The Big Sky Conference put the official nail in the coffin on its fall seasons Thursday, calling off 2020 athletic competitions for every sport.
By virtue of that announcement — owing to the nation’s inability to contain the coronavirus — the University of Idaho will go more than one calendar year without football, women’s soccer, volleyball, golf, tennis and cross country. The fate of winter sports remains in the air.
When the league decided last week to push its football seasons to spring 2021, it left the door open on potential fall nonconference games, but that premise was shut down with the announcement. Idaho’s matchup scheduled for Sept. 14 at Temple is no more.
“And we had a walk-through last night, working on Temple,” eighth-year Vandals coach Paul Petrino said during a video conference media availability. “So that made it a little disappointing. But we just gotta keep staying positive, moving forward, making sure we’re all there for each other. These are trying times for a lot of people, so it’s making sure everybody’s really good mentally ... and that physically, we all stay good — that we do a great job of going by the guidelines, wearing masks, staying 6 feet apart, and just doing everything we’re asked to do so that we can all stay healthy and move forward.”
The conference’s institutions can continue permissible athletic activities at their discretion, providing they abide by NCAA legislation, campus policies, and local and state regulations.
So the Vandal football team plans to treat this fall’s lineup of practices as if they were offseason exercises. Idaho’s walk-throughs will remain ongoing, along with agility drills and teleconference team meetings.
“They wanna play football, guys wanna play,” Petrino said. “They worked their tails off, some of them worked for the last 18 to 20 years, and that’s what you wanna do. So it’s hard, you know, it’s gonna make them sad. They’ve done everything they can and ... these last couple months since we’ve been back here, our guys have been outstanding.
“Now, we just gotta move on to use this like it’s winter conditioning, then spring ball coming up, to get ourselves ready for the spring season. It’s kinda just flipped.”
Petrino and Idaho athletic director Terry Gawlik fielded questions from reporters during an extensive Zoom session, providing some clarity on the league’s decision, the school’s coronavirus protocols and a number of other topics.
Gawlik said the Big Sky’s resolution was made in the best interest of student-athlete health and safety. Football, volleyball and soccer involve too much contact to be viable, and although physical distancing is possible in the other sports, it simply made sense logistically to employ a one-size-fits-all approach to the postponements.
While the first-year AD has been confident in Idaho’s procedures, she acknowledged there was some concern about Idaho’s opponents — how feasible it’d be to schedule games this late. There was a hint that maintainable safety guidelines in Moscow might be less so away from home.
“As we’ve been saying all along: I felt like we got out in front of it,” she said, commending Idaho’s training staff and Moscow’s local health authorities. “I told (head athletic trainer) Chris (Walsh) from Day 1 that we weren’t going to have any athletic activities without testing. We’ve been doing the testing, we’ve implemented policies and procedures that I really feel strongly are some of the best in the country, and the campus has as well. So having to sit in on conference calls and discuss postponing the season to the spring was really difficult for everybody.”
Gawlik elaborated somewhat on Idaho’s procedures, and how they have exceeded NCAA recommendations by becoming implemented “as if it’s not just a recommendation ... and we’ll continue to do that,” she said of the “prescriptive” process at Idaho.
Petrino, referencing the guidelines, commented on campus safety for athletes, joining multiple other coaches nationwide in his sentiment.
“Everybody that’s out there working out has been tested,” he said. “Everyone goes through the protocols that we go through every day to be out there. To me, it’s no question it’s safer for them to be out there at that time. Everything we do is trying to be what’s best for them, and how we can keep them safe and healthy, and we just gotta keep that bubble as safe as we can.”
Gawlik made a decision more than two months ago to hold off on bringing winter sport athletes back to campus early, and to have fall athletes return in groups to be tested. For the football team, 40 players came first, then another batch of 32, followed by a final, smaller set — Petrino noted not every player in the last group has left quarantine yet. A player can only join the larger collective once he’s cleared.
