SEC commissioner Greg Sankey is “troubled” by the COVID-19 impact on college football, particularly his league. (Photo: Butch Dill, USA TODAY Sports)
Most of the changes made in college football to meet the demands of the coronavirus pandemic won’t outlast the vaccine.
The Bowl Subdivision will eventually embrace a return to the sport’s traditional routine. Team activities will resume without restrictions. Players will be able to prepare without the uncertainty that has come with attempting to conduct this season, when dozens of games have been postponed or canceled due to COVID-19. Fans will have the option of crowding back into packed stadiums.
“There’s a lot of things we’re glad we won’t have to do. We’ll see how all of that plays out,” said Indiana coach Tom Allen. “You adapt, you figure it out and you make the best of it. That’s what our guys have done.”
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Clemson defensive lineman Bryan Bresee is looking forward to losing a lot of the changes brought on by COVID-19 (Photo: Josh Morgan, USA TODAY Sports)
Challenging, frustrating and often emotionally taxing on coaches and players, the regular season and postseason have forced the FBS to riff on the conventional rhythm of a given year. Many of these modifications will be tossed aside, relics of a season all of college football would like to forget.
“I don’t know if I’d really want to carry any of the stuff we did when we weren’t here on with us the next couple years,” said Clemson freshman defensive lineman Bryan Bresee. “I just think, personally, that it’s better to be here and to do things all together.”
In some cases, however, adaptions to recruiting, scheduling and remote learning will very likely last into 2021 and beyond, providing the earliest indications of the lasting impact of COVID-19 on the sport.
“There’s a whole bunch of things within our office that we changed,” Houston coach Dana Holgorsen said. “Once it goes back to normal, we’re still going to be able to use some of these things that we came up with. I’ve always been open-minded, but I’m really open-minded right now.”
The most obvious area of impact is in how teams evaluate and assess talent, build contacts with prospects and close on signing classes.
All recruiting has been conducted virtually since the spring. In lieu of in-person evaluations and visits, programs have relied on drone tours, FaceTime and Zoom to show off facilities and build relationships without leaving campus.
One question has emerged as teams stepped back to evaluate December’s early signing period: Is this the future of college football recruiting?
“Maybe the NCAA looks and says, ‘You don’t need to go on the road anymore,'” said Florida coach Dan Mullen.
The ability to complete a cycle almost entirely by phone could influence dramatic changes to the recruiting calendar, which under normal conditions sends entire coaching staffs on the road during an extended evaluation period in April and May.
“This probably won’t be very popular with a lot of college coaches,” Liberty coach Hugh Freeze said. “I enjoy recruiting from here and not going away from home. I think it’s real possible that we could really change the recruiting calendar to where you might not have to go out as much.”
A reimagined calendar could favor shorter off-campus assessment periods and more virtual connectivity while still allowing prospects to conduct unofficial or official visits, especially closer to the early signing period in December.
That schedule would fit into how the recruiting landscape should unfold in 2021. While in-person contact may expand by September, teams are preparing to hold virtual recruiting events this spring.
And at a time when athletics departments are cutting sports, eliminating positions and reducing compensation for the highest-paid employees, there is an obvious financial benefit for an online-heavy recruiting approach. Fifty programs in the Power Five spent at least $500,000 and 19 more than $1 million on recruiting during the 2018 fiscal year.
“You can have a one-on-one session or you can put together an entire junior day now,” said Tyler Olker, director of recruiting operations at SMU. “I would still think that FaceTime and Zoom, all the digital stuff, virtual stuff, will continue to be used.”
Increasing the amount of time spent on campus could deepen the relationships between coaches and current players. During the spring and into the early summer, the widespread acceptance of Zoom as a communication tool allowed coaches to keep tabs on players when teams were separated due to the coronavirus.
“I would definitely do that more,” said Wisconsin offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph. “I feel closer with the kids because of it.”
That has continued during the season. Created out of social-distancing guidelines, which largely prohibited in-person team gatherings, it’s also become standard in the FBS to use Zoom as a way to promote remote learning among individuals or small groups, often delineated by position.
“You can become such a slave to the building, just always being here, all day long, all night,” Allen said. “It’s all about the communication piece. It’s an efficient way for us to have meetings.”
A social distancing message on the video display scoreboard at Navy’s stadium for a game this season. (Photo: Scott Taetsch, USA TODAY Sports)
With schedules often set years in advance, the games established quickly this season — Brigham Young and Coastal Carolina was officially scheduled only two days in advance, for example — seemed to indicate another path forward in creating non-conference matchups capable of influencing the College Football Playoff debate. Leaving open dates to fill on the fly would be financially and logistically unfeasible in a non-pandemic year, however.
But day-to-day schedules across individual FBS programs may be permanently altered by how teams have managed COVID-19.
Rather than spending every moment inside football facilities, teams can connect remotely. Instead of gathering as an entire roster, coaches can split players into smaller groups — and not just for strength training and film study, which is traditionally conducted by position, but as a way to provide hands-on and specialized instruction in a practice setting.
“I don’t think we spend enough time with our current teams,” Freeze said. “We’re always running around trying to get the next guys when we could be really investing in the lives of our kids a little bit more.”
Even the most optimistic outlook accepts that spring drills will be conducted under the current safety guidelines and protocols. But with the possibility of widespread vaccination in the coming year, the hope within the sport is that normal, pre-pandemic conditions return by late summer, in time for the start of an unabridged regular season.
When college football does fall back into the normal routine, the most enduring takeaway from this pandemic season may be seen in the willingness to be flexible.
“I’m not scared to change anything, I’m not scared to try anything,” said Holgorsen. “That’s what 2020 is all about.”
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