College football: 2020 will present unique challenges for small-school programs
As college football players flock back to campuses around the country, much of the conversation in Oklahoma has been about two schools: OU and OSU.
Folks have spent the three months since college sports shut down due to the coronavirus asking the same questions. When will the Sooners and Cowboys start workouts? What will their testing procedures be? What are protocols if a player or coach tests positive? How many people will be allowed at games?
But Oklahoma has 11 other football programs ranging from FBS to NAIA, and each of them are maneuvering through the same challenges as their Power 5 peers — without the same resources.
On the financial side, it means athletic directors are viewing budget and planning for expenditures from testing players to making sure the team has enough football helmets. On the personal side, it means coaches are working remotely to make sure players are on top of academics, mental health and workouts.
“We're going to return to some type of normal at some point — it may be different, but it will be normal,” said Donnita Drain-Rogers, athletic director at Langston, an NAIA program. “So now we’re preparing that. What are things going to look like?”
‘Work within the constraints of budgets’
One of the biggest hurdles administrators at smaller programs said they face is finding the capacity to test their players. Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said recently testing an entire team and staff could cost up to $18,000.
That price tag is feasible for schools like OU and OSU. However, Division II and NAIA schools won’t have the same rigor in testing that Power 5 schools have because their budgets don’t allow it
University of Central Oklahoma brought players back to campus on June 1 but did not test players. Head coach Nick Bobeck and interim athletic director Chuck Bailey said the university is taking extra precautions, including social distancing in locker rooms and requiring players to bring their own water bottles instead of athletic trainers providing them.
“I saw (Castiglione’s comment about testing price), and the first thing I thought was, ‘Can a school like UCO do that?'” Bailey said. “We talked about it as a staff, but we haven’t moved on that. … We’re not providing the tests for them currently, but we’re trying to keep an eye on it and instruct kids on what to look for.”
Bobeck and Bailey have encouraged players to get tested on their own and have worked to educate players on healthy techniques. When players arrive at the facility, they go through a questionnaire to determine if they’ve shown any COVID-19 symptoms, and if they have, they are not allowed to enter.
“I think the process we’re going through is correct,” Bobeck said. “Are (the protocols) perfect? I don’t believe they are, but I don’t know that there is a perfect (method). … You have to work with the constraints of budgets, and that’s a reality for us, a reality at Oklahoma State and a reality at Oklahoma. So I believe our process is correct given the resources that we have available.”
While UCO players have already returned to Edmond for workouts, the two NAIA programs in the state — Oklahoma Panhandle State and Langston — are required by NAIA rules to wait until August 15 to start workouts. This gives administrators more time to figure out protocols and procedures, but they are also unlikely to have the money to regularly test student-athletes across all sports.
OSU Medicine offered free testing on Panhandle State’s campus in Goodwell earlier in June. Panhandle athletic director Megan Mulcahy said she hopes free testing can be provided for those within the athletic department because it would be a financial relief.
“The NAIA is talking about having a certain company do (testing),” Mulcahy said. “But it's quite expensive per person. I don't know that we'd be able to afford (it). Like we wouldn’t have the money to go to games or anything.”
The lack of testing presents a challenge for smaller programs, but the capacity to test doesn’t solve every problem. Power 5 programs are testing all of their players and still are running into hurdles.
Kansas State suspended its workouts for two weeks after 14 players tested positive on June 20, over two weeks after returning to campus. Nearly two dozen Clemson players reportedly tested positive last week after starting workouts on June 8.
OU coach Lincoln Riley has said the Sooners’ approach of waiting until July 1 to return will give his team an advantage in seeing how other schools respond to positive tests. The NAIA schools will have that same luxury given their August starting period, which could prove beneficial given their lack of testing capability.
“It’s been eye-opening for us to look at just how many student-athletes are coming back and are testing positive,” Drain-Rogers said. “We can see what procedures they do to cope with that once a student-athlete does test positive, so it’s a great learning tool for us.”
‘Little things that just add up’
Beyond the five-figure price tag for one round of testing, new budgetary restriction and safety measures means the costs of everyday equipment are starting to weigh on small programs, too.
Drain-Rogers said players at Langston typically share equipment such as helmets, but with new sanitary concerns, that practice will be prohibited. The cost of additional equipment and improving sanitizing equipment add up.
“They might seem small, but football helmets can run from $300 to $500,” Drain-Rogers said. “And that can be a big strain on your budget when you need 15 to 20 more helmets.”
Panhandle State has the same challenges, as it had to replace all of its football helmets this offseason because they were too old. The school also had to replace leaks in their gym’s roof and renovate the gym’s floor.
“There's just a ton of little things — you have to buy softballs and baseballs and volleyballs and soccer balls and anything that goes to the training room,” Mulcahy said. “I mean, there's all kinds of little things that just add up.”
Additionally, the NAIA announced new scheduling regulations for 2020 fall sports, reducing the number of contests. Football teams, for example, are permitted nine games instead of 11.
Drain-Rogers had to cancel games against Jackson State and Waldorf, and Mulcahy had to change Panhandle State’s season opener
“A lot of us are really having to scramble to fix all these holes in our schedules that weren’t there a month ago,” Drain-Rogers said. “And we’ve been trying to fix all those pieces while also having to prepare for our players to return. It’s just kind of infinite — once you figure out one thing there’s another layer to figure out.”
‘Comparing apples to oranges’
While smaller programs are facing unique budgetary issues, there are avoiding some of the challenges that OU and OSU are.
A question no athletic director has been able to answer is how many fans will be in the stands this season. At a place like OU or OSU, lost ticket revenue would leave a significant hole in their budgets and impact other sports.
However, DII and NAIA schools aren’t selling tens of thousands of tickets every Saturday, which means they don’t stand to lose as much if fans aren’t allowed. At Panhandle State, Mulcahy said money from ticket sales is generally used for facility renovations and improvements, but it isn’t the driving force to fund the program.
“It’s not much of a football season without fans — the tailgating and atmosphere is half the battle, but functionality wise, we’d be fine,” Mulcahy said. “We’d just need to take a pause on the upgrades and facility work for a couple years, but we’d still be able to put kids in uniforms and send them to games.”
The same is true for Langston, as Drain-Rogers said none of her school’s sports are self-supporting financially. The cash cow Drain-Rogers is most concerned about is homecoming. Last year, the weeklong event included a parade, tailgating, reunions, receptions and concluded with a concert.
“Having thousands of people on campus for homecoming would be a huge concern,” Drain-Rogers said. “So we’re looking at ways to prepare for doing it remotely, whether it’s a live stream or an app”
While the concerns vary from school to school, Mulcahy, Drain-Rogers and Bailey all expressed little to no concern about dire consequences if there is no football season or no fans in the stands.
None of their schools are on the verge of cutting sports, which has happened at some DI schools, but the fact they aren’t self-funded means they are safer financially.
“We don’t have to generate ticket sales to fund our athletic department,” Bailey said. “And that’s typical with a lot of smaller schools. We’re a Division II program, so comparing our finances to what goes on at OU or OSU is like comparing apples to oranges.”