COLUMBIA, Mo. — Between Missouri fans upset last Sunday about playing in Nashville instead of Florida, and Iowa fans upset this Sunday that Missouri couldn’t play in the Music City Bowl after all, has a mid-tier, midweek afternoon bowl game ever generated so much collective angst?
It's unfortunate for both teams this game didn't happen. Iowa finished the regular season strong with six straight wins and probably deserved a bowl game with a higher profile. Mizzou didn't finish strong but still had the sixth-best record in the SEC, second-best among teams outside of the New Year's Six bowl lineup. COVID-19 dismantled Mizzou's schedule all season long and has now sunk its infectious bite into Eli Drinkwitz's roster. It's a shame these teams can't finish the year on the field.
However fans might feel about the now canceled matchup at Nissan Stadium — 2020 Music City Bowl: Born Dec. 20, 2020 … Died Dec. 27, 2020 — let’s dig through the story one last time and separate the facts from the fiction.
• Missouri couldn’t play because its roster fell under the 53-player threshold: FICTION
Missouri was already under that threshold for the Mississippi State game with just 52 available scholarship players — and has since lost linebacker Nick Bolton and right tackle Larry Borom after both declared for the NFL draft. With or without new COVID cases, the roster was going to be thin at certain positions.
But this wasn’t a football roster decision. The team’s rate of infection reached a point where local health officials ruled the team was a public health risk if it continued to hold large gatherings — practices, traveling parties, games. Those local health officials shut down all team activities for a week. Also, the group of positive cases includes coaches and staff. This was not exclusively about infected players.
“We did everything within our power to try to move forward, but ultimately with dealing with this virus you have to put the health and safety and the well-being of not only your student-athletes but the community and our staff at the forefront,” Drinkwitz said. “Had this just been any other time in the summer we would have needed to pause. When that became apparent of what we needed to do that's what we did. I hate it for our team. Our team worked extremely hard to get to this bowl game.”
Don't forget, Iowa is coming off a five-day pause of team activities, also because of a spike in COVID cases.
• Mizzou sending players home for Christmas caused the game to be canceled: FICTION
For one, several of these positive cases are among coaches and staff who didn’t leave Columbia for the holidays. Missouri’s contact tracing determined the positive cases came from the team’s Dec. 18-19 travel to Starkville, Mississippi. The positive cases from Saturday’s round of testing finalized the decision to shut down team activity. A player who returned to Columbia on Friday from visiting family would not have necessarily tested positive on Saturday had he contracted the virus back home. (What’s uncertain is how many players who contracted the virus on the Starkville trip and hadn’t tested positive before leaving Columbia might have passed it to others while traveling home for the holiday.)
But this much was clear long before Mizzou agreed to play in the bowl: Drinkwitz was going to send his players home for Christmas, citing their mental health after a grueling and unprecedented 21-week season of practices and games. The team had been on campus working out and practicing since July. COVID protocols prohibited trips home. Those policies undoubtedly contributed to some of the opt-outs that stretched the roster thin — and might have contributed to more had Drinkwitz kept the team in Columbia for another week. If sending players home contributed to the game’s cancellation — and Mizzou insisted it did not — Drinkwitz doubled down on the decision.
“If allowing them to go home for Christmas ultimately cost us the ability to play in a bowl game, I'll live with that choice,” he said.
The optics on that decision might not have been ideal — Drinkwitz cited the “social media warriors out there who have all the answers” — but he didn’t apologize for that choice, especially in light of Iowa’s decision to keep its players on campus during the holiday.
“I have no idea what Iowa chose to do,” Drinkwitz said. “They didn't play Dec. 19. I'm not comparing what we did with Iowa. We didn't send anybody home that was positive. Anybody who tested positive we did what the local CDC guidelines are and followed through with contact tracing.”
• Mizzou agreed to play the bowl game knowing the team had a large number of COVID cases: FICTION
MU had one positive case of COVID when it left Columbia for Starkville on Dec. 18. That was running backs coach Curtis Luper. The team underwent its normal Sunday testing on Dec. 20. Later that day, Mizzou agreed to play Iowa in the bowl game. Additional positive cases emerged on Monday.
Remember, it was Iowa that shut down team activities on Dec. 21, the day after the bowl was announced. And it was Iowa’s player leadership group that met with coach Kirk Ferentz late on Dec. 21 to discuss the team’s decision to play in the bowl — a day after the bowl matchup was announced.
From the Des Moines Register on Dec. 21: “A leadership-group discussion and vote that evening affirmed Iowa's intent to try to play in the Music City Bowl, despite the layoff and having several players test positive for COVID-19.”
• Drinkwitz wanted to play the game: FACT
Are we really going to believe a team that surpassed everyone’s expectations by finishing third in the SEC East Division was ducking Iowa? (Yes, it’s true, Mizzou backed out of a series with Iowa set for 2005-08.) In this matchup, the Hawkeyes were a decided favorite after finishing their shortened regular season on a six-game winning streak. But like Mizzou, Iowa didn’t beat any teams that finished with a winning record. And, like Mizzou, a couple standout Iowa players had already entered the NFL draft. Was this going to be a mismatch? Perhaps. But Drinkwitz had 100,000 reasons to play this game. Remember, under the terms of his contract, if he notches eight wins or wins a bowl game in his first two seasons, he gets an automatic one-year extension on his deal and his salary increases by $100,000 for each remaining year on his deal. That’s not to say he would have put a depleted roster at risk for personal gain, but there were some tangible incentives on the line. A sixth win would have clinched a winning record — the first for a first-year Mizzou coach since Warren Powers 42 years ago. Also, Larry Rountree pledged to play in the game and needed 28 yards to clinch a 1,000-yard season. Instead, his college career ended on a forgettable day in Starkville.
“Our staff and players wanted to forge on,” Drinkwitz said. “We were committed to trying to do everything possible.”
• The canceled bowl will hurt Mizzou financially: UNCERTAIN
It's unclear what kind of bowl insurance policies the SEC has secured to retain some, if any of its bowl payouts from games that don't take place. Under the SEC bowl revenue distribution system, each bowl participant takes home a designated fraction of revenue based on the bowl game's final balance, plus travel expenses, with the rest distributed evenly 15 ways among the 14 institutions and the league office. Mizzou will still get a cut of the league pool of bowl money, but as of Sunday, MU athletics director Jim Sterk was unsure how revenue from a canceled bowl will be handled.
"We haven't discussed that on our 101 Zoom calls or whatever we've had," Sterk said. "I expect after the season, after the bowl (games) are complete, then we'll get a breakdown of that."