This month, the Pac-12 announced plans to institute a league-wide policy on contact during practice in an effort to reduce the threat of concussions and head trauma, along with other injuries. Though the Pac-12 has yet to finalize the details, schools in that league will have limits on the number of times they can hit in the week before games. Commissioner Larry Scott said the limits will be less than what the NCAA currently allows.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com last week that his conference has not had much discussion about limiting the amount of contact in practice, and he didn't expect the Big Ten to follow the Pac-12 on those rules. But that doesn't mean that the Big Ten isn't seriously concerned about concussions and how to avoid them.
Almost exactly a year ago, the Big Ten and the Ivy League announced they were entering into a joint research project to study concussions in football. That study could prove vital to the very future of the game we all love.
The Big Ten has also been a big supporter of new NCAA rules such as the anti-targeting measures that are designed to limit hits above the shoulder area. Delany said the league will continue to focus mostly on research and rule changes when it comes to the concussion issue.
"I know the NFL is down to one day a week [of hitting in practice], and most colleges are down to two," Delany said. "Not by regulation, just by practice. I see where the Pac-12 has suggested two days a week. I think that's actually pretty standard, that not many people are doing more than two. If they are, it's only a few.
"The reality is it's all sort of intuitive, because there's no research to back it up one way or another. It's just not there."
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald wonders how the details of a policy limiting contact would work practically.
He said it's rare for his teams to do a lot of hitting outside of the first couple of weeks of fall training camp or parts of spring practice. During the season, the Wildcats are off on Sundays, watch film on Mondays, go full pads on Tuesdays and then wear helmets and shoulder pads on Wednesday and Thursdays. Each staff meeting, he says, begins with a report from the program's medical team on who is injured and who is limited. Fitzgerald said the health status of his team is the No. 1 factor in determining how much hitting they will do during the week.
But even basic drills often include some sort of contact. And coaches have to show the proper ways to block and tackle during practice if they want to succeed on Saturdays.
"Just define for me what contact means, and I can put together a plan," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "But I still haven't heard what that means yet. If you put an O-lineman and a D-lineman together with helmets only, do you not think they'll bang into each other? Otherwise, we're playing a different sport.
"I'm just a little worried that the reaction is to take contact away, instead of to use contact constructively to educate and teach guys the healthy and safe way to play the game."
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is also skeptical about the Pac-12 plan.
"Certainly, player safety and welfare is prominent in people's thoughts right now," Ferentz told ESPN.com. "It should be. But it's a slippery slope. It's really tough to legislate common sense sometimes. Our rules have been moving in that direction around player safety, but where do you draw the line?"
Ferentz said the current NFL policy on hitting seems like it was based more on owners giving the players a non-financial concession in the latest bargaining agreement than on safety reasons.
"My experience both in professional football and college football is that most coaches are pretty cognizant and aware and in tune of where their team is health-wise, fatigue-wise, those types of things," he said. "I would imagine a lot of coaches try to be very, very careful and very smart about how they practice. Now we're at 85 scholarships. It's different than the '80s when rosters were bigger, you had more players. When you lose players to injury, it's not good for anybody, so it's a fine line. I would imagine every coach worries about that and spends a lot of time thinking about that, how do we practice intelligently."
Delany, Fitzgerald and Ferentz are all happy to see the concussion issue being taken seriously, and the Big Ten will watch the Pac-12 closely to see what effect that policy has. But for now, the league is more inclined to let individual teams and coaches decide how to run their practices, while hoping the project with the Ivy League fills in the gaps of what Delany calls "a real hole" in concussion research.
"If there's a flow naturally toward two [contact days], I'm sure institutions will go there," Delany said. "We want to know form the study whether that's the right thing to do."