The coronavirus pandemic has compressed the offseason timeline for college football teams, making it that much more difficult to build a team, build cohesion and build momentum.
That is doubly so for a coach like Bobby Petrino, who is approaching his first season at Missouri State — COVID-19 willing — and attempting to awaken a program that in 2019 went 1-10 under the previous coach, Dave Steckel, and has not had a winning season since going 6-5 in 2009.
Petrino, whose 37-year career has been highlighted by head-coaching stints at Louisville (twice) and Arkansas, was hired in January. He was able to augment the 22-man recruiting class Steckel and Co. assembled in December by bringing in 10 more newcomers, seven of them from the junior-college ranks.
But the coronavirus pandemic shut down school, depriving Petrino’s revamped team of spring practice and reducing coaches to Zoom meetings with each other and their players. The team returned to campus for preseason conditioning on June 1, but obviously there is much to learn, and little time in which to do it — if in fact the season unfolds as planned.
The Bears are at present scheduled to open at powerful Oklahoma on Aug. 29, after the NCAA granted a waiver to move the game up a week in the face of the pandemic. There remains a chance it will not be played at all, as two of the Power Five conferences have opted to play only within their leagues. (Oklahoma’s conference, the Big 12, has yet to decide.) There’s also a chance the season will be delayed or cancelled altogether.
As it stands, at least, Petrino and his staff have to build from the ground up. As he put it in an interview with Art Hains in May, “We’ve got to find (out) what our identity is very quickly.”
Player development is central to every coach’s mission, and in Petrino’s other stops he has focused on their off-field growth as well. One way he has done that is by holding etiquette dinners and dress-for-success nights each offseason, in the hope that the players learn how to conduct themselves in formal settings. Everybody is called upon to dress their best, an idea that sprang out of Petrino’s background: For a very long time, he didn’t know how to tie a tie.
“The whole idea was that five years from now or four years from now, (Dallas Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones comes to town to take you out to dinner, to decide whether he’s going to invest millions of dollars in you,” Petrino said, “and you’re going to be able to sit down, eat your steak right, dress properly and look them in the eye and convince him to invest millions of dollars in you.”
Petrino’s mission at present is more on-field-centered, and appears to be more urgent. While much is unknown, the Bears can only hope to be all dressed up, and have someplace to go.