Weathering the spring presents challenges for Illinois FCS teams

Weathering the spring presents challenges for Illinois FCS teams
Illinois State head coach Brock Spack has allowed players to wear whatever they need to stay warm in preseason practices. (Photo by GoRedbirds.com)

Cold, snow and wind await unique spring schedule amid COVID-19 pandemic

When it comes to playing college football outdoors in the spring, Nick Hill considers growing up in Illinois perfect preparation.

“It could be 70 degrees and sunny or it could be cold and blowing 25 miles an hour,” said Hill, the head football coach at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, about spring weather. “You don’t what you’re going to get in southern Illinois.”

When the four Illinois FCS teams kick off the unique spring schedule beginning Feb. 20, the weather could have a distinct impact as opposed to the fall.

“We haven’t really played in these conditions before,” said Eastern Illinois long snapper Stephen Elmore, who also is a weather forecaster for WEIU-TV. “Nobody has. In February, it’s usually that dry, cold wind. My challenge as a long snapper is just staying warm. Just move around and don’t get stiff. For guys that move a lot and are running a lot in that cold air, it’s hard to breathe.

“We’re going to have to adapt our bodies to the cold,” Elmore said.

Cold weather prep

Around the state, college football players have spent weeks preparing their bodies for being outdoors during late February through early April the best way they can.

Every school has hosted the bulk of its preseason practices outdoors, sometimes in snowy and windy conditions.

Brock Spack

Brock Spack

At Illinois State in Normal, head coach Brock Spack has allowed what his athletes wear to practice to be unique to every player’s needs.

“As coaches, we’re all sticklers for what we’re going to wear on the practice field,” he said. “But when it gets to a certain temperature, it’s every man for himself. It’s whatever you need to stay warm.”

Spack credited the team’s equipment crew for their work in acquiring more cold weather gear while he and his staff have adjusted practice times.

“We try to practice at noon, when the sun is highest,” he said. “We’ve had to do that just to get the most sunlight and the most heat. It’s worked out so far.”

‘Football is football’

During Ohio Valley Conference media day earlier this month, Eastern Illinois head coach Adam Cushing said players would take the field in several feet of snow just to have the opportunity to play again since the COVID-19 pandemic halted the fall season.

Western Illinois head coach Jared Elliott has noticed the same approach from his players in Macomb.

Head coach Jared Elliott and the WIU Leathernecks kick off the season Feb. 27 in Macomb. (YouTube photo)

Head coach Jared Elliott and the WIU Leathernecks kick off the season Feb. 27 in Macomb. (YouTube photo)

“We have not noticed an attitude difference or an effort difference,” he said. “Once the whistle blows and practice starts, football is football. You get in the zone and execute your assignment and the weather becomes a secondary thought.”

For skill players, such as Eastern Illinois wide receiver Isaiah Hill, attention to detail will be critical this spring when the weather is uncooperative.

“It’s all about being detailed in your routes,” he said. “You can’t be overstriding your steps. Any little error in your technique might cause you to slip.”

Though the weather requires extra preparation from players and coaches, it is not a totally unique situation in football, according to Missouri Valley Football Conference commissioner Patty Viverito.

“First of all, have you ever watched a game in Green Bay?” she said with a laugh. “We play football as long as you can clear (the field) and see the lines.”

WIU’s Elliott and SIU’s Hill also have used some of the NFL’s cold-weather cities as examples for their players.

“One thing we keep talking about is that as a Midwest program, we’re a cold-weather team,” Elliott said. “You look at some of the great NFL teams that make deep playoff runs like the dynasty of the (New England) Patriots and the success of the Packers. Those teams thrived in cold weather. Our guys have bought into it.”

Viverito said the league took weather into consideration when setting up its schedule.

“We’re playing in domes,” she said. “We have some of our schools that are located more south than others. We have established our schedule of games with those variables in mind. We’re going to take advantage of those.”

Weather by the numbers

SIU quarterback Kare' Lyles practices in the cold in Carbondale. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

SIU quarterback Kare’ Lyles practices in the cold in Carbondale. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

The MVFC has the benefit of four schools – North Dakota, South Dakota, Northern Iowa and North Dakota State – that play their home games in dome stadiums.

Illinois State will travel to UNI and NDSU in March for back-to-back games. The Redbirds are the only Illinois school with two games scheduled in domes.

Fellow MVFC members WIU and SIU will each play one of their four road games in a dome.

The Salukis have the benefit of being one of the southernmost teams in its conference.

While Carbondale’s average temperature, according to USClimateData.com, is 47 degrees in February and 57 in March, the other extremes are Youngstown State and South Dakota State.

YSU, located near the Pennsylvania border, averages 11 inches of snow in March, which is when the Salukis visit for a March 6 game. SDSU is the farthest northern team in the MVFC that plays outdoors. When Illinois State travels to Brookings, S.D., for a March 27 contest, the city averages a high temperature of 39 degrees and 6 inches of snow.

In late March and early April, WIU will host two night games that kick off at 7 p.m., when the average daily low temperature ranges from 33 to 43 degrees.

North vs. south

While EIU’s campus in Charleston averages a 42-degree high temperature and 4 inches of snow in February, the Panthers are the farthest northern team in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Early in the season, EIU will travel to Tennessee-Martin (50-degree average high temp) in February, and Murray State (60) and Tennessee State (61) in March.

Eastern Illinois conducts a night practice in preparation for the spring season. (Photo by EIUPanthers.com)

Eastern Illinois conducts a night practice in preparation for the spring season. (Photo by EIUPanthers.com)

“We’re playing a lot of schools in Tennessee and other southern states,” EIU’s Hill said. “The weather we’re playing in (at EIU), I don’t think anybody else has seen. We’re used to catching the ball in the cold. We’re gaining that extra edge on everybody else who has to come here and play on our field.”

Do the Panthers have an advantage over teams from Alabama, Tennessee and Missouri that will travel to EIU this spring?

“I sure hope so,” Cushing said. “In the state of Illinois, (the weather) could even be interesting in April.”

Dan Verdun contributed to this story.

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