Aug 20, 2020 - Sports

College football's coronavirus confusion isn't new

Nick Saban in his practice field mask. Photo: University of Alabama

Most schools have postponed college football, and others are dealing with coronavirus outbreaks — yet the season remains on track to begin in a few weeks for six of the 10 biggest conferences.

The big picture: It's not an exact parallel, but college football faced similar confusion and uncertainty 102 years ago, when the 1918 influenza pandemic — combined with WWI — led to a bizarre, shortened season.

  • Some conferences shut down, while others chose to play. Most schools played five games or fewer, and Michigan (5-0) and Pittsburgh (4-1) were named co-champions.
A photo of fans in the stands during a Georgia Tech game in 1918. Photo: Thomas Carter; Courtesy: Andy McNeil
A photo of fans in the stands during a Georgia Tech game in 1918. Photo: Thomas Carter; Courtesy: Andy McNeil

The state of play: History repeats itself. Here are some newspaper clippings and other college football media coverage from 1918:


  • CHICAGO — "[M]iddle western football was dealt another blow tonight when a score of colleges and universities cancelled gridiron contests scheduled for tomorrow, because of the epidemic of Spanish influenza."
  • COLUMBUS, Ohio — Although health officials ordered Ohio State to close its campus on Friday, Saturday's football game against Denison went forward with fans in attendance.
  • LEXINGTON, Mo. — "Quarantine against the 'flu' epidemic has halted football practice at Wentworth. There has been no influenza in the school, but the authorities desired to take every precaution to keep it out."
  • SPOKANE, Wash. — "Football work at Gonzaga University is going forward regardless of the influenza ban, although the squad is somewhat reduced."

This week's headlines...


  • TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama returned to the practice field in preparation for the Crimson Tide's Week 1 matchup on the road against Missouri (Sept. 26).
  • ROSEMONT, Ill. — In an open letter, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said the conference will not reconsider its decision to postpone fall sports. "The decision was thorough and deliberative, and based on sound feedback, guidance and advice from medical experts," he said.
  • ATLANTA — Georgia Tech will have 20% capacity for home football games this fall, or approximately 11,000 fans per game.
  • CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — UNC has temporarily suspended all athletic activities, citing the upward trend in positive COVID-19 cases that caused the school to move to fully online classes.
  • SOUTH BEND, Ind. — After seeing another spike in COVID-19 cases on campus, Notre Dame is putting football practice on hold.
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