1. Weather can impact any sport, but college football is especially vulnerable.
For one thing, college football has less top-level structure than most of America’s major sports. It’s on individual schools and conferences to figure out emergency rescheduling.
While each pro league has a handful of teams in the places that get the brunt of hurricane season, dozens of college teams are along the coasts. And hurricane season usually peaks around the beginning of college football season. These days, more than a dozen FBS games are liable to get canceled, relocated, or postponed each year.
This isn’t limited to just hurricanes. For example, wildfires on the West Coast in 2017 and 2018 altered practice and game schedules.
The NCAA has a rule against active play when there’s lightning in the area, and a few games per season catch lightning delays. These can go on for hours.
Players scarfed down pizza and Chick-fil-A during one between Michigan State and Penn State, while fans spent the three-hour layoff having lots of fun.
Big Ten football. FEEL THE EXCITEMENT. pic.twitter.com/PEq8tZVyOf— Ryan Beckler (@RyanBeckler) November 4, 2017
3. If weather affects a non-conference game, it might just get canceled.
Most every game contract has a clause about bad weather. Normally, teams can pull out of a game without financial penalty if weather has made playing or traveling unsafe.
In 2017, Miami canceled a trip to Arkansas State because Hurricane Irma could’ve made traveling home a logistical nightmare. That contract said:
This contract shall be void with respect to any of the games in the event that it becomes impossible to play such game(s) by reason of unforeseen catastrophe or disaster such as fire, flood, earthquake, war, [epidemic] confiscation, by order of government, military, or public authority of prohibitory or injunctive orders of any competent judicial or other government authority. Notice of such catastrophe or disaster shall be given as soon as possible. No such cancellation shall affect the parties/ obligations as to subsequent games covered by this contract. Any games not played as scheduled shall be rescheduled as such exigencies may dictate or permit.
If a non-conference game gets canceled, it’s not normally a huge deal. Most commonly, those are games between a Power 5 team and a smaller school that’s getting paid a few hundred thousand dollars to lose. Maybe the home team will still pay the guarantee amount anyway, as Florida did after lightning limited a 2014 Idaho game to exactly one play.
It’s not always that smooth. After Miami canceled its 2017 trip, the Red Wolves sued for $650,000 in damages.
4. Conference games are obviously trickier, since they could have long-term consequences for a dozen teams, rather than just two.
“It’s a really significant difference, being a non-conference game vs. an SEC game,” Florida AD Scott Stricklin said in 2017 about canceling a game against FCS Northern Colorado after canceling against rival LSU the year prior, which became a big mess. “SEC game, the league office is gonna be much more involved because obviously they have two members with a stake in the game.”
5. Games get postponed and canceled, but also relocated. That can be a whole other logistical puzzle.
“I actually called Jay Jacobs at Auburn, the AD at Auburn — they’re at Clemson this weekend — just to say, ‘Would your stadium be available?’ and he was open to it,” Stricklin said. “He was, ‘Absolutely, let me know how we could help,’ and we told him just to sit tight and don’t contact anybody. And in our internal talks, we decided that didn’t make any sense. We were just poking around at all the options, to make sure you flesh everything out.”
These days, a few games per year end up being played elsewhere.
6. The whole region matters. Even if the stadium is safe, weather changes more than just the stadium itself.
Why cancel, postpone, or relocate a game that was about to be played on a dry field? To keep the state’s emergency resources near people in danger and to avoid forcing people to travel through bad weather.
“There’s a number of things to keep in consideration,” said UCF executive associate AD David Hansen, who has experience with weather impacting games. “Number one: the people that have to travel to your town for the game. The visiting team, the game officials, television personnel — is it feasible for those people to travel? Are there hotel rooms available before, but maybe they aren’t available now because first responders have come into your community?
“There’s a lot of logistics there that you have to have firm commitments for. And either before or after a storm, it’s impossible to commit to a football game.”
“You have foremost in your mind the safety of everyone involved. A game is important, and you do the best you can do play it, but you don’t wanna place people in peril in doing so,” South Alabama AD Joel Erdmann told us during the ‘17 hurricane season. Erdmann’s Jaguars had a game canceled in 2016, the result of LSU-Florida fallout. “It can be a time that’s filled with anxiety, but at the same time, you’re prepared.”
7. Because of all this, athletic departments keep a close eye on forecasts ahead of time.
“You’re constantly staring at a radar, and you’re constantly getting the best information you can from the experts in the field of forecasting,” Erdmann told us.
Athletic departments also assign specific staffers to monitor weather.
Former Florida associate AD Chip Howard was involved with the Gators’ lengthy Idaho game delay in 2014.
‘The lightning, when it’s 15 miles [away], we let the coaches know and the referee,’ Howard said. ‘And then when it hits at eight miles, you’re starting to doubt. That’s the easy part of it. The hard part is trying to figure out and forecast, because you’ve got television, you’ve got two coaches that are intense and highly competitive, and you’ve got the fans to worry about, first and foremost. We have pretty precise protocols that we institute as soon as that happens. So, all that stuff just kind of happens by plan, what doesn’t happen is, OK how long is it going to be? Immediately when you have a lightning strike, it’s 30 minutes before you can resume play,’ per NCAA rules.
Most teams have a centralized way to monitor weather. Sometimes campuses have their own, and sometimes they use common services like AccuWeather. Florida has a volunteer lightning researcher who sits in with operations staff during games. Marshall uses third-party software specifically to track lightning.
‘The biggest factor after all that rain was our field was not good,’ Howard said. ‘I’m walking the field with the referee, and the referee’s saying, “You know, this is not safe.” You know our field drains great, but there’s only so much water you can put on the field.’
8. You’d think when there’s a devastating storm, people would put aside petty rooting interests and support each other instead of claiming the other side is scared to play. Right?
This is college football. No.