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Sports >  NCAA football

Ready or not, here they come: Pac-12 coaches, players prepare for controversial 9 a.m. starts

UPDATED: Sat., Oct. 10, 2020

An official flips a coin to determine who kicks-off between Washington, left, and Eastern Washington before an NCAA college football game Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Seattle.  (Associated Press)
An official flips a coin to determine who kicks-off between Washington, left, and Eastern Washington before an NCAA college football game Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Seattle. (Associated Press)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Put the ball down.

But first, eat breakfast.

Such is the new normal for Pac-12 programs, in a seven-game season featuring the first 9 a.m. Pacific kickoffs in the conference’s history. Last week, the Pac-12 announced that on Nov. 7 – the opening weekend for Pac-12 play – South Division standouts USC and Arizona State will meet in the Coliseum at 9 a.m., in a game broadcast nationally on FOX. While other kickoff times have yet to be announced, it seems almost certain that more early mornings are on their way.

The appeal is fairly obvious: A game airing nationally at noon Eastern would theoretically expose the conference to new East Coast and Midwest audiences and potentially raise the Pac-12’s national profile. And in a season in which the Pac-12 is forced to play in empty stadiums, the conference doesn’t run a risk of morning starts submarining fan attendance.

The Pac-12’s reputation, you may have heard, is in need of an overhaul.

Those early starts might just signify a step in the right direction.

“It wasn’t too long ago where we were sitting watching other teams play, and it hurts your soul to watch other teams when we weren’t getting that opportunity,” USC head coach Clay Helton said in a Pac-12 coaches media webinar on Wednesday. “So to be able to have this opportunity to play, one, we’re grateful. So the approach for us is, just put the ball down. We don’t care what day it is, what time it is. We just want to be able to play the game we love.

“But you look at this opportunity for us, playing a great opening game against Arizona State – who I think is going to be not only one of the better teams in our conference but a great team over the national perspective – on national TV at noon Eastern when the entire nation gets to see us. That’s what you want. You want to be able to play on the biggest stage with the brightest lights. To be able to have that national scene be able to see us right off the bat, you’ve got to take that. That’s an advantage for you.”

Of course, the brightest literal lights would shine in a game at night.

While it may be what Helton wants, his fellow Pac-12 coaches haven’t come to a clear consensus.

“My thoughts haven’t changed. I think it’s early,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said on Wednesday. “I got to know Dr. (William) Dement here at Stanford, who just recently passed away, one of the foremost authorities on sleep. College kids don’t go to bed at 9 o’clock at night. They just don’t. They’re not built that way. They need sleep, and sleep enhances performance.

“So a 9 a.m. kickoff is not getting up at 8 o’clock and rolling out to the stadium to go. A 9 a.m. kickoff is a 6 a.m. or 6:30 wakeup call. We’ve got to get pregame meal in them. We’ve got to get them moving around. We’ve got to get them taped and activated to warm up an hour before the game. So I’m not a fan.”

“You’re talking about having pregame meal at 5 a.m.,” first-year Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich said. “I’m just not sure. I get it, where it can help for TV. But as far as the kids, I’m not sure that’s the best thing we want to do. I wouldn’t necessarily be a fan of it.”

On that topic – like many others – the Apple Cup competitors are essentially split. First-year Washington head coach Jimmy Lake said Wednesday that “I see a lot of positives in (9 a.m. starts). I used to live on the East Coast, and it is hard to watch West Coast games because the times are just so different. We’re fortunate on the West Coast, we get to watch every single game at a decent hour. So I don’t mind the 9 o’clock games at all. I think they’ll be great.

“They’ll be great for the Pac-12. They’ll be great for the East Coast media and fans and the other football coaches across the country to be able to watch what an exciting and talented conference the Pac-12 is. I’m excited about it.”

Whether the fans are in favor, boats may have to arrive extra early at Husky Harbor this fall (for games their owners aren’t even allowed to attend). A UW spokesperson confirmed Wednesday that UW has played a number of 9 a.m. kickoffs in program history, though they occurred in road games in differing time zones.

Regardless, the 2020 season will be unrecognizable in any number of ways.

Pac-12 programs – and their fans – will have to be willing to adjust (and, on select Saturdays, also eat an early breakfast).

“(We’re) as willing as we could possibly be (to play 9 a.m. games),” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “So whatever the maximum willingness level is, that’s where we’re at. It doesn’t bother us a bit. Our opinion has always been the sooner we can get out on the field, the better. It provides no advantage for either team. They’re both kicking off at the same time.

“So we’ve always been strong proponents here – at least our staff and players – let’s play as soon as we can. That wouldn’t bother us a bit and we would take as many of those as they offer to us.”

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