Will there be a college football season? Vince Dooley isn’t sure

Three weeks ago, Vince Dooley was like most of us. He saw sports of all sorts closing their doors, but he assumed that college football, which doesn’t begin playing until the end of August, would come off as scheduled. Today he’s less certain.

“I’ve switched to being hopeful,” he said Sunday. “Optimistically hopeful, put it that way.”

The famous former Georgia coach and athletic director had spent most of the day in his lush Athens garden. “I went out to plant one thing,” he said, “but I’ve got so much out there I have to move something else to make room. I told Barbara (his wife) I’d be out there two hours; I was out there for eight.”

Like many among us, Dooley is sheltering in place. He doesn’t even go to the grocery. “She does 99% of it,” he said. “If I go, I can’t find the one thing I’m looking for. So I stay away from that as well.”

His son Derek, now an assistant coach with the New York Giants, is hunkered down with his family in the Dooleys’ house on Lake Burton. Understatement of the century: This isn’t the Easter week anyone planned. It is, however, reality.

Vince Dooley is 87 and a lifelong student of history. Even in retirement, he remains an influential figure in collegiate sports. This, however, is as new to him as to any of us. As we speak, collegiate sports have been halted through June. With every week, the chance of college football starting on time, if at all, seems more fanciful.

On Friday, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told reporters on Zoom he had "zero doubt" the season would commence as planned. Hours later, Jon Wefald, a former president of Kansas State, told the SEC Network's Paul Finebaum that, if there's no vaccine for COVID-19 by July, there probably won't be a football season.

Amid such an absence of clarity, this correspondent called Dooley, who conceded his views have evolved. Why?

Because, he said, of “what has happened, the mood of the country, the fact that we’re now in what’s supposed to be the worst week. Who knew that was going to happen a month ago or six weeks ago? The fact that this continues, you begin to wonder about anything, as more and more things are canceled. I don’t know anything that hasn’t been canceled, going from now to maybe June. When you have that going on, that makes you think, ‘This (meaning no football) could possibly happen.’ Whereas a month ago, I would say, ‘We’re not playing until late August; we’re in good shape.’ I can’t say that now.”

Having been coach and AD, Dooley is versed in how to prepare a football team and how much football means to a school’s athletic budget. At most Power 5 schools, football essentially pays the freight for all other sports programs.

"Every time I'd start a season (as coach), I'd think that, once again, this is a venture into the unknown," he said. "You've got an idea of what kind of team you have, but you don't know. For sure, this is a venture into the unknown. You don't know what's going to happen. You just have to sweat it out with time to see. I kind of like what the NCAA president (Mark Emmert) did — taking that 20% cut — with all his staff people. Certainly that was an exemplary move. Because everybody's going to be hurt, one way or another."

Given that the NCAA just canceled March Madness, which annually reaps nearly $1 billion for the association and its member institutions, the hurt has already been felt. A fall without football would hit every NCAA school much harder.

Said Dooley: “We always — financially, budget-wise — felt like we had to have two years of reserves in case the worst possible thing could happen. … I know (that’s) what we did, and I’m sure that (current UGA administrators) are doing the same thing. You’ve got to have that kind of reserve in case you get into a catastrophe, and this could be a catastrophe. I’m sure they have reserves that will get them by the worst of times — for a limited period of time, anyway.”

It might — might, we stress — be possible for a professional league to play a truncated season behind closed doors. (Although, as Dooley noted, “When you play, you certainly don’t have any social distancing; in fact, just the opposite.”) College sports are played by college students. Almost all physical campuses are closed. There’d be no way any school could, in good conscience, field a team if dorms were to remain empty. If it’s not safe to attend class in person, it’s not safe to tackle somebody.

Dooley: “All the colleges are shut down. There are no students there. I see that on this campus; it’s just amazing. You thought, well, (the shutdown) would be for the rest of the semester. Now you’re wondering: Does that include the summer? Does that include the fall? And that’s how football comes into it.”

Given how much has changed over the past four weeks, it’s impossible to know where we might be four weeks hence. The NBA and NHL and MLS and MLB, all of which were supposed to be playing right now, have hopes of resuming. Football, in all its varieties, remains a more distant concern — but we live in the South, so football is never far from our thoughts.

When, Dooley was asked, might we have an idea as to whether toe will meet leather? His response: “I would think that around the Fourth of July or thereafter, there’ll probably be an indicator that something’s going to take place or not take place.”