College football coaches pride themselves on turning over as many stones as possible in preparing for competition. Contingency plans have contingency plans. They have a zag for every zig. Coach long enough and just about every circumstance will land on their laps.
The football coaches of the Mountain East Conference are about to face a zig no one has ever seen.
The MEC announced recently that its fall sports season would be split in two, a strategy to more safely play the season in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams’ games in October and November plan to happen as scheduled. The ones in September? They’re headed to the spring.
Forget bye weeks. MEC football teams are about to experience bye months.
“It’s not even a situation in a season where you’re waiting to play a bowl game,” University of Charleston coach Pat Kirkland said. “It’s longer than that.”
If the Mountain East’s football teams want to take the field in 2020, they’ll have to figure out how to navigate this unprecedented environment, and they’ve already started looking at every angle possible to gain ground.
Both Kirkland and West Virginia State coach John Pennington understand why the Mountain East is splitting the fall schedule, to give those teams the best chance to safely play a full slate. And they want to play if at all possible. They also know that, if there’s one silver lining, it’s that no coach in college football has experienced a schedule as disconnected as this one, the 2020 regular season stretching into 2021.
No one really has a competitive advantage, but that doesn’t mean coaches aren’t digging in to try finding one.
“I like a challenge,” Pennington said. “If you’re going to be a leader and you’re going to be in a leadership position, you’re going to have to face these challenges. As a staff, we’re kind of excited to figure out how we can be more resourceful. It really opens up your creativity.
“There are advantages built in there somewhere for someone, and we want to be the team and the staff to find those advantages.”
Along with advantages, MEC staffs must hunker down to figure out more basic issues. How will September practices work with no games? How will practices work in preparing for games post-hiatus? And how will practices work, period, now that everyone has to deal with a highly communicable disease that as of yet has no vaccine?
Socially distanced practices with rosters split in at least two is an idea. So is practicing in pods to reduce chances of the virus spreading through the roster if there is a positive. Kirkland can also see what essentially will be a second preseason camp before the season restarts.
“Just from a safety standpoint, you don’t want pulled muscles or injuries occurring because they’re out of shape and not in a position to play,” Kirkland said.
Above any tactical strategy for the upcoming season, MEC coaches’ main jobs right now are to keep their teams together during a tense and frustrating time. Splitting a season in two has been enough. Coaches and players know any change in the wrong direction for COVID-19 positive cases could jeopardize the possibility they even see the field this year.
Coaching is as much leadership and administration now as it is designing plays.
“I said to everybody, it’s not as much worrying right now about on third-and-3 are we going to throw it or run it,” he said. “It’s more from a logistical standpoint and leadership, these guys are looking for someone. They haven’t been through it either.”
Pennington and the Yellow Jacket staff spend as much time developing connectivity and mental toughness among their players as they do anything else. It’s something Pennington prides himself on doing, and the circumstances surrounding the pandemic will be WVSU’s greatest test in how well it has advanced in those categories.
“It’s like, OK, we’ll find out,” he said. “Are we really tough or are we just a team that talks tough? I’m anxious to get to work to show our players and our program and our players to show everyone in this area that we are tough and we are connected.”
In the end, Kirkland, Pennington and their respective staffs can only do so much in preparing their programs for the upcoming season. Until practice officially begins, there is only so much interaction staffs can have with players. The players themselves have to remain safe and remain dedicated to starting the season, whenever that may be.
“It comes down to individual responsibility, men being men and acting like it,” Kirkland said. “And handling what they’ve got to get done.”