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Ohio State AD Gene Smith says Big Ten ‘in this together’ as conference readies for return to football

As the Big Ten is finally on the verge of joining the SEC, ACC and Big 12 this weekend in a return to football, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told reporters on Monday that the biggest hurdle in reaching this point was getting the university presidents to unanimously agree to the return.

“Once we were able to get the presidents to allow us to play, there was nothing after that that was challenging at all,” he said. “The hardest part, the biggest emotions — and my team can attest — I was a complete idiot. It was hard, it was painful. Once we got the vote, and we knew we could go, I’d say after that getting the schedule was hard … but for me, nothing was hard after that.”

No. 5 Ohio State, which is widely regarded as talented enough to compete for the national title this season, opens at home on Saturday against Nebraska in what will be a mostly empty Ohio Stadium, an arena that typically serves as one of the most unforgiving, traditional venues in the country. The Big Ten is not allowing fans in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Every game is a home game, so we want to encourage everyone to not host or be a part of large gatherings or large watch parties,” Smith said during a virtual news conference that focused on protocols, game-day operations and logistics. “We want to encourage people to not create environments where they become superspreaders of the virus and encourage them to continue to follow the protocols of mask-wearing and washing hands and physical distancing and enjoy our Buckeyes virtually or on television as you would like to, but not in large gatherings.”

Smith said the Big Ten’s attendance policy will be reevaluated weekly, based on state and local government restrictions throughout the league, but the conference “decided we’ll all be in this together.”

Tracy Hahn, Ohio State’s deputy chief of police, made a plea for fans and students to stay home. Hahn said there will be a law enforcement presence on the Columbus campus and around the stadium that is smaller than a typical game-day experience with fans.

Hahn said that if the officers see people violating the policy, they will start with a warning and escort them out, and if there are issues with people not wanting to leave, “there’s the trespass violation since they’re not allowed to be in the stadium.”

“Don’t come to campus to tailgate,” she said. “Please. … We will be checking the parking lots to make sure people are not on campus partying. Mask-wearing is very important on campus. It’s one of our rules here.”

Smith said the Big Ten does not currently plan to fine coaches who aren’t wearing masks or keeping them up while on the sideline, saying it’s up to the individual campuses to enforce at this time.

“I think we’re going to be fine,” he said. “We’re going to be sensitive to the moment. There are going to be times when [Buckeyes coach] Ryan Day is in the middle of a call and his mask is down, and we have someone to remind him to put it back up. Kind of like that get-back coach, right? That’s where we like it at this point in time. I hope we don’t get to a point where we have to fine people.”

The ACC said it also is not fining coaches for violating the mask policy. The league sent out a memo after Week 1 reminding coaches to make sure they are wearing their masks on the sideline, and there have not been any issues since then.

SEC schools can face a cumulative penalty of $1 million as the league continues to enforce COVID-19 sideline protocols and hold head coaches accountable for wearing masks during games. The first offense is $100,000, followed by $200,000, $300,000 and $400,000 for a fourth violation.

ESPN’s Andrea Adelson contributed to this report.

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