“We’re going to continue with what we’ve been most recently doing,” Gawlik said. “We’ve got a good bubble going, we’re calling it the Kibbie Dome bubble. But we also have bubbles with our sports, all the different teams.
“I just wanted to bring the (fall athletes) back, so that proved a pretty wise choice back then. (The rest) will come back to school with the other students.”
If someone were to test positive in the Idaho athletics “bubble,” then comes tracing to discern who said player had been in close contact with.
It’s certainly been a work in progress, Gawlik added. But in the murky age of coronavirus, how much more can be asked?
“I’d say we were ahead (of the game), all the way,” Petrino said. “I think Chris Walsh has done a great job, I think our president (Scott Green) did a great job from the get-go, getting everything ready to go, we’ll be able to test right on campus.
“We’ve really presented it in the right way. Now sometimes you just happen to be by someone, so then you get quarantined, and that’s not a lot of fun. Nobody likes that, but that’s the best way to keep everybody healthy.”
Of course, it all comes with a cost. Testing protocols and the cancellation of a lucrative guaranteed-revenue game like the Battle of the Palouse against Washington State in Pullman are difficult tasks financially. Gawlik doesn’t yet have a figure on how much will be lost, but the hope is to recoup as much as possible in the spring — maybe new games will be scheduled, or home contests open to the public.
“We’ve been working through that all summer, and certainly that is a concern,” she said. “... We’re working through all those discussions of, ‘How can we make things go without having ticket sales or games, or income from competition?’”
“As I told Chris, ‘We need to be willing to do whatever we can to ensure athletes’ safety, and yeah, there’s gonna be a cost.’”
She said Idaho’s planned on-campus testing should help alleviate some of that financial strain.
As for the outlook on the spring, which figures to feature a heap of athletic events, Gawlik said the department has had discussions on the “what ifs.” She said it’s possible to pull off all the events in the spring, but it’d be “a lot of work.”
“Our tennis coach, Babar (Akbar) volunteered, ‘I’ll do anything, I’ll help,’ and I said, ‘OK, Babar, you’re gonna be running the table at basketball games,’” Gawlik said. “So everybody’s on board with making things work to the best of our ability. Our new mantra we’ve been saying most recently is: ‘We need to try, we’re gonna try.’”
Idaho confirmed last week that nine student-athletes tested positive for COVID-19 out of 125 tested, and sources confirmed the majority of them were football players, along with two department staff members. Petrino said three unnamed players approached him recently to opt out of the fall season — all for different reasons — but they plan to return for the spring.
A day after the school’s confirmation, WatchStadium.com published a disputed report detailing almost 75 percent of Vandal football players voted in a confidential petition, indicating they were not comfortable playing this fall.
Petrino said some players had, in fact, met and voiced concerns, but later talked it out in a positive manner with him and Gawlik.
“It was good, they brought (their concerns) up, and we talked about them,” he said. “We had a really good Zoom meeting about it, we moved forward and everything has gone on very well.”
The coach said the total of players reported as voting in the poll was off. He reiterated the feeling at the Dome has been predominantly enthusiastic.
“I don’t ever wanna say something’s false reported or not reported, but they’ve been very positive and very upbeat, and they’ve worked their tails off,” said Petrino, who has praised his team’s maturity, camaraderie and perseverance throughout the pandemic.
Some of the primary unknowns include impacts on eligibility for those running out of it, and early enrollees; and the effects on spring recruiting.
“Everything’s gonna be different this year in all aspects,” Petrino said.
The Vandals will have a new quarterback next season, and several newcomers they expect to contribute in their fifth-ranked FCS recruiting class according to 247Sports.com. Optimistically, they’ll have more time to assimilate and learn the schemes — Petrino has found value in the extra mental reps.
“I think with anything in life, you can either make it a positive or a negative,” he said. “We’ve got to make it a positive.”
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