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It's official: Cal Poly won't play football in 2020 as Big Sky moves season to spring 2021

  • Updated

For the first time since World War II, there will be a year without Cal Poly football.

The Big Sky Conference announced Friday that it is postponing its 2020 football season, moving it to next spring amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Acting on the recommendation of the 13 conference athletic directors, the Big Sky Conference Presidents' Council made the decision Thursday night to move the season to next year. Cal Poly was scheduled to play at ULM (formerly the University of Louisiana at Monroe) on Sept. 5 to start its 2020 season.

The Mustangs and the rest of the Big Sky football programs are now hoping to play their eight-game conference schedules in spring of 2021. Cal Poly's non-conference schedule is undetermined. The Mustangs had non-conference games against Cal, a Pac-12 school, and San Diego, another FCS school that plays in the Pioneer League, canceled earlier this summer.

Cal Poly did not play any football games in 1918 due to the flu epidemic and in 1930 because of a polio epidemic, according to the school. The Mustangs also did not play any games in 1943 and 1944 due to World War II. In 2001, Cal Poly's game at Saint Mary's was postponed because of the events of 9/11. It was made up at the end of the regular season.

"We look forward to playing our eight-game Big Sky Conference schedule in the spring," Mustang director of athletics Don Oberhelman said in a statement Friday. "The non-conference schedule is still to be determined."

In a call with reporters Friday, Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill said that though the conference is certainly hopeful to have a season early next year, that it's not a given.

"I think a lot has to change (to play in the spring). We have to get control of this virus in this country and we have to make sure that we can have contact sports in a safe way," Wistrcill said. "A lot will be determined by what happens this fall on campuses. How can we manage the spread of the virus at each of our institutions? I think we will learn a lot about each of our health communities and how they handle it, whether it's testing or if any type of vaccine is available. It's hard to say here are the three or four things that have to happen.

"If we are in the same place in March that we are in right now, there won't be any sports going on."

Wistrcill said the NCAA's stringent protocols for student-athletes returning to competition was a key factor in the decision-making process.

"That certainly was the tipping point in some ways," Wistrcill said of the NCAA guidelines. "The requirement to do PCR testing on student-athletes that would be practicing or competing every week, that's a huge challenge for our schools. First of all, just getting the tests in place and getting them back in time and correctly getting the results, that would've been really difficult. Add in the cost of that and start thinking about that times the number of football players, it's really difficult to do that."

The NCAA protocols aren't just a major hurdle for FCS level schools, Wistrcill said, but also some FBS programs. 

"We're hearing that around the country," he said. "Certainly at our level, but also at the FBS level. The challenge of getting tests back in a timely manner is certainly a challenge, it may be a tipping point. We were heading in this direction based on a lot of things, but looking at the requirements for testing and that would've been virtually impossible."

There are now eight FCS conferences that have canceled or postponed their fall seasons: the Big Sky, Pioneer League, Patriot League, Ivy League, Colonial Athletic Association, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Northeast and Southwestern Athletic Conference. 

Big Sky institutions may continue with permissible athletics activities at their discretion while abiding by NCAA legislation, campus policies, and local and state regulations, the school said Friday. Football teams with Sept. 5 openers were to begin practice Friday.

Wistrcill said he hopes all FCS conferences follow suit and plan spring seasons and the NCAA shifts the FCS playoffs and championship to the spring. With over 50 percent of FCS schools postponing their fall seasons, there would not be an FCS championship this year. Wistrcill said once there's a date for a potential FCS championship, member schools can start building out their schedules.

"We're working on a number of models of when we can start competition," he said. "What we're really going to be working hard on is pushing the NCAA and FCS committee to figure out a championship. We need a championship date, we need a bracket and we can build a schedule before that."

Cal Poly only plays football in the Big Sky. The Mustangs play in the Big West Conference in other major sports like men's and women's soccer, men's and women's basketball and baseball and softball. The Big West postponed its fall sports season to 2021 last month, but has not made any determinations for its winter sports season.

Cal Poly's football team is coming off a 3-7 season. The Mustangs are led by first-year coach Beau Baldwin, who took over when Tim Walsh retired after 11 seasons in San Luis Obispo.

Baldwin spent three seasons as an assistant at Cal after he coached Eastern Washington for nine seasons, one of which culminated in an FCS title.

Eric Burdick, Cal Poly's associate athletic director for communications, said Friday that the Mustangs are unsure of when they will return to the practice field.

"We are in discussions about when to resume," Burdick said in an email. "Players can do voluntary workouts, but the NCAA needs to make some decisions about what kind of practices football teams can do now that many have postponed their seasons to the spring."