After three comparatively easy weeks of SEC competitors, COVID-19 caught up with the nation’s highest-profile convention inside a span of three days.
The SEC postponed its first game Monday, as Vanderbilt, which had solely 56 scholarship gamers out there in final week’s 41-7 loss to South Carolina, couldn’t safely play its subsequent contest at Missouri. Tuesday introduced studies of a major COVID-19 outbreak at Florida, simply days after coach Dan Mullen had implored college directors to “Pack the Swamp” this week in opposition to LSU.
The Swamp can be empty after the SEC on Wednesday postponed the LSU-Florida game. Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin quickly revealed 21 optimistic exams amongst gamers. Then, hours later, Alabama introduced that coach Nick Saban and athletic director Greg Byrne each had tested positive for the virus. Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, whose workforce hosted Alabama final week, additionally hinted Wednesday a few spike in instances inside his workforce, though Saturday’s sport at Arkansas stays on observe.
“Clearly,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt informed reporters, “it has been a tricky day.”
These robust 72 hours as soon as once more increase questions in regards to the season’s viability within the midst of a pandemic. Will school soccer get to the end line? What number of outbreaks and postponements are tolerable? What’s going to the continued optimistic exams inside the SEC point out about sport journey, testing and the position of coaches, who’re beginning to contract the virus at the next frequency?
Athletic directors throughout the nation who spoke to ESPN on Wednesday and Thursday aren’t panicking. Whereas not dismissing the SEC’s issues, they are saying they anticipated sport postponements and optimistic exams for notable coaches and gamers, and pointed to a whole offseason spent planning and revamping schedules so as to add flexibility for when disruptions happen. They proceed to observe virus information and tendencies, however have had no conversations about stopping the season.
“All of us have invested an excessive amount of time and power, the student-athletes have invested an incredible deal,” Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek mentioned. “I believe this was anticipated. Our SEC medical process pressure informed us there was going to be one other spike in mid-to-late October, and I believe that is what we’re all seeing proper now. That is why we constructed within the make-up dates on the finish of the season, as a result of we thought one thing like this may occasionally happen, the place we have been going to lose some video games in the course of the season.”
Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich mentioned circumstances now are far completely different than they have been within the spring, when college athletics essentially came to a screeching halt with one optimistic check from inside the NBA.
“A part of the explanation issues shut down within the spring was as a result of universities shut down,” Radakovich mentioned. “The concern of the unknown again within the spring was very a lot within the forefront. Now, we now have universities that proceed to show, whether or not it is on-line, hybrid or in-person. There’s surveillance testing on many school campuses. It is a very completely different world than it was within the spring. Athletic departments proceed to have their protocols, cease when they should cease, play when they should play.
“We are able to have an outbreak tomorrow — knock on wooden we do not — however I am certain that Florida and Vanderbilt and different faculties which have needed to pause have achieved the whole lot appropriately. It is the thriller of this virus, as to the way it strikes alongside. It’s a must to be prepared.”
The possibility to compete in what American Athletic Convention commissioner Mike Aresco calls “a consultant season,” plus the monetary implications of not enjoying, continues to drive school soccer ahead regardless of the fixed challenges of the pandemic. Directors cite a number of bye weeks constructed into schedules, flexibility with convention championship sport dates and extra information in regards to the virus as instruments to assist navigate hassle spots.
Whereas the SEC hadn’t had any sport postponements or head coaches reporting optimistic exams till this week, different leagues have already confronted these obstacles.
“If there turns into a scenario the place the trail ahead will not be protected, then we’ll completely modify, however we now have been making ready for head coaches being sick on this sport since Could,” TCU athletic director Jeremiah Donati mentioned. “Nobody is stunned. To the frequent fan, you see the sticker shock of a Nick Saban or a Greg Byrne, or an Alabama or Florida, however I do not suppose anybody who’s been in these conferences is in any respect stunned.”
