Preparing for the unknown: How B1G teams are handling the preseason amid a global pandemic
There’s Ohio State defensive end Javontae Jean-Baptiste tossing a medicine ball around the practice field, straining through the mask covering his neck, mouth and nose. There’s Jim Harbaugh telling everyone in Michigan to sport a similar facial wardrobe. There’s Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez with a thermometer in his face as he enters the Huskers locker room.
Following 2 weeks of supervised lifting and film study, Big Ten teams and the rest of major college football are halfway through the 2-week “minicamp” allowed by the NCAA in its COVID-19-modified schedule. Commissioner Kevin Warren sent a letter to conference athletic directors Thursday night stating the league will make a decision on fall camp “within the next 5 days.”
As of now, there’s no schedule, no out-of-conference opponents allowed and no timetable for when all this will get straightened out. The rest of the Power 5 is in a similar boat.
The new normal? There’s no such thing as normal anymore.
So how do you plan for something you know so little about?
For most B1G teams, at least, it’s assume the best, even though the worst might be coming.
“Like all of us discovered months ago, nothing in our lives is normal right now,” Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said a couple of weeks ago. “That’s true with our football program, the challenges we’re facing, the conditions we’re working under, like everyone else in the country. There is no way to compare it to anything else we have done.
“What we’re experiencing right now is no different than a lot of businesses or other parts of life right now. It’s a national issue.”
That’s especially true for Iowa, which has dealt with reported racism in a summer marked by a global pandemic on top of civil unrest. An independent investigation concluded Ferentz should keep his job, but what was already an offseason like no other in Iowa City became even more tumultuous when players called out Ferentz, his son and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, and now-terminated strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle for a culture that allegedly treated Black players unfairly.
In the meantime, Hawkeyes players spent the 2-week supervised lifting and film review period performing conditioning and strength-building drills — all at least 6 feet apart — inside the Hansen Football Performance Center. Iowa and the conference’s other 13 teams have since switched to walk-through type practices at their respective campuses.
Diligence is key, with regular temperature checks, COVID testing and contact tracing as much as resources allow. Schools have had different reactions to positive tests.
Most athletic departments have released bulk COVID-19 test results encompassing all athletes, coaches and staff currently preparing for their fall seasons.
Some, like Illinois, Northwestern and Ohio State, have declined to provide testing numbers. In total across the B1G, there have been 124 positive tests reported out of 2,911 administered.
Then there’s the question of attendance. Ohio State informed season ticket holders Tuesday attendance won’t exceed 20 percent of capacity at the Horseshoe. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine wasn’t so sure, saying it’s “too early, frankly, to determine what is safe.”
“It’s a moment of uncertainty,” Buckeyes Athletic Director Gene Smith told 97.1 FM in Columbus. “There’s a lot of moving parts. We just need to be patient.”
Most coaches are wearing masks. Many athletes are, too, even during individual on-field drills and weightlifting sessions.
Pretty much every program has issued some sort of public service announcement encouraging the public to do the same. Even Harbaugh and rival Michigan State coach Mel Tucker teamed up for a joint PSA to fans in the Wolverine State.
The ball is in your court, Michigan.
— Michigan Athletics (@UMichAthletics) July 15, 2020
Nebraska receiver Wandale Robinson’s TikTok account even showcased a mask that goes inside the lower portion of the facemask to help prevent the spread of droplets. The NFL has provided similar technology to all 32 of its teams.
Universities are also deciding what their campus environments will look like this fall. The more students on campus, in theory, the higher chances of athletes — and teams — being part of a breakout.
In the football world, every day is fraught with reminders of the current situation. Players, coaches, administrative staff, athletic training and strength and conditioning czars must all be in lockstep as to each individual team’s protocols.
And while B1G commissioner Kevin Warren, school presidents, athletic directors and the conference’s “Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases” work together to decide what’s next, the key for coaches is persuading their players to prepare as if the season is on.
Meanwhile, discussion via newspaper columns, social media, sports TV, podcasts and talk radio swirls around the ethical. The budgetary shortfalls that would come with no season could set athletic departments back years. But is it right to ask unpaid college players to bear that burden and assume the added risk of contracting a disease no one seems to be able to figure out?
Huskers coach Scott Frost brought up an interesting point when speaking with Nebraska media last month.
“Whether our kids are playing football games or not, or whether our kids are practicing football or not, they’re at just as high risk — or even a higher risk — of getting (COVID-19) without that structure,” Frost said, according to the Omaha World-Herald. “That’s another reason we allowed kids to come back — because of the structure and things to do.”
— Nebraska Football (@HuskerFBNation) July 25, 2020
But in a financially strained educational environment where institutions are a lawsuit away from even more potential costs, not to mention a PR headache, the threat of litigation drives a lot of decisions.
Yet, as of now, the season isn’t canceled. Will that remain the case? What will it look like? That’s about as easy an answer as finding a cure or vaccine for the novel coronavirus itself.
“We’re just being optimistic and taking it day by day,” Minnesota receiver/Wildcat quarterback Seth Green said. “The biggest thing that the team is focusing on is making sure that no matter what the outcome is, we’re ready.
“We can’t control any of this. We need to make sure that we’re in the best position possible.”