SALT LAKE CITY — Kyle Whittingham has “worn out” the tape he has on the three days of spring camp this year.
His group was lucky and got a few practices in before the coronavirus pandemic unleashed its fury on the U.S. and shut down the sports world. Other teams hadn’t even started their spring camp and have nothing substantial to prepare for a potential 2020 season.
But even with limited film in a season when Utah is looking to replace former starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and an entire starting defense, there’s not much to go on in an uncertain moment for the sport. The NCAA currently only allows eight hours a week of communication with the players, but even then it’s an “honor system” approach to whether the players are doing what they’re supposed to while away from the program.
Utah may be getting some relief, though, as the state continues to slowly ease its current stay-at-home restrictions. Speaking during a teleconference with the media Tuesday, Whittingham said there’s “some talk” about allowing his team to return to facilities in a small-group setting to start weight-room training on June 1.
“Right now, there's nothing concrete,” he said. “We're just playing it by ear each day and getting the updates each day. And if we are able to get back with June 1, even on a limited basis, that would be great. But that remains to be seen.”
The Pac-12 currently has a suspension on all athletic competitions through May 31. Barring an extension from the conference or the state of Utah further limiting access, football training could, in theory, resume for Utah football in June. Still, it’s a “pretty fluid situation,” as Whittingham put it.
That fluid situation for the state of football changed further hours after Whittingham and other coaches addressed the current state of football in the Pac-12. Shortly after the teleconference, the LA Times reported that Los Angeles County likely won’t lift its stay-at-home order for the next three months.
The California State University system then said it would operate primarily online for its fall semester, leaving 23 member schools that include three Mountain West Conference schools without any students on campus — a key talking point about the return of college athletics in the fall.
The Pac-12, which features four teams from California and two primarily in Los Angeles County, said it continues to monitor the situation and will “make our own determination on when our student-athletes can return to play and when and how campuses will reopen to students.
“These decisions will be based first and foremost on the health and well-being of all those connected to the Pac-12, and informed by the advice of public health and medical experts along with state and local governmental orders,” the conference’s statement continues. “Every day we are learning new and important information that will inform our decisions, and we believe that there is a great benefit to having as much relevant data as possible before making such decisions.”
The Pac-12 coaches agree that although they’re itching to get football back, it’s the safety of the players and the team’s personnel that matter more than forcing the sport back to existence.
“I can safely speak for all three of us that the student-athletes’ welfare and their safety is first and foremost, and I don't think anybody's interested in putting them in harm's way in any way shape or form, and so that'll be job one,” Whittingham said. “But kind of like most of the questions we fielded, there's just so many things that have yet to be determined. It's hard to give you a concrete answer on that.”
“The biggest thing is it's the safety of the players and our staff is number one,” Washington head coach Jimmy Lake added. “And so if someone has an issue with an underlying condition, of getting back here, we're going to deal with that appropriately. It's going to be nothing about trying to get them here for a meeting, and that takes precedence over their safety; so safety first for all of our personnel here.”
Following its spring meeting last week, Pac-12 coaches came to a consensus they would seek to have a minimum of six weeks of training and conditioning before any games could be played, though they’d want more and would adjust to less if it meant football returned and everyone had the same lead-up time to prepare.
But the coaches somewhat differed on how they viewed players returning to campus and being able to take part in summer training based on the state and local government restrictions. Programs like Washington and the California schools wouldn’t have the same access as say Colorado and Utah, who are relaxing their stay-at-home orders faster.
I don't believe that players that have the availability and the opportunity to train should be, that it should be withheld from them. ... I would hate to see athletes just sitting around that you could be training and getting ready for the season just because other places aren't quite yet to that point.
–Coach Kyle Whittingham, University of Utah football
“I don't believe that players that have the availability and the opportunity to train should be, that it should be withheld from them,” Whittingham said. “I think everything's in the best interest for players, in my opinion. There's imbalances and inequalities all across the board of the NCAA — facility wise, recruiting bases, nothing's really equal when you really look at it. So, I would hate to see athletes just sitting around that you could be training and getting ready for the season just because other places aren't quite yet to that point.”
“Say, if Colorado did open up and we're able to work out, that's still a governing time of just training — stuff that we're getting supervision for. I would be in favor of that,” Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell added. “And I think from a conference perspective, if there's schools that couldn't do that, where they were still out where they couldn't come back on campus, I would try to get it legislated for where those campuses can have virtual supervision for workouts because the kids can't be back on campus.”
Lake said he worried about the disadvantages his program may face because his state hasn’t relaxed the rules.
“We have a nonconference game to start off. If they're able to practice two months before we were able to practice, that's a disadvantage,” he said. “I'm not even talking about Utah or Colorado, just our first game that we're slated to play. So that's what I would be for, and then I think we would be all on an even playing field. I think the NFL is also going through the same issue right now. Some states are opening up before others. And I've heard a couple of NFL head coaches also have the same sentiment.”
But a universal start time in the NCAA, an idea all three coaches advocated for in the teleconference, won’t happen following NCAA president Mark Emmert telling ESPN the governing body won’t oversee a universal start date.
“Normally there’s an agreed upon start date for every sport, every season," Emmert said, "but under these circumstances, now that’s all been derailed by the pandemic. It won’t be the conferences that can do that, either. It will be the local and state health officials that say whether or not you can open and play football with fans."
It looks like that fluid situation will remain.