Taylor worried about chance of canceling football games

Kellis Robinett The Wichita Eagle (TNS)
K-State head football coach Chris Klieman talks about going in to his first season at the helm for the Wildcats in February 2019 during a stop at Old Chicago in Garden City. College football teams are wondering what the upcoming season will look like - if there is one.

Not long ago, Kansas State athletic director Gene Taylor was of the belief that nothing could get in the way of college football games being played this fall.

So optimistic was he that he used to chuckle every time he heard Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby suggest that the sport might encounter "a bumpy road" as teams attempt to return to normalcy during the coronavirus pandemic.

But that was before 14 K-State football players tested positive for COVID-19 last week and the Wildcats decided to suspend all workouts until at least July 13.

"I am still confident that we are going to play football, but I am less confident that we are going to play 12 games," Taylor said during a phone interview. "After watching what happened to our guys, I think there are going to be interruptions. Bob Bowlsby called it a bumpy road, and I agree with him now. There for a while I was like, 'Oh Bob, we will be fine.' So I do think there will be interruptions and we will only play 10, 11 or nine games. I think there will be a point in the season where a team can't come because (COVID-19) ran through their team."

Taylor said the Big 12 is worried enough about the possibility of losing games that the conference has begun discussions on pushing back the date of the league championship game to create opportunities for teams to make up games late in the season, if necessary.

The Big 12 is currently scheduled to play its championship football game on Dec. 5 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. But the league is talking about moving it back a week to Dec. 12 or even two weeks to Dec. 19.

"What will trigger that is the first conference game that can't be played," Taylor said. "Right now we are planning for the 5th, but if games are canceled for any reason we would go to the 12th and play some make-up games. That is the tentative plan right now."

Taylor is hopeful that what happened last week at K-State can be used as a precautionary tale for other schools across the country. To recap: the Wildcats tested 90 of their players before the scheduled start of workouts on June 15 and all 90 came back negative.

That was excellent news. Combined with low positive test numbers across the Manhattan community, it seemed like players were living in a coronavirus-free bubble. But when those players let their guards down over the weekend, COVID-19 spread throughout the team.

K-State players followed strict safeguards while they worked out at the team complex and were instructed to quarantine as much as possible and to wear masks whenever they left their homes. But some of them didn't follow those instructions. Taylor said one group of players got together and played video games with friends who weren't on the team. He said another went to a lake party where masks were few and far between.

Taylor described the social gatherings as "innocent" mistakes, certainly nothing "sinister." It was college kids being college kids. Still, that's all it took.

As the Wildcats administered more tests the following week, 14 players tested positive. Taylor suspects the number is even higher now. The athletic department decided to pause all workouts and ordered all infected players into self-isolation.

K-State players will begin another round of testing on July 6 with hopes of resuming workouts on July 13. Houston and Boise State have also suspended football workouts because of similar test results.

"What we learned is that we need to keep hammering the message about social distancing and wearing masks," Taylor said. "If our players are out socially and they can't stay six feet away from their friends then they have got to wear a mask. Even if they go to a buddy's apartment and play video games with their best friend, they need to wear a mask. We can't stress how critical the masks are right now."

Taylor said none of K-State's players have described serious discomfort after testing positive for COVID-19. Some have complained of headaches and fatigue, but that is about it. Most aren't showing symptoms and expressed surprise that they tested positive.

He is hopeful players will take a more serious approach when workouts resume. But, just in case, he has warned football players that they are easily noticeable around town and that word will get out if they are spotted without a mask in Aggieville, the entertainment district of Manhattan.

Players can also expect to be tested regularly as the season approaches. At minimum, Taylor thinks Big 12 teams will test their players once a week once games begin. At $90 a pop, that could put a strain on K-State's athletic budget, but Taylor said the Wildcats "are going to have to find the money."

With that much testing, new positive cases are bound to pop up each week. What will teams do then?

And what happens if a team from another conference isn't testing its players?

Taylor said he hopes weekly testing is mandatory for every FBS team next season. But even then it will be difficult to determine a COVID-19 threshold. If one player tests positive, is the game off? Or will it be determined by a percentage of positive tests on a team's roster? Or maybe at each position?

There could be a scenario where one team's starting offensive line is unable to play and another team's secondary is in quarantine. Or, perhaps, one team isn't able to field a team at all.

These are things that Taylor wasn't too worried about at the start of the month. But circumstances have changed.