SALT LAKE CITY — With no guarantee that college football will resume this fall, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham is preparing for the 2020 season the best way he can amid the uncertainty of an always-changing landscape due to the coronavirus pandemic.
There’s Zoom meetings with coaches and players, workout plans sent to his athletes all over the country, and even a "quarantine beard" donning Whittingham’s face like much of the world at this time of self-isolation and social distancing.
But as to what the rest of the year will look like is anyone’s guess, even for him.
The NCAA has yet to make a ruling on what fall athletics will look like as it waits for the United States to slowly ease its way out of isolation and peak COVID-19 exposure, but there’s no guarantee football — or any sport like it — will resume a sense of normalcy once it does return in the foreseeable future.
But with football being the big revenue item for athletic departments around the country, it becomes a necessity to get the season underway — even if it means pushing the season back to the start of 2021.
"Worst case scenario is no season, obviously, and then there's a bunch of things in between: Oct. 1 start, Nov. 1, I've even heard of Feb. 1 start, which I don't know how that would work out, but it'd be nice to get some of those warm-weather teams up here in February and see how they react," Whittingham told media during a video conference Tuesday. "But there's so many unanswered questions right now and so many unknowns that you're really, you’ve gotta be prepared for anything."
Whittingham said the University of Utah has started drafting out various plans on what they would need to resume action in fall, including a warm-up period before games can be played. His hope is that teams will be given 6-8 weeks of prep before games start, but "there's still a lot of things that have got to transpire between now and when we get going to figure it out exactly."
That 6- to 8-week period is standard time to get a team ready for the season, but Utah, like most of the programs around the country, is missing out on summer workouts and access to training staff that can help the athletes in the weight room and with their nutritional habits. At this point, players are sent workouts that they have to do on their own, while also meeting virtually with coaches for up to four hours a week.
To further add to the conditioning aspect, Whittingham said about 40% of his team doesn’t have access to a gym or workout equipment, which leaves them doing simple exercises like pushups and situps, which Whittingham calls "not ideal." Still, the coaching staff has crafted two different workout regimens: one for players with access to equipment and one for those who don’t.
"I think we're maximizing what we can do, and I’ve got to believe — I can tell you right now the teams that are handling this situation the best and that come out of this with making the most progress, you're gonna have a huge advantage when the season does start because this time right here, it's critical that you do everything you possibly can to continue to progress and develop your players," Whittingham said.
He added that the team is handling the uncertainty well, even academically, but is as ready as the next person to know the future of the sport. Whittingham said college football’s decision to play will likely come down to what the NFL decides to do with its season. The NFL will be holding its draft Thursday-Saturday and will be forced to address the issue after the event.
"If the NFL is not playing, I don't see any way we're playing," Whittingham said. "If we're not, I don't see any way high school is playing. The NFL, they're kind of the leaders in this thing, and as soon as they get some sort of hard and fast model — we're certainly not going to be able to do it for several weeks, either, because of the circumstances.
"But it trickles down and we'll take a lot of the NFL model and what they're doing and apply it to us, and I'm sure high school will do the same thing with what we're doing."
One of the plans crafted for the NFL is to play the games without fans, and for players to be tested regularly for the virus. This would limit exposure while allowing the season to resume. That same model could be replicated in college football, which would take out the lifeblood of the sport.
"Without fans, I guess anything's possible. I sure hope not," Whittingham said. "We've got a great home-field advantage here at Rice-Eccles, and that would really impact us probably more than most teams in the conference. But if it comes down to a season without fans or no season, then I think we're going to — that's the direction it could go, and so we've got to be prepared for that.
"There's nothing really we do differently, it's just that it'd be a completely different environment and very odd to be in that situation," he added. "I hope it doesn't come to that. We've got great fans here in Utah. … but like I said, if it's that or no season, then I think you're gonna see exactly that, no fans if that's the way that they think is the only alternative and a way they can get the season done."
Utah enters the season with a lot of uncertainty in its personnel, having to replace nearly an entire starting defense and a starting quarterback. But those issues fall secondary to simply playing the game. Once the sport returns — and that’s still a big if — then the natural jockeying for starting positions can be worked out, even if it’s in a rushed and less-defined state.
"I think the real important thing is that there is a football season," Whittingham said.