Kevin Warren's first in-season weekend as Big Ten commissioner included some delayed gratification. Warren didn't attend the conference's Friday night opener at Wisconsin amid chancellor Rebecca Blank's decision to allow only essential personnel at the Camp Randall Stadium. That meant not even players' families could attend as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations spike in the region.
"I wanted to be highly respectful to the University of Wisconsin's protocol and not add even one extra person," Warren told CBS Sports.
When he got to Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, Warren took a coronavirus test before entering for the Michigan game.
"Fifteen, 20 minutes," Warren said describing the wait for a result of his rapid-turnaround antigen test.
"It was a powerful weekend for Big Ten football," he concluded.
But what had been an impressive debut on the field has veered off track a bit. As we venture into Week 2, Wisconsin has lost quarterback Graham Mertz after a second test this week confirmed the redshirt freshman has contracted the coronavirus. His backup, Chase Wolf, also tested positive and is waiting for a second test to confirm that result.
In fact, 12 members of the Wisconsin football program -- six players and six staff members, including coach Paul Chryst -- have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last five days.
Mertz is the first Big Ten football player to have a positive COVID-19 diagnosis confirmed publicly since the league returned to play, and Wisconsin-Nebraska previously scheduled for Saturday will be the first Big Ten game not played due to an elevated number of COVID-19 cases within a program. Wisconsin will also suspend all team activities for seven days.
That this breakout at Wisconsin has occurred after its first week is something less than positive. Mertz and anyone else who is confirmed positive for COVID-19 will be out 21 days (missing three games), per Big Ten protocols. That mandatory three-week recovery period includes extensive testing for possible heart issues related to COVID-19.
The risk of myocarditis -- an inflammation of the heart caused by the virus -- is one of the reasons the league initially postponed its season on Aug. 11.
"This being a novel virus and being concerned that it attacks the heart, I think people understand now why we postponed the season," Warren said. "We wanted to do all we possibly can for the health and safety of student-athletes at the top of the list."
The 21 days is -- by far -- the most cautious obligation of any conference whose players test positive. Prudent, yes. But overcautious? Each of the other Power Five conferences require a player who tests positive to sit out a minimum of 10 days, no more than 14.
"With that there was going to be some compromises and some sacrifices," Penn State coach James Franklin said of the Big Ten regulations. "There were going to be some circumstances that came out that were going to be hard to swallow at the moment."
Franklin went on to recount the plight of one of his players who was held out of Saturday's game against Indiana due to what was later determined to be a false positive.
"His dad called and was very upset," Franklin said. "He was more upset about his son, hurting for his son. We talked it all through. It was probably more venting than being upset [about] what the Big Ten had really decided."
Franklin did not identify the player.
"The positives and the 21 days that you're out [are there], even though you could probably get all the required testing done in less than that," Franklin added. "We were at a point as a conference that our commissioner and our presidents wanted to make sure we went above and beyond to keep the student-athletes as healthy as we possibly could."
Sources say there is no indication how Mertz may have been infected. The Big Ten and Pac-12 are the only Power Five leagues testing athletes daily as a matter of league protocol. The SEC, Big 12 and ACC are each testing three times a week, though Alabama is conducting daily tests and Florida is now as well following a COVID-19 outbreak within the program.
Chryst said Monday that he had no problem with the Big Ten protocols.
"The No. 1 concern for the league was how to best keep everyone as safe as possible," Chryst said. "Then how do you manage the impacts of it once someone has it? Admittedly, [the league] told us it was more conservative. If that helps one person that's a good thing."
But to witness the extended absence of a key Big Ten player to COVID-19 in real time will be revealing. Cases continue to rise in the region and the nation. The absence of just one skill player like Mertz could shift the conference race. Enough positives in one program could mean multiple games canceled given the 21-day protocol and no off weeks built into the compacted Big Ten schedule.
Speaking of student-athlete welfare, would it be wise for Wisconsin to throw out fourth-string quarterback Danny Vanden Boom against Nebraska? The three-star recruit has thrown one career pass -- in 2018.
All of it raises a question that won't go away anytime soon: Will the Big Ten be able to get through a nine-game schedule without any bye weeks in the middle of a pandemic?
"I remain cautiously optimistic," Warren said. "That's not a trite term. This is one of those ones, literally, that is day-by-day. We had a great weekend of football, seven games, and I have a tracker in my head. I am just hopeful at the end of the day we can do nine weeks of seven games."
Most FBS conferences have adopted a threshold of fielding at least 53 scholarship players to be able to play. Among those must be seven offensive linemen, four defensive linemen and a quarterback. Schools can choose to play his numbers fall below those limits.
Because of those concerns, Ohio State coach Ryan Day said he'll sometimes separate superstar quarterback Justin Fields during quarterback meetings.
"I'll grab Justin and take him on my own sometimes for a lot of reasons, [fear of COVID-19 is] one of them, to try to keep him away from some of the other guys," Day said. "What a tricky situation. It's a very, very contagious virus. I feel for all these teams that are going through this. You just keep talking to our guys about it."
Before Mertz's status was known, Chryst said Wisconsin would have enough players for this week's Nebraska game. That game will now not be played -- at least not on its scheduled date.
"We all knew going in this had a chance to be a very different season," the coach said. "That doesn't mean it has to be bad. The worst thing you can do is have a woe-is-me attitude. We're grateful as a group to be playing."
After an offseason foot injury to starter Jack Coan, it had been known for weeks Mertz would be making his first career start against Illinois. The first freshman quarterback to start at Wisconsin since 1978 then completed 20 of 21 passes against Illinois, tying a school record with five touchdowns. At one point, he completed 17 passes in a row.
For a moment, the Big Ten could fully wallow in its opening-weekend glory.
- Ohio State was Ohio State, throwing off Nebraska like an old sweater.
- Michigan hinted it might be a new challenge for the Buckeyes. The Wolverines kicked in the large incisors of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, 49-24.
- Rutgers -- Rutgers?! -- upset Michigan State to win its first conference game since 2017.
- Purdue was missing its coach (Jeff Brohm, due to COVID-19) and best player (Rondale Moore, unknown) and still came from behind to beat Iowa.
- Pat Fitzgerald won his 100th career game and Northwestern posted its largest winning margin in 50 years, 43-3 over Maryland.
- Five teams were ranked in the new AP Top 25, including No. 17 Indiana, which beat a top-10 team (Penn State) for the first time in 33 years.
Taking it all in, Warren is optimistic his conference's football will outshine the coronavirus. Counting his time as an executive with the Minnesota Vikings, the rookie commissioner has lived in Big Ten territory for 16 years. As a Notre Dame law student, he once traveled to Michigan for the weekend in 1989 watching Rocket Ismail return two kickoffs for scores.
For the next eight weeks, Warren intends to be out on the trail in an official capacity watching Big Ten games, hoping they all get played.
"It's just one step at a time," he said. "Unfortunately, this is the new normal that we have."