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Ohio State pondered playing football without Big Ten in 2020

On Sept. 16, the Big Ten reversed course and decided to schedule an eight-game football season that started on Oct. 24.
Credit: Kirk Irwin
Ohio State plays Nebraska on Saturday, October 24, 2020.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The president of Ohio State University asked athletic director Gene Smith if the Buckeyes could “go independent” in a text message sent the day after the Big Ten announced in August it would not play a fall football season.

The text from Ohio State President Kristina Johnson to Smith, dated Aug. 12 at 8:04 a.m., was among more than 2,500 pages of documents the school released Wednesday night in response to public records requests by media organizations.

The documents included numerous email messages from Buckeyes supporters to Smith and Johnson, criticizing both leaders and the Big Ten’s decision to postpone the season on Aug. 11 because of the pandemic.

“As an alumni I have slowly been losing my faith in the direction of Ohio State, oh to go back to the days of the leadership we had under Gordon Gee,” one emailer wrote, referring to the former Ohio State President, currently at West Virginia University.

There were also email exchanges between athletic directors in the Big Ten proposing alternative football schedules for both a traditional season that would start in September and winter/spring options.

The Big Ten canceled fall football on Aug. 11 and said it would attempt to play all traditional fall semester sports in the spring semester.

The next day, Johnson texted Smith: “Anyway to go independent?”

Smith responded: “I am trying to understand our contracts and if we can play independent this year. Nebraska is trying too and gone public with it.”

On Sept. 16, the Big Ten reversed course — citing the development and availability of rapid COVID-19 testing as a major factor — and decided to schedule an eight-game football season that started on Oct. 24.

The condensed schedule included no room for makeup dates and Ohio State ended up having three of its regular-season games canceled because of virus issues with either the Buckeyes or their opponent.

The Buckeyes went undefeated in the regular season, but Big Ten officials had to change conference rules on the fly to allow Ohio State to play in the conference title game.

The Buckeyes won the Big Ten, made the College Football Playoff, and beat Clemson in the semifinals before losing to Alabama in the national championship game.