It could only be a matter of time before “Pac-12 After Dark” hands over the torch to “Pac-12 After Dawn.”
If that happens, the conference out West can expect a fair amount of resistance from one of its most polarizing and opinionated coaches.
“Well, I’m against 9 o’clock kickoffs,” Washington State’s Mike Leach said. “ … No part of it makes any sense to me.”
As the Pac-12 Conference, three years removed from its last berth in the College Football Playoff and five from its last Heisman Trophy recipient, continues to cope with its national exposure crisis, commissioner Larry Scott and the league’s major television partners, ESPN and Fox, have explored ways to improve the Pac-12’s brand and overall footprint, including preliminary discussions about starting select Pac-12 football games at 9 a.m. Pacific Time – or noon on the East Coast.
While the topic of early morning football is still in the conversational phase, and would require approval from participating schools before going into effect, there’s a chance it could move into the experimental phase as early as this football season.
After his state of the conference address at last week’s Pac-12 Media Day in Los Angeles, Scott told a smaller group of reporters, “I’d like to see one or two games this season that are 12 noon (ET) kicks be Pac-12 games and see what markets might respond positively to that.”
Teams, of course, wouldn’t be subjected to playing in the early window on a weekly basis – or even more than once every season. Jon Wilner of The Mercury News was one of the first to float 9 a.m. kickoffs and suggested the conference begin with four per year and “create a three-year rotation, so each school is the host for one 9 a.m. game.”
“That would be new and out of the box for our conference, but I’ve tried to put everything on the table,” Scott said. “There’s a lot of frustration from fans in certain markets to the late-night kicks.”
Some believe earlier kickoffs would enable the Pac-12 to compete against fellow Power Five conferences, potentially pulling viewers away from SEC, ACC or Big Ten games if there was a marquee Pac-12 matchup airing at the same time.
But there would also be plenty of adverse effects to such a major shift – and potentially more for Leach and the Cougars than most of their Pac-12 neighbors.
Leach first spelled out his thoughts on the concept in a tweet earlier this week, posing this question to his 168,600-plus followers: “Do ANY West Coast fans actually think that it is a good idea to have 9am games?” The post elicited more than 1,500 responses, over 6,400 likes and 600 retweets.
In a phone interview with The Spokesman-Review on Monday, the WSU coach went into further detail explaining why 9 a.m. kickoff times would cause unrest among players, coaches and fans.
“If you do anything, you first ask yourself, is it good for the players?” Leach said. “And it’s not good for the players because they have to get up at 4 or 4:30 in the morning and I don’t think there’s anything good about that. The NCAA limited how early you can get players up to practice and I think they recognize 4 and 4:30 is too early. So it certainly is for a game.”
Various Pac-12 teams hold early morning practice sessions, which might make for an easier adjustment, but the Cougars generally practice in the late afternoon – no earlier than 3 p.m. during the season.
“To promote our product, the notion of going out there and playing with sluggish teams that got up at 4 in the morning, I don’t think it pushes the envelope on that,” Leach said.
While curfews would be moved up significantly, Stanford coach David Shaw said it’s unrealistic to expect that players accustomed to falling asleep between 11 p.m. and midnight would go to bed by 10 p.m. or earlier, and get adequate rest for a 9 a.m. game.
“With all the studies we’ve all read and conducted ourselves on our own campus, our sleep studies, it is better for young people to perform athletically if they get a full night’s sleep,” Shaw said, according to Yahoo! Sports. “And I don’t know that you can find any group of 18- to 22-year-olds that will go to bed at 10 at night to get up at 6 in the morning to be able to perform athletically.”
Whether at home or on the road, Leach and his players stick to the same routine. The Cougars hold position meetings before eating breakfast, approximately four hours before kickoff. That’s followed by a walkthrough and team meeting – both staged at the hotel – then dress, taping/treatment and warm-ups all held at the stadium.
WSU players would probably have to be in bed by 8 p.m. to get eight hours of sleep the night before a 9 a.m. kick. When the Cougars are on the road, they often stay in hotels located 45 minutes to an hour from the game venue, which could force an even earlier wakeup call.
“I think there’s some hydration issues, too,” Leach said. “I think people get more hydrated – you sleep, then you get more hydrated as the day goes on.”
Early morning starts would also pose more than a few dilemmas for WSU fans – many of whom make game-day treks to Pullman from Seattle, the Tri-Cities and Spokane, and could be discouraged to do so if they were forced to load their cars before sunrise.
“The commute, that’s a huge deal for us,” Leach said.
In a Twitter poll, more than 680 fans responded to the question “Would you attend a home Cougar football game that kicked off at 9 a.m.?” While 27 percent said early kicks wouldn’t deter them from showing up, and another 21 percent said it would depend on circumstances such as quality of opponent, weather and time of year, a decisive 52 percent said they’d pass on attending those games altogether.
“I think it betrays the interest of our fans on the West Coast, who we already have,” Leach said, “for a handful of fans on the East Coast that we’re hoping to get on board.”
Other Pac-12 coaches, including Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, are proponents. The Cougars visit the Utes in the fifth week of the season, and some have thrown out the idea of using that game – which could pit two top-20 teams and wouldn’t kick off until 10 a.m. Mountain Time – as an early trial run.
“As coaches and players, you want to get up and play right away,” Whittingham said at Media Day. “… Players are chomping at the bit, and if we can get some early games – I’m not saying play at 10 a.m. every week, but we wouldn’t mind playing a 10 a.m. game or two every season. We’d see that as a positive.”
UCLA’s Chip Kelly also sees the merits of an early morning kickoff.
“I’d kick off at 6 a.m.,” he said. “When you wake up – if you’re a college football player or coach, you want to wake up and you want to play football. The hardest thing with Saturdays is when you wake up and then you’ve got to wait until 7 at night. But we’re also big on we don’t control our schedule and when we kick off.”
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