Matt Tait: College football’s back, but it sure looks and feels different

photo by: Matt Tait

Kansas and Coastal Carolina warm up under the lights on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. The game was the season opener for both teams and, with fans not allowed to attend, it featured very few of the normal sights and sounds surrounding David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.

The first snap of the 2020 Kansas football season was taken by KU senior Thomas MacVittie at 9:21 p.m. on Saturday night at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium and it led to a routine completion to Takulve Williams for no gain in KU’s eventual 38-23 defeat to Coastal Carolina.

Everything that led up to it, however, was anything but normal. And we’re not just talking about the roller-coaster summer during which the status of the 2020 season was unknown at best and on life support at worst.

We’re talking about the pregame scene around KU’s home stadium, where tailgating was absent, Campanile hill was dark and silent and traffic, gameday buzz and the smell of good food and sound of electric tunes were nowhere to be found.

Welcome to college football during a global pandemic. Even the light at the top of the Campanile tower looked dimly lit.

Everything that took place on the field during the pregame looked normal. Specialists out early to get a feel for the field, quarterbacks throwing to receivers and coaches giving last-minute instructions to the offensive and defensive linemen.

But that was where the feeling of normal stopped.

The pregame hype music certainly did its job in firing up both teams, but the silence between songs was a little eerie. Conversations halfway onto the field could be heard from the stands and voices rang out loudly in the empty stadium.

We’ve certainly grown accustom to Memorial Stadium’s silver bleachers as the backdrop for Kansas football games, but not this early in the game or in a season.

Crowd control ushers stood dutifully during the pregame, facing the bleachers looking for signs of trouble that were never going to be there.

A handful of fans stood by the fence outside of KU’s locker room, cheering the players on and off the field during warm-ups. By kickoff, the number of die-hard fans on the hill was up to around 20. But you’d never know they were there unless you were standing with them.

“It was different,” senior wide receiver Kwamie Lassiter II said. “But for me personally, I don’t care how (many) people are out there watching. … Fans or no fans, I just want to play football.”

The whole thing had the feel of one of those midnight scrimmages or a game in small-town Texas, where the whole town turned up with their headlights lighting the field so the team could play.

The lights worked fine at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night. And the video board did its job. But football without fans, and football in general, felt a little weird. I mean, the public address announcer even directed the attention of the “fans” to the north end of the stadium to take in the tradition of the KU marching band taking the field. And then the scene played out on the video board during a game from 2019. No band. No cheerleaders. Just two teams playing football in a year when so many believed they wouldn’t or even shouldn’t.

And it was glorious.

At the time I filed this column, the Jayhawks trailed 14-0 and were clearly in a dog fight with an opponent that was not shy on confidence. A promising open drive ended in Coastal Carolina territory when freshman wide out Lawrence Arnold had a ball slip through his hands for an interception.

KU went on to lose the opener 38-23, falling to Coastal Carolina at home for the second consecutive year. But even that did not totally dampen the team’s spirits.

“It was a little different,” junior quarterback Miles Kendrick said of Saturday night’s environment. “But at the end of the day it’s still football. It’s just a blessing to be able to go out on that field and compete and have the opportunity to play football.”

While final scores and chances at victory are important news around the KU program, on Saturday night they were just a part of the story.

Because, win or lose, football was being played. During a season when so many conferences, administrators and even coaches and players said it was not possible — or at least not prudent — KU found a way to make it happen.

The list of people responsible for that is long. It starts at the top with Jeff Long and stretches all the way to KU employees whose names you do not know.

Now that they’ve answered the question of whether it was possible to play, the big one that looms is will it be worth it.


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