State FCS programs soldier on as COVID-19 alters spring

State FCS programs soldier on as COVID-19 alters spring
Southern Illinois was the lone state FCS program to start spring practice before it was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic. (photo courtesy siusalukis.com)

Published in the early 1960s, Silent Spring was Rachel Carson's landmark book documenting the adverse environmental effects caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides. That same title could also easily be used to describe our current COVID-19 pandemic landscape.

Although Southern Illinois was able to open spring ball Feb. 26 and hold five team workouts, spring football practices will not be held on the campuses of the four Illinois Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) programs going forward.

According to a story last week by Todd Hefferman in The Southern Illinoisan, "Instead of talking to prospective athletes in person, SIU coach Nick Hill and his staff are talking to each other via video conference calls and reviewing film wherever they can. Social distancing takes on a whole new meaning when you're talking about offensive coaches, defensive coaches and 86 players, but the Salukis are trying to take advantage of what they can off the field."

Assistant Athletics Director/Communications Mike Williams of Illinois State University told Prairie State Pigskin that head coach Brock Spack made the decision to call off spring practice quickly after returning from a trip with his family.

"It’s my decision. I think it’s the right one,” Spack told Randy Reinhardt of The Pantagraph. “The health, safety and well-being of our players, staff, families and local community is our top priority. Having our players in close contact at practice is not safe at this time for any involved.

Brock Spack (photo by Barry Bottino, Prairie State Pigskin)

Brock Spack (photo by Barry Bottino, Prairie State Pigskin)

"While we are disappointed in not being able to have this time to work with our players and aid in their development, we realize there are bigger things than football at stake here.”

Williams said Spack wanted to take football off the players’ plates.

"They’ve got enough going on adapting to online classes and other changes in daily life," Williams paraphrased Spack.

Like ISU, students are no longer on campus at Eastern Illinois and Western Illinois.

"Where we are is pretty much in the same boat as everyone else. We already canceled all the significant dates for this semester in terms of football-wise, our alumni weekend, our golf outing, spring game," WIU head coach Jared Elliott told Prairie State Pigskin.

Academics

Each coaching staff sees academics as priority one.

Spack told Reinhardt "members of his team who are at risk academically and 'making sure they get what they need. It’s hard to do from a distance.'”

Jared Elliott

Jared Elliott

Elliott said, "We’ve shifted everything online. We’re going to be online the rest of the semester. You’ve got young men from all over the country now at home. The biggest thing for me right now and for our program is that I’m a big believer that structure is a critical part to any human being’s life, specifically to our young men.

"The way that we’re doing that is still having a structured week for our players Monday through Friday. We’re trying to be as proactive as we can, utilizing the resources that we have. As I said to our staff, thank God that we have the technology that we have today to be able to stay connected to our players and to be able to facilitate the structure for our guys in this very uncertain and uncharted time that we’re in right now."

The third-year WIU head coach added that "frequent, almost daily, academic checks with our academic staff and our position coaches" are in place.

“The biggest concern for every coach right now is all of the sudden you’re not having your players here on campus, it’s that element of accountability in terms of academics," Elliott said."You may have a large portion of young men that maybe have never taken an online class before, and so we’re trying to make sure all those steps have been really well thought out and preparing those guys for what’s coming down the pipe in what it’s going to look like in the foreseeable future."

EIU head coach Adam Cushing told Prairie State Pigskin, “It’s structure. Any online class, any home schooling, the structure is the critical part. Humans, all humans, have a tendency when you're not in your normal routine to be amorphous and just do whatever, whenever. So that's our No. 1 goal as a staff, to provide that consistent structure so that everyone can succeed."

The second-year head coach added that his staff's first two semesters on campus have produced the highest football team GPAs in program history.

"We're being creative in what we can do and operating as though they're on campus and not at home," he said.

Workouts

With the extreme nature of football as a team game, each staff must also be creative in its ways to meet the challenges of preparing its team for the day it can assemble on a practice field. Each staff is in the process of developing individual workouts for its players.

"Some of our players have access to a gym, some don’t," Elliott said. "We have workout plans for both of those scenarios."

Cushing added, "Some guys are more fortunate than others with home gyms, weights at home, resistance bands and all that other stuff."

Cushing, a Chicago native, praised the work on EIU strength and conditioning coach Joe Orozco.

"His day probably became a little more crowded with training, but he's got a great creative plan to make sure that he can still coach all the individuals on the team."

Team bonding

All staffs have used a variety of means to communicate with and to organize players. FaceTime, Skype and Zoom are among the technology resources that have been utilized.

Cushing said, "That's absolutely critical. Stuff that you and I could never have even imagined as kids, much less college-age. Our No. 1 offseason goal has been to create connections within our football team. My afternoon has been 30 minutes with the offensive staff looking at each others' faces (via technology), and then I just got done with the defensive staff and that was after an hour of FaceTiming individuals on our roster.

"We've got a plan, and that's a big part of our plan, connection on a daily basis. Every single day our coaches are looking our players in the eye, and they're looking each other in the eye."

Elliott said, “We've used group conferencing to run position meetings and do the installs. We have to continue to find a way to teach and coach."

Adam Cushing (photo by Barry Bottino, Prairie State Pigskin)

Adam Cushing (photo by Barry Bottino, Prairie State Pigskin)

Final thoughts

Whether you're a Leatherneck, Panther, Redbird or Saluki, you realize you have to make the best of a situation that impacts far more than collegiate sports.

“At some point this will pass, hopefully sooner rather than later and we can get back to life as is," Elliott said. "I will say this, the biggest thing I’ve noticed is that our kids have that element of realizing how quickly things can be taken away from you. You take it for granted, you really do. Whether it’s a position meeting or a team meeting or a weight room session or a practice, and when something happens like this, it really opens your eyes and your perspective changes. That attitude of gratitude.

"I can tell our players miss being around each other. That’s always a good sign when you’ve got a team that loves each other and want to be around each other. Our players, the parents, the families have been amazing. It’s such a fluid situation. New information comes out day by day. Our kids have great in how they’ve adapted and handled this.”

Cushing praised Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s decision to enact his shelter in place policy in an attempt to slow the virus.

"I’m extremely thankful for Gov. Pritzker's leadership and his willingness to do something that is extremely unpopular to protect the health and safety of everybody in Illinois, all of our student-athletes and all of our students at EIU,” Cushing said. “It was a difficult decision, I'm sure, but genius and strong leadership has boldness in it.

"The people who are going to come out of this on the other end much stronger are going to be the ones who maintain that connection that really focus on how we are still a football team and not just a bunch of guys who play football on the same sideline."

“This is unprecedented,” Spack told Reinhardt. “We’ll try to prevent the spread of it so we can play next fall. We hope we can get things started in the summer.”

SIU's Hill told Hefferman"There will be a time to address all of that. Right now we gotta do our best to take care of our families and do what's best for the country."

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