Even with Illinois in Phase 4 of its COVID-19 plan, college football in the state remains as much up in the air as a well-struck punt into swirling winds. So much is still unknown.
As July approaches, Division I athletes have been allowed to participate in voluntary activities for roughly a month. According to the NCAA Division I Council, schools were "expected to make decisions based on the health, safety and well-being of their student-athletes and in compliance with local, state and federal regulations."
Patty Viverito, commissioner of the Missouri Valley Football Conference in which Illinois State, Southern Illinois and Western Illinois compete, serves on the council.
While Prairie State Pigskin emailed Viverito last week for an interview, no response was returned.
The Trump administration has made it clear that each state will decide its individual policies. The MVFC encompasses seven states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota) while the Ohio Valley Conference, which Eastern Illinois is a member, consists of five states (Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee).
Viverito told Todd Hefferman of The Southern Illinoisan in a mid-May story, "We will make a decision that makes the most sense for the most amount of people, and that's going to be directed by states and municipalities, and where they are with COVID-19 and where we are with testing, and where we are with campuses open. It's not going to be 100%, and I don't think there's any doubt if it's less than 100% we could go."
Kyle Schwartz, Ohio Valley Conference assistant commissioner for media relations, told Prairie State Pigskin, “Right now we don't have finalized policies regarding COVID-specific items. Our administrators have talked it through and we have a health and safety working group with doctors, athletic trainers, etc. who have been working on policies for when competition begins."
Thus, though some players are back on campus, what happens going forward is still a question mark.
Positive tests nationally
Anyone following college football has no doubt seen the number of positive COVID-19 tests among athletes.
Roughly one-third of Clemson's roster has tested positive in the past month. Reports stated at least 30 of LSU’s players are currently in isolation after either testing positive or having contact with those who did test positive for the virus.
Closer to home, a recent si.com story stated that University of Illinois athletics officials have refused to release numbers or specific names of players that have returned to the Champaign-Urbana campus for voluntary workouts. U of I athletics officials are also refusing, citing medical privacy laws as the formal reason, to report any positive COVID-19 tests.
Illinois State is scheduled to open its season Sept. 4 against the U of I in Champaign.
Big Ten medical leaders have settled on a three-stage approach for easing into football, increasing in the frequency of testing with each stage: (1) return to campus, (2) return to practice and (3) return to competition.
Randy Reinhardt of The Pantagraph reported that approximately 60 ISU players are going through conditioning drills in small groups with members of ISU’s strength and conditioning staff. Reinhardt further noted that ISU coaches are not allowed to directly work with players until July 23. Coaches and players are still allowed to meet virtually.
Reinhardt's story added, "Redbird players start each day with a COVID-19 screening. They are then given a colored bracelet to indicate they have been cleared for that day’s activity."
Meanwhile, a recent si.com story stated that athletes rights advocates are concerned about the varying college reopening plans. Certainly money plays a role. On average, a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test (which determines if a person is currently infected) can cost $100-200 each. To perform a requisite amount of testing on each athlete, prices can soar to more than $400,000, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson told SI last month. Other estimates go much higher.
A school’s insurance may cover the cost, but like many questions connected to the virus, that’s still unanswered.
Fans in the stands?
As Hefferman's story noted, Phase 4 allows for gatherings of 50 people or more. Phase 5, the last one, would clear the way in the state to get back to what is considered normal.
"All the discussions we're having right now are scenario-driven,"SIU athletic director Liz Jarnigan told Hefferman. "Everyone is very hopeful to have fans in the stands this fall, but everybody knows we have to be as realistic as possible. One of the scenarios for the fall would be no fans. That's something certainly nobody wants. My hope for our community and Southern Illinois is that football comes as a celebration of our ability to come together and be united as a region."
In Macomb, WIU head coach Jared Elliott hopes to have his team on campus for the involuntary workout period for mid-July.
"I kind of have all these different schedules in my mind, written down on paper, trying to plan, still nothing is concrete, I hope we're soon, so maybe you have an idea, but we have different plans if we're early July, mid July for our approach and how soon we can go," Elliott told Scott Holland of the McDonough County Voice last week. "We will as a staff communicate, but until we get the green light, you don't really know what you're going to put in place, but it is important to know what and when you put things in place, we do have plans ready to go, so we'll see what happens."
No doubt, the same is true for EIU, SIU and ISU.
As with virtually all aspects of the economy, the coronavirus has hit athletic departments hard. Across the nation, sports have been cut and athletic department budgets have been frozen or trimmed. Last week, for example, WIU announced it was suspending its swimming and diving programs.
Longtime FCS power Eastern Washington of the Big Sky Conference has been hard hit. Ryan Collingwood of theSpokesman (Wash.) Reviewtweeted that Eastern Washington's athletic programs and administrative units will lose 30% of their operating budgets; administrators and coaches have been asked to take reductions in salary and roughly 12 vacant positions in the athletic department won’t be filled.
Traditionally, most FCS schools schedule annual games with FBS opponents to gain large financial guarantees that infuse money into the FCS athletic budgets.
According to a recent report by HERO Sports, three of the four Illinois FCS programs are set for these 2020 paydays:
Sept. 4 ISU at Illinois $450,000
Sept. 12 SIU at Wisconsin $500,00
Oct. 10 EIU at Kentucky $500,000
If these games aren't played, the financial hit to the state athletic departments will certainly be felt.
The summer months have traditionally been a time for college football programs to add transfers to their rosters.
While this will still continue to be the case this year, there comes added uncertainty that COVID-19 has delivered. After all, there were no campus visits or in-person evaluations of transfers.
“It’s difficult because like any other recruits they want to see your campus and facilities. They want to be around you a little bit. It’s going to be difficult, it won’t stop you from trying to do that [consider transfers]. Depending on when we go back, some of them may have to come sight unseen. That’s a risk for them and us,” ISU head coach Brock Spack told Prairie State Pigskin this spring.
For most programs, there was no spring practice. Thus a player who transferred during the winter did not get practice reps with his new team. Whether they get to practice with their new teams remains a question that the coming weeks will likely provide answers.
Blog co-authors Barry Bottino and Dan Verdun bring years of experience covering collegiate athletics. Barry has covered college athletes for more than two decades in his "On Campus" column, which is published weekly by Shaw Media. Dan has written four books about the state's football programs--"NIU Huskies Football" (released in 2013), "EIU Panthers Football (2014), "ISU Redbirds" (2016) and “SIU Salukis Football" (2017).