If there’s anything that vexes West Virginia University football coach Neal Brown the most about operating his program under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s dealing with the unknown — and there’s plenty of it.
That’s not usually the case in the sport, Brown said. Coaches know when practices can start, when games can start, when bowl games can start and when recruiting can start and end. The schedule is set and there are few surprises.
Yet during the pandemic, where WVU coaches still aren’t sure when they’ll even see their players on campus next, routine isn’t an option. And the NCAA won’t be guiding the sport as to when all the teams can return.
NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a recent ESPN interview that the association will neither mandate nor oversee a uniform return to college sports. Those decisions, he said, will be left to state and local health officials and the respective universities.
So some programs may start their seasons before others. Is that fair? Brown said that’s just reality.
“Everybody talks about a competitive balance,” Brown said Wednesday during a video conference with media. “I don’t know if that really ever exists to be honest with you. I think you’re going to see some staggered start times.”
All Brown and his staff can do is watch how all the other states in the Big 12 conference footprint handle how they reopen their communities. In the Mountain State, the process has moved faster than in other places. Starting May 21, large retail stores can reopen, along with restaurants for indoor dining at 50% capacity.
Opening activities for large groups is a decision that won’t be made until later in the process, but Brown said the Mountaineers will wait to see what state regulations, the Big 12, the NCAA Football Oversight Committee and WVU administrators decide.
“When they say we can bring guys back to our facility on a voluntary basis, we’re going to do that,” Brown said. “It’ll be up to the players, but we’re going to offer those services. Whenever we figure out the return to practice or return to mandatory activity, we’re going to do that.
“Whenever they say we can play a game, we’re going to do that,” he continued. “And we’re going to do that following the best practices that are clearly laid out by our administration, WVU Medicine, the Big 12 conference, and we’re going to it in the safest way possible for our players.”
The sports shutdown has negatively affected WVU and its football program in several ways. The football program is part of the salary cuts and furloughs the university announced Friday. (“I’m not going to get into that, but it was a tough week for our staff last week,” Brown said.) Brown himself will take a 10% pay cut.
It also has weighed emotionally on coaches, players and staff, not being able to practice, not being able to see their teammates face to face, not knowing when the next step will happen.
Brown remains optimistic college football will happen this season, and admits it’s crucial that the sport returns to the field.
“I think it’s important we play during this fiscal year,” Brown said. “It’s really not up to me to figure out the pros and cons. I think it’s important for a lot of reasons, not just financially. I think our country needs something to look forward to.”