TCU needed to postpone its opener in opposition to rival SMU due to COVID-19 points on its roster. Fellow Massive 12 member Baylor twice has introduced postponements, together with this week’s sport in opposition to Oklahoma State, as athletic director Mack Rhoades cited 28 active COVID cases amongst gamers and 14 among the many soccer workers.
Final Saturday, Notre Dame resumed play for the primary time since Sept. 19 after going via its personal COVID-19 outbreak.
“We had our spike and got here out the opposite facet, and nobody is unavailable associated to the virus,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick mentioned. “In order that’s a superb place to be. We be ok with protocols and procedures. Talking just for our program, we’re very optimistic.”
Although applications and coaches have handled optimistic exams since their return to campus over the summer season, Saban is essentially the most high-profile individual within the sport to check optimistic, placing one more highlight on protocols and on the viability of enjoying a whole season.
Saban turned the sixth FBS head coach identified to check optimistic for COVID-19. The Alabama coach, who turns 69 on Halloween, can be the oldest (Kansas coach Les Miles, 66, tested positive last week). A variety of assistant coaches throughout the nation have already got missed video games due to optimistic exams.
“When you have got some coaches of the notoriety of Nick Saban pop up, folks pay attention to that,” Louisville athletics director Vince Tyra mentioned. “It begs the dialog from lots of people to say, ‘Gee, Nick’s acquired it; are we doing the precise factor?’ We definitely weren’t naive as school athletics going into it that we have been going to must work via instances as they come up. I nonetheless like having our gamers in a managed surroundings versus simply out round within the public, the place the incident charge is far larger.”
No coaches are identified to have been hospitalized, and each Florida State’s Mike Norvell and Arkansas State’s Blake Anderson returned to the sideline after contracting the virus in the course of the season. Miles is on observe to journey with Kansas for this week’s sport at West Virginia, athletic director Jeff Lengthy mentioned Wednesday.
“It is solely a priority if the pinnacle coach has been able to contaminate extra folks,” Swarbrick mentioned. “We by no means speak about aggressive penalties. It is simply well being and security, what we now have to do. I do not know that the pinnacle coach essentially presents extra of a threat than the special-teams coach, who frankly is within the room with extra gamers than the pinnacle coach is.”
If there’s one scenario that’s just like what Saban and Alabama are experiencing, it’s what occurred with Norvell at FSU. The week earlier than the largest sport on the schedule, a Sept. 26 matchup in opposition to rival Miami, Norvell announced he had tested positive and wouldn’t journey with the workforce for the sport. Florida State had protocols in place that it hoped would reduce unfold ought to one among its coaches get contaminated, together with conferences held by way of Zoom.
David Pollack says it will likely be an infinite deal for Alabama to not have Nick Saban teaching in opposition to Georgia, and Heather Dinich particulars how Saban’s absence could be thought-about by the CFP committee.
College contact tracers started working and decided there was no unfold to gamers or the workforce. Florida State by no means requested to maneuver the sport; it might go on as scheduled, although Norvell wouldn’t be there. Norvell stayed as linked as attainable, conducting all workforce and workers conferences over Zoom. At observe, Florida State had cameras and audio system arrange at numerous factors on the sphere. Norvell had a dwell video feed at dwelling and was in a position to talk with coaches and gamers via the audio system.
Even as soon as the workforce arrived in South Florida, Norvell stayed concerned with the workforce via Zoom all the way in which up till the second the workforce boarded buses to move to the stadium. From there, Norvell had no communication with coaches or gamers and needed to sit and watch helplessly from dwelling as his workforce misplaced 52-10. Norvell mentioned he despatched a video message to the workforce that was performed within the locker room after the sport.
“I hated that I wasn’t there for it,” Norvell mentioned. “That is my workforce, my gamers, guys I completely care about and imagine in, and it hurts when you do not play to your capabilities and get beat in a giant sport.”
Aresco mentioned there have been considerations this summer season about whether or not “an excessive amount of disruption,” together with basic security considerations, made the season worthwhile. However like many across the sport, he thinks athletes are safer due to common testing and different COVID-19 protocols inside their applications.
