New Notre Dame fall semester calendar keeps football in a hypothetical mode, but with hope

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Piecing together what Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins’ reimagined fall semester on campus might mean to sports — particularly football — starts, predictably, with a hypothetical.

And some math. And unaccidental silence on the topic from Jenkins himself in an open letter/news release that dropped late Monday afternoon. In it, Jenkins outlines a fall term that will start with in-person classes two weeks early (on Aug. 10), eliminate fall break in October, and finish before Thanksgiving in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

There will be no summer classes on campus either, with a few exceptions — a certainty previously through the first summer term and now extended to its second term.

Roughly two weeks ago, though, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick presented a hypothetical that could allow football players and other fall sports athletes to return to campus for training ahead of the general student population.

That’s not a given at this point — and Swarbrick was not available for comment Monday for an update — but the possibility of it keeps the concepts of both a full football season and one that starts on time both in play for the Irish.

Jenkins didn't dismiss either Tuesday morning during an appearance on NBC's Today Show.

“Our primary focus has been our educational mission,” he said when asked about football. “That’s what we’ve thought about to this point. But obviously we’re going to talk about athletics. It’s not just our decision. It’s a decision for all Division I institutions across the nation. We’re going to talk to them and see what is safe, what is possible. I hope we’ll have sports. I hope we’ll have football. We’ll have to see.”

Notre Dame is scheduled to open the 2020 season Aug. 29 against Navy in Dublin, Ireland, though venue alternatives in the U.S. have been explored. The slated regular-season finale is two days after Thanksgiving, Nov. 28 at USC.

“We’ve all agreed that six and, more likely seven, weeks will be required to safely prepare the football team,” Swarbrick said in a Zoom conference with the media on May 5.

“So in the interest of safety, as with the decision to open the dorms, you’d have to figure out a way to assemble those students, to put them in an environment that’s safe, whether it’s a residence hall or you make other accommodations to feed them and to prepare them for the season.”

Jenkins’ vision for how that will work for the general student population in the fall seems to be a template that would work if Notre Dame coaxed the student-athlete scenario from the “if” stage into reality.

From the release: Students, faculty and staff will undergo comprehensive testing for COVID-19. Contact tracing, quarantine and isolation protocols, social distancing and mask requirements, and enhanced cleaning of all campus spaces are all part of the plan as well.

The university has identified facilities to isolate students who test positive, and quarantine students who have been in close contact. Testing, contact tracing and the quarantine/isolation protocols will continue throughout the semester and as long as necessary.

“As we adapt to the new normal brought on by the coronavirus, we will do everything we can to provide you with a safe learning, research and working environment,” Jenkins said, adding that the university “will monitor developments and alter plans should a serious outbreak occur, or should it be unable to acquire what is needed for testing.”

So football is still a great, big “I don’t know,” just as most of life beyond June 1 seems to be, but the blueprints to make it happen are gaining significant momentum and detail, and not just in South Bend.

Along those lines, on Wednesday the NCAA’s Division I Council is expected to lift its nationwide ban on on-campus summer activities, per Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger, with student-athletes able to return to campuses as soon as next month, where state and local COVID-19 regulations allow.

Meanwhile, NCAA Division II will allow in-person recruiting, camps and clinics on campus for the month of June, provided they don’t clash with local health guidelines and conference decisions.

Notre Dame didn’t specify the methodology for deciding to eliminate fall break and to keep students from returning to campus after Thanksgiving, but clues as to why can be found in a release issued earlier in the day by the University of South Carolina, which announced a similar fall-semester structure.

• “Canceling Fall Break — the public health risks associated with thousands of students and faculty returning to campus after Fall Break travels could be significant for the campus and Columbia communities and could jeopardize the continuation of the semester.

• “Remote learning following Thanksgiving Break — our best current modelling predicts a spike in cases of COVID-19 at the beginning of December, which also will likely coincide with traditional flu season.”

Notre Dame has its own guiding principles and cadre of health experts to guide it down a path that still has no real frame of reference.

Bringing football players back to campus to condition before the general student population — particularly with the right testing/tracing/quarantine strategy makes sense, given that the alternative. With gyms opening up in many states, those environments figure to have much less structure and control than what could be provided at Notre Dame.

ND has the staff to make this happen, the facilities to make it happen, the ability to stagger players at different times, and the desire to make it happen.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be more questions and possibly setbacks. And the fan experience, whatever that looks like, has even more challenges to work through.

But football in 2020 had to start somewhere. And starting — knowing there’s a safety net and an emergency brake — is an admirable undertaking.

“Bringing our students back is, in effect, assembling a small city of people from many parts of the nation and the world, who may bring with them pathogens to which they have been exposed,” Jenkins said.

“We recognize the challenge, but we believe it is one we can meet.”

Notre Dame players run onto the field before playing Virginia on Sept. 28, 2019.

(Home games in ALL CAPS)

Aug. 29: Navy at Dublin, Ireland

Sept. 12: ARKANSAS


Sept. 26: Wake Forest at Charlotte, N.C.

Oct. 3: Wisconsin at Green Bay, Wis.


Oct. 17: at Pittsburgh

Oct. 31: DUKE


Nov. 14: at Georgia Tech


Nov. 28: at USC