Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
SEC, Arkansas holding out hope
Hunter Yurachek, director of athletics at Arkansas, watches Saturday, May 25, 2019, during the second day of play in the NCAA Men's Golf Championships at Blessings Golf Club in Johnson.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Conferences are backing out of the fall football season all around the SEC as it holds out hope it can salvage all or parts of the season this fall.
On Tuesday evening, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey reiterated the conference is doing all it can to prepare to play a football season on schedule.
About the time Sankey was making those comments on ESPN's "College Football Live", many players at the University of Arkansas made their feelings on the season known.
A group that began with linebackers Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool -- and included veterans such as cornerback Montaric Brown; offensive linemen Myron Cunningham, Dalton Wagner and Shane Clenin; defensive lineman Xavier Kelly; and linebackers Hayden Henry and Levi Draper --all posted Twitter messages with a similar theme. The basic line was: We want to play. Everyone do your part. Wear a mask. We can do this together.
Most of the players tagged Coach Sam Pittman, Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek and Sankey in their tweets. Yurachek told media members on a Zoom call last week that the UA athletes he had talked to said they wanted to play their fall seasons.
The Razorbacks are operating as if their season opener against Nevada will take place as scheduled, but their Sept. 12 date at Notre Dame is looking suspect.
On Tuesday evening, ESPN's Heather Dinich said she was told by Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick he'd like to see the season delayed.
Sankey, asked by ESPN's Rece Davis about a deadline for making a decision on football, said he hasn't set a deadline but has "put dates out there," which has included late July for giving an update.
NCAA schools were allowed last week to have coaches on the field with players in team activities. A football can be added to the mix along with unpadded walk-throughs starting on Friday. As of now, college programs can start training camps in early August.
"So we look at next week as an important milestone," Sankey said. "The way I'll explain it is I've finished 41 marathons in my life, and I realize you're going to go mile by mile. We are on that journey. The challenge right now is to understand where the finish line may be.
"Last week we increased athletic activity. There's an opportunity to do the same later this week, so we had a check-in point today about our preparations to do so. Next week is a week prior to practice. We will have seen a lot of professional sports activity through the month of July. NFL training camps are scheduled to begin officially next week.
"The milestone check next week is are we ready to move into that stage of practice? Part of that will be a conversation about what a season will look like."
The Southwestern Athletic Conference on Monday became the fifth Football Championship Subdivision league to announce it will not play a fall sports schedule, joining the Ivy League, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Association, the Patriot League and the Colonial Athletic Association, although it is allowing its members to make their own choices.
The SEC, along with the Big 12 and the Atlantic Coast Conference, have said they will wait until later in the month to provide another update on their fall football plans. The Big Ten and Pac-12, their fellow Power 5 conferences, already have announced plans to play a conference-only schedule if there is a season.
The SEC already has lost four games with the SWAC delaying its season and the Pac-12 going conference only.
Those games are Alabama vs. Southern California; Colorado at Texas A&M; Alcorn State at Auburn; and Alabama A&M at Mississippi State.
Davis asked Sankey what the SEC might do if other conferences delay or decide not to play football while the SEC deems it manageable.
"Some of our colleagues in smaller conferences have identified that as a solution," Sankey said. "Our focus is what can we achieve in the fall. To the extent that doesn't become possible to support in a healthy way, we have to pivot and we'll be prepared to pivot quickly. But we want to focus right now on how do we support healthy activity in the next few months."
Yurachek, who said late last week he was "mediocre" and "50-50" on getting in a full football season, expressed notes of optimism early this week.
Speaking on the "Paul Finebaum Show" on the SEC Network on Monday, Yurachek touted the low numbers of positive covid-19 tests on SEC campuses.
"What is happening on our campuses right now -- at least the 14 SEC campuses -- and the protocol that's in place, it's very, very positive," Yurachek said. "What's happening in some of our communities and some of our states is not as positive.
"So if I just had to make a decision based on what is happening on our campus and how, within our campus community, that we're able to protect and provide great medical services and testing for our student-athletes, I would say, 'Yes, we can start.' But there's going to be a lot more that goes into this decision than just what's happening on our college campuses."
Finebaum asked Yurachek whether he was comfortable with the testing protocols on his campus and the uniform approach that is being drawn up by the NCAA and the Power 5 schools.
Yurachek responded in the affirmative.
"I'm in a unique situation where I've got a son [Jake] who plays football here at the University of Arkansas," he said. "I've got another son [Ryan] that is a graduate assistant on Sam Pittman's staff at the University of Arkansas.
"I've got a son [Brooks] that plays high school football. I feel comfortable with each of them -- two of them playing football in high school and college, and one being part of a staff that coaches football -- because of the protocols that are in place. Right now we have 315 student-athletes currently on our campus. All of our athletic facilities are open now, representing 19 sports programs, and we have one active case within our student-athlete population."
Yurachek noted he had just been talking to Arkansas basketball Coach Eric Musselman, who said he had been watching numerous AAU basketball games on his computer over the weekend.
"I've got colleagues whose sons or daughters are playing travel volleyball or softball and baseball or youth sports," Yurachek said.
"We talk about sending these kids back to school. Maybe these kids that we're talking about sending back to school are out playing sports. There's not testing going on. They're not wearing masks. There's not extensive protocols like we have here in the Southeastern Conference.
"I think those are all positive stories that may be overlooked. You've got professionals that are starting back. You've got youth sports that have been going for several weeks now. I think we've got to figure out a way how college fits in there as well."
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