made by many of his peers, both within the Big Ten athletic conference and across the country at major research institutions. Auburn University President Jay Gogue, for instance, promised incoming freshmen that the fall semester would hold football, fraternities and extracurricular activities as usual.

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"The only thing that will be different is that you will be with us this fall, and we're looking forward to having you," he said in a video greeting to the Class of 2024.

The University of Notre Dame said it would start the term early and send students home by Thanksgiving. Students at the University of South Carolina will go home during the holiday too and wrap up their semester with virtual instruction. Many public health experts expect another wave of the pandemic, or at least continued outbreaks, in the fall.

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Some other schools, including those in the massive California State University System, have already announced plans to be mainly online for the whole fall term.

"I don't want to set false expectations," Dr. Schlissel said, noting that many of the more enthusiastic promises at other institutions still include fine print that the openings are subject to approval by local officials. "They're really not as declarative as they appear."

Dr. Schlissel said his leadership team is trying to figure out whether they can lower the risk of coronavirus exposure for students, staff and others on campus so that it is "indistinguishable from their risk at home." While many are sheltering in place now, he acknowledged that students in particular may already be following social-distancing protocols more loosely.

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About half of the University of Michigan's students hail from outside the state, so they could be coming from hot spots such as New York, New Orleans or Seattle. Dr. Schlissel said the school may consider quarantining some upon their arrival to campus, and is assessing things such as symptom screening, testing, social distancing and the widespread use of personal protective equipment.

"We really have to think about how to reorient our lives to coexist with this pandemic," he said, adding that he expects advancements in medical treatments to come before a vaccine.

An entrance to The University of Michigan (iStock)

In regard to football, something of a religion in Ann Arbor, athletes would need to return to campus well before other students to begin practice. Though some other schools are planning to bring football players back for voluntary training as early as June 1, Michigan hasn't announced any such plans for its athletes. Dr. Schlissel said the team and associated staff could be tested regularly, if or when they do return.

"If there is no on-campus instruction then there won't be intercollegiate athletics, at least for Michigan," said Dr. Schlissel, adding he had "some degree of doubt as to whether there will be college athletics [anywhere], at least in the fall."

And even if the Wolverines come back and play, they might do so in a much quieter stadium. Michigan Stadium, known as the Big House, is the largest outdoor stadium in the country, with a capacity of 107,601.

"I can't imagine a way to do that safely," Dr. Schlissel said.

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Michigan also has one of the biggest athletic-department budgets in the country. It generated over $190.7 million in revenue in the 2019 fiscal year. About $83 million of that, or 43%, came from football through ticket sales, television rights disbursements, concessions and parking. The Wolverines' television deal with the Big Ten and Big Ten Network nets the university more than $50 million annually.

Michigan is in a better position than most to weather the loss of revenue from a year without football. Its overall budget, including the health system, is $9.5 billion. The athletic department's budget last season was $185 million.

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"So although trouble in a $185 million unit is a big deal," Dr. Schlissel said, "it isn't of the scale that it threatens the university."

Write to Melissa Korn at [email protected] and Laine Higgins at [email protected]

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