WIU opt-out decision 'in the best interest of our players, our program, everybody involved on a daily basis'

Western Illinois opted out of the remainder of the spring Missouri Valley Football Conference season. (photo courtesy of GoLeathernecks.com)

A day after announcing its football program was opting out of the remainder of the spring season Western Illinois head coach Jared Elliott and his team captains addressed the media Tuesday afternoon.

“When we got through the game on Saturday (against Youngstown State) and get into Sunday we always get our weekly report of where our roster is in terms of injuries and readily available players,” Elliott said in his opening remarks. “It became very clear early on when we got that report late Sunday night into the morning on Monday that is wasn’t in the best interest of our program to move forward with the remaining (two) games in our spring season.”

Western is the sixth FCS school to opt out in-season. Illinois State was the first, declaring its intention March 21, a day after hosting and defeating WIU for its lone win of the spring.

Indiana State, another Missouri Valley member, opted out before the spring season began.

Elliott said that the WIU decision was done in-house and that the other schools that opted out did not factor into the decision.

“The decision that was made is in the best interest of our players, our program, everybody involved on a daily basis,” Elliott said. “We don’t make decisions, I’m never going to make decisions, that involve people outside of that. This is the best decision for Leatherneck football.

“My job was to communicate that with our players, which we did yesterday (Monday) evening. I think we did it the right way. We brought in our three captains (Eryk Preston, Connor Sampson and Tony Tate) and had some really open and honest dialogue.

“It was no secret where we are as a team. These guys all understand. There’s disappointment obviously that we’re not going to be able to get those couple more opportunities to compete. We all share that disappointment, but at the same time our entire football team understands exactly where we’re at and the reality that we are facing in this moment.”

Along with informing his coaching staff, players and administration, Elliott also contacted the players’ parents.

“I reached out with a message to make sure they all understood why this decision was made and an update about where we were and where we’re going moving forward,” he said. “I felt that’s where the priority needed to be.”

The Leathernecks entered the spring season with some players already injured. As the weeks passed, injuries continued to take their toll — especially in the offensive and defensive lines.

Elliott indicated that some of the injuries will likely carry over into the fall.

“We played six games straight in a row,” Elliott said. “These kids have done everything we’ve asked them to do. The sacrifices they’ve made to make sure we could play those games . . . We didn’t have one positive (Covid) test for seven straight weeks.”

The players were aware of the toll the season was taking on the roster.

“We definitely realized that guys were going down, but it was the next man up mentality whether we were going to play this week or next week,” quarterback Connor Sampson said. “Unfortunately, we just didn’t have enough guys to do that.”

Receiver Tony Tate added, “It was definitely tough. I don’t think anybody joins any team in college football just to practice. We all just want to compete and want an opportunity to play in the game, but at the end of the day the coaches and the administration made it very clear that our health and safety was the most important thing.

“They kept that first and foremost. They didn’t want to put us in a predicament where guys would continue to get hurt. They wanted to keep us safe and I think the rest of the team understands that.”

‘I’m going to make decisions that are best for the guys’

When asked if this was the toughest decision he’s made as a head coach, Elliott responded that it actually wasn’t.

“It was tough because I knew our kids still wanted to play and wanted to compete; that’s what’s tough,” he said, “(but) there was no part of me that was, ‘hey what’s this going to look like?’ It was an easy decision in terms of knowing what was the right thing for us. And at the end of the day it’s my job to worry about Leatherneck football, to worry about our players.

“I’ve always believed this. I was told this as a young coach, there’s going to be a lot of opinions outside. The people that have those opinions don’t have relationships with these players, with these families. They don’t love these players, they don’t care about these players. I do. And my staff does. And I’m going to make decisions that are best for the guys that we go to war with everyday. This was by far the best decision for our program.”

That decision was also supported by the Missouri Valley adminstration.

“Starting with (commissioner) Patty (Viverito), they have done a good job communicating that this is a season like no other,” Elliott said. “Can we all sit here and pretend that every situation is the same at every place or that there is a cookie-cutter type of mold and the numbers and all those things are the same? The Valley has done a really good job.

“I know this, in our situation they were extremely supportive and extremely understanding. They backed us 100 percent. There was no question why.”

National perspective

On Sunday, national FCS writer Craig Haley stated in a story: “It’s disappointing that schools such as Albany, Chattanooga, Cal Poly and Illinois State have opted out of the remainder of their schedules, but they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing – making health and safety the priority in a season played during a pandemic.

“Schools are faced with two seasons in the same calendar year (spring and fall) and have different circumstances, including teams in other sports ending their seasons early. School and conference officials expected starts and stops throughout the spring season, so what’s happening isn’t surprising.”

As Elliott himself pointed out, there are several teams that have not opted out yet have only played 2-4 games due to stoppages.

“Nothing that anyone else has done outside of us made us think about anything differently or make a decision for us or help us make the decision. Our decision was solely based on what was best for us,” he said.

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