Maybe the best point of reference for this most unusual college football season is one offered by Sports Illustrated back in April. SI’s Ross Dellenger mentioned a retired Division III coach named Larry Kehres, who won no fewer than 11 national championships in 27 seasons at Mount Union College, in Alliance, Ohio.
Kehres, who retired after the 2012 season and now serves as the school’s athletic director, accomplished all that without the benefit of spring practice or summer drills, which have long been a necessity for every Division I program.
But now many coaches are in the same boat, or at least a similar one, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Either we had no spring practice, as was the case here at Missouri State, or it was cut short. Campuses shut down across the country. Zoom meetings became the norm. Conditioning became a cross-your-fingers proposition, especially given the fact that local gyms in players’ hometowns were often shuttered as well.
There were similar challenges when summer began. Our informal workouts began June 1, and we convened for preseason practice in early August, with an eye on a fall schedule that consisted of exactly three games — one against fifth-ranked Oklahoma, the other two against Central Arkansas. Our eight Missouri Conference games, meanwhile, will be played between Feb. 20 and April 17.
It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and I’m in my 37th year of coaching, and 16th as a head coach. Then again, it’s unlike anything anybody has ever seen before. Anybody at D-1, anyway.
Again, Kehres can relate to some degree, since according to that SI piece he wouldn’t have contact with his full team for several months each year. When summer arrived, some of his guys stayed in shape. Some did not. Kehres just dealt with it — quite successfully, judging from his record.
There are some in the major-college ranks who have similar experiences. Dellenger mentioned, for instance, that current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly spent 15 years at Division II Grand Valley State.
“We’re doing a lot of things that bring us back to the days where we had to rely on our players to be self-motivated,” Kelly told Dellenger. “We’re giving them guidance but we can’t be mandating workouts and have to trust we have good leadership. We’re giving them the opportunity to consult with us. At Grand Valley, we had to call and check in and if they had questions, they could (ask). We’re seeing a lot of that right now. No doubt, this is a bit old school.”
Indeed it is. When the players departed campus in the spring, there had to be some level of trust, some hope that they were self-motivated and prideful. And more than anything else, we needed them to be resourceful and adaptable.
All that remains the case, as we move forward. We’re still getting to know each other, and our staff is still trying to fit all the pieces together, including all the new ones we’ve brought in since our arrival in January.
It is very much a work in progress, but circumstances like these tend to draw people together. I fully believe in the long run we will be better for this. That we will be stronger and more unified. That this most unusual season will have unusual benefits as well.