The AAC has had 11 video games involving its groups postponed to this point, as Saturday’s Cincinnati-Tulsa sport turned the third convention contest impacted. However Aresco mentioned these choices, together with fixed monitoring, seemingly can restrict outbreaks.
“We’re neighborhood unfold; we’re trying on the instances on campus; and if something reached a tipping level, we might completely sit down and take into account whether or not we wish it to go ahead,” Aresco mentioned. “However we do not suppose we’re wherever near that now. We have been typically happy with having the ability to play most of our video games and having very low charges. Will that proceed? Who is aware of? Knock on wooden. You simply do not know. It is a contagious illness, and we have discovered that simply doing the conventional issues, you may get it. That is unlucky. We’re monitoring the whole lot carefully, not solely in our convention however outdoors.”
Alabama is working to establish the supply of Saban’s and Byrne’s optimistic exams, however Saban on Wednesday mentioned any journey will increase the danger of publicity (the Crimson Tide visited Ole Miss final week). Florida’s outbreak additionally might need been linked to journey, as Stricklin mentioned a number of gamers skilled allergy-like signs that they did not report — not pondering they have been COVID-related — earlier than final week’s journey to Texas A&M.
Swarbrick is not overly involved about soccer journey, noting “an rare quantity” of journeys for soccer groups, particularly in contrast with basketball or different sports activities. Notre Dame linked its outbreak to a workforce meal earlier than a Sept. 19 dwelling sport in opposition to South Florida. Though there’s little proof that precise competitors spreads the virus, gamers and coaches should at all times monitor their conduct.
“To this point we’re not at a important juncture, but it surely’s not getting any simpler,” Massive 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby mentioned. “It is a fixed circumstance, and in the event you’re not paying consideration, you may get into a nasty spot in a rush. … There have been numerous examples the place you are bouncing alongside simply tremendous and rapidly ended up with a false unfavorable or an publicity from an off-campus or nonathletic surroundings, and rapidly you have acquired a giant outbreak.”
Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton was unavailable in-person for 2 weeks, because the Hokies handled an outbreak that sidelined greater than 20 gamers and a handful of coaches for 2 Saturdays. ACC commissioner John Swofford mentioned his first response upon listening to optimistic check ends in the league is concern for anybody contaminated.
“You’re feeling for coaches and gamers who cannot participate on sport day, but it surely’s a kind of conditions the place you intend for the worst and hope for the most effective,” Swofford mentioned. “These occurrences have been anticipated to a point, and we’re at all times working via our medical group when it comes to our protocols, however we have not actually checked out that as a failure of protocols in any respect. We take a look at it as, ‘That is a part of the world we’re in proper now, how can we take care of it and transfer ahead within the most secure attainable means?'”
The necessity for COVID-19 vigilance is particularly pronounced for groups in leagues that have not but kicked off their fall seasons. The Massive Ten and Mountain West start play subsequent week, adopted by the MAC and Pac-12 in early November. Not like the six FBS leagues which might be already enjoying, these conferences lack make-up dates to reschedule video games.
“I drive everyone loopy,” Penn State coach James Franklin informed reporters Wednesday evening. “I am the nag all day lengthy on the workplace; I am the nag all day lengthy at observe; after which I get mad on the different personnel on the sphere that I would like some assist, ensuring that we’re all doing it. Clearly, as quickly as we made this choice to play school soccer, we knew there was going to be particular challenges that got here with it, and simply as a lot as challenges, there was going to must be vital sacrifices made and there was going to must be vital self-discipline proven by everyone.
“We’re simply making an attempt to do as finest as we probably can to make this factor work.”
For now, it is working at Oklahoma, the place the Sooners’ student-athlete positivity charge has shrunk from 9% to 1% over the previous six weeks. OU athletic director Joe Castiglione mentioned there was “no deviation” from counting on medical recommendation when making any and all choices round observe and enjoying.
“We aren’t guessing our means via any of this,” Castiglione mentioned. “Everyone knows we’re solely nearly as good because the outcomes of our subsequent check.”
ESPN reporter Andrea Adelson contributed to this story.