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.
College football facing big puzzle
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey announces Wednesday, March 11, 2020, that fans will not be allowed in the arena to watch NCAA college basketball games in the SEC tournament in Nashville, Tenn., starting Thursday. The Southeastern Conference joined the rest of the Power Five leagues and announced that only family and essential personnel would attend its men's and women's tournament basketball games. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
FAYETTEVILLE -- One week of coronavirus suspensions has those connected to college football considering just about every scenario imaginable.
Included is the one that no one really wants to contemplate at this early stage: The possibility of having no more practices before the traditional start of training camps in early August. Beyond that, will concerns over the spread of the virus disrupt the 2020 college football schedule?
No one knows the answer to those questions yet. For SEC schools like the University of Arkansas, the current mandates call for no spring game and no practices until at least April 16.
That start date, which looks very tenuous at this time, would not allow the Razorbacks to get in 15 practices before the current April 26 end date for the spring period.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey was asked a wide-ranging series of questions about the coronavirus, such as its potential impact on college football, in a lengthy teleconference this week. He noted the current suspension "does not apply to spring practices at this time, and I think that's the important qualifying phrase," he said. "We have said no athletic activities through April 15.
"That doesn't mean we'll be back to normal or to practice activities April 16. It was just a date that allows our administrators to communicate with our coaches, our coaches with their student athletes.
"If you look at the national public messaging about no gatherings above 50, [it is] certainly difficult to conduct any football practice under that limitation, and even with smaller numbers, it had been communicated 10, as often referenced, thereby making it impossible into May, has been stated.
"So I'm not going to be overly optimistic about the return to practice. We haven't fully foreclosed that opportunity, but I think practically that window's pretty narrow."
For Coach Sam Pittman and the first-year staff of the Arkansas Razorbacks, spring drills obviously loomed large in implementing new schemes, verbiage and the Pittman culture.
The Razorbacks had not started spring practices at the time of the suspension of athletic activities, while several sister schools in the SEC had been underway with the set of 15 practices allowed by the NCAA.
Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek and Sankey both said they felt certain NCAA football programs would be afforded the opportunity to prepare properly for the 2020 season.
Sankey was asked about the practicality of holding football practices in May or June.
"What I'd say is let's not just define some structure," Sankey said. "I'm confident, in fact, if we're not able to practice further this spring, I'm confident that we'll be seeking opportunities to make sure our teams our adequately prepared heading into the season."
Yurachek was asked last Friday how the disruption of football practices might impact Pittman in his debut season.
"I'll let you know Sept. 5," Yurachek said, adding levity to an otherwise business-like news conference. "But obviously it's something Coach Pittman and I have had discussions about over the past 24 hours.
"Again, we'll apply for some legislative relief to try to get our spring football practices in, whether it be in the month of May or June. But I think you will find that the NCAA will provide some relief to most schools to make it equitable. Some have had a week or two of spring practice, some have not, and some are completed with their spring practices. That obviously puts us behind, but that is not what is important right now."
Pittman issued a statement last Friday about the suspensions brought on by the coronavirus, and he's scheduled to have a teleconference with media members today, as five other UA head coaches have done this week. In his statement, he assured the Razorbacks would be "ready to go with a plan to improve our football program" as soon as they were given the go-ahead to practice.
The questions to Sankey even included one about whether SEC media days, scheduled to start July 13 in Atlanta, might be impacted.
"I'm going to be half-full right now, and say we're full steam ahead on our Atlanta planning for media days," Sankey said. "Last Thursday morning I was full steam ahead on planning a basketball tournament and was disrupted, so we're going to prepare for disruption, but we're going to plan as if in July we'll have the media days opportunity as scheduled."
CBSSports.com on Thursday posed this scenario: What if college football is forced to suspend activity until the start of training camps in August.
"We're preparing exactly with that model in place," Virginia Coach Bronco Mendenhall said in a video conference with the outlet.
"We're acting as if, and we're making preparations as if, we won't have spring practice. We possibly won't have players here for summer school, any session, and possibly we won't have the opportunity for anything other than fall camp to begin."
Sankey pointed out that the current suspension on college campuses across the country will provide decision-makers in many disciplines to study the issues that spawn from the coronavirus pandemic.
"We're going to have a period of time to see what happens with the growth of these cases and we'll make decisions down the road," he said. "So, for me, my responsibility is to continue to support the public health decision making, but also to be prepared to do our work as assigned to us, and we have ... categorized things.
"One is to be focused on the work we have. The second is to make sure we're prepared for next year as planned. And the third is to engage in big-picture thinking, which is contingency planning, but also, strategic planning."
Sankey used his dry sense of humor to talk about how he is able to spend his time now.
"As we adjust to the fact that no one's complaining to me about umpires right now and that opens up a little bit of space, we want to use that time wisely," he said. "We had a baseball coach's conference call. When I joined, I said I'd much rather be talking to some of you about baseball umpiring problems over the weekend than what we're talking about now, but as we adjust to this new normal, we're going to be thinking about a lot of things."
The start of the college football season is Aug. 29. The Razorbacks open their season the following week, along with the vast majority of college teams, when they host Nevada at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
Sports on 03/20/2020
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