Carlson: Why college football 'can't run every scenario' when COVID and coaches collide
Les Miles wasn’t a fan of missing a game after testing positive for the coronavirus.
Miserable, he called it.
But he felt way better about the way his staff adjusted in his absence.
The Kansas coach is one of 10 head football coaches at FBS programs this season who have contracted the virus, but Miles is among a smaller group forced to miss a game. He stayed home while his team went to West Virginia a few weeks ago, and he and his assistants had to figure out how to shuffle game-day duties to make up for his absence.
They went with a plan of least disruptions.
Miles’ replacement: tight ends coach Josh Eargle.
Not a coordinator in the head-coach role?
“We needed to have our coordinators on defense and offense taking their normal responsibilities and having those coaches underneath them having their normal responsibilities,” Miles explained.
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Decisions such as those may become more common as the college football season hits the winter months. Coronavirus cases are spiking around the country, and doctors and scientists warn the worst is still to come. Considering there have already been several coaches test positive, it sure seems likely there will be more coaches at home instead of on the sideline before the season is done.
So, how are programs preparing for that possibility?
Depends on the program.
To hear Lincoln Riley tell it, OU has plans for all sorts of scenarios. Sure, there’s a plan for what the Sooners will do if Riley tests positive, but what if he’s among a group of coaches who have to be quarantined?
After all, it’s not just a positive test that puts someone into isolation. Contact tracing can knock out coaches just as it's done with players.
“It’s hard,” Riley admitted. “You could say, ‘Well, if the defensive coordinator isn’t there, then this person’s going to call.’ Well, what if all those guys get nailed on contact trace?
“Or, ‘If I’m not there, this person's going to be the head coach.’ Well, what if they get nailed with it and two others do, too?”
The number of if-this, then-that contingencies concoct make your head spin, but Riley said he and his staff have gone deep into the rabbit hole.
“I’ve also tried not to be unreasonable,” he said. “We can’t run every different scenario.”
The situation that played out a few weeks ago at Purdue is evidence of that.
Head coach Jeff Brohm announced he had tested positive for COVID-19 on the Monday of the Big Ten openers. While he and special teams coordinator Marty Biagi ended up being the only coaches unavailable for Purdue’s game against Iowa — Brohm’s brother and offensive coordinator, Brian, filled in as head coach — Jeff Brohm revealed after the fact they had “a few issues” with the virus in the football office.
He didn’t go into detail, only saying the issues required coaches to meet remotely more often than they had been.
“We didn’t really want to lose any more coaches than what we had,” Brohm recently told reporters covering the team.
Who knows how many assistants or analysts or grad assistants or quality control coaches were lost?
Nowadays, college coaching staffs are much bigger than the head coach and the assistants, so the number of people involved in the day-to-day operations of a team is significant. If several are sick or quarantined, the workload changes for everyone.
On game days, though, only certain coaches are allowed to perform certain duties.
Analysts, once described as assistants for the assistants, can do lots of jobs during the week. Player instruction is off limits at all times, but analysts can break down film and game plan with coaches.
But come game time, they can’t be on the sideline or in the coaches’ box.
So, if a head coach and a full-time assistant or two are forced to miss a game, the flow chart could get tricky.
Thus far, Purdue is the only one to have a head coach and at least one assistant miss a game. While Florida State head coach Mike Norvell missed the Miami game and Southern Miss interim head coach Scotty Walden missed the Liberty game — before he bolted mid-season for Austin Peay, but that’s another story altogether — they were the only coaches absent.
But who steps into the head-coaching duties is different everywhere.
Taking over in Walden’s absence was Tim Billings, who coaches nickelbacks at Southern Miss. He is also the assistant head coach.
Taking over for Norvell was Chris Thomsen, who coaches tight ends like Miles’ replacement at Kansas. But Thomsen had head coaching experience, having led Abilene Christian from 2005-11.
But even having him step in for Norvell wasn’t without rearrangement. Thomsen is normally in the coaches’ box helping the offensive staff during the game, but that day against Miami, he had to be on the sidelines.
Moving coaches around from their normal locations is something Mike Gundy worries about. All things being equal, he said, offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn, Gundy’s longest-serving assistant, would assume the head-coaching duties if Gundy had to miss a game because of the coronavirus.
“I am not a big fan of the playcaller being on the field,” Gundy said. “I never have been. So, I would have to think that through based on his location.”
Gundy said a few weeks ago he didn’t have detailed plans for what would happen if he was sidelined by COVID-19. But he suspects there will come a time this season when he’ll need one.
“I just think it’s a matter of time,” he said. “I’ve said this every week — I’m shocked that I haven’t gotten it yet.
“But I’ve been fortunate to this point.”
Les Miles wasn’t as fortunate.
While spending 10 days in isolation at his home in Lawrence, he had some symptoms of COVID-19, a headache being prime among them. But he contends he was in much more distress when he couldn’t be on the sidelines at West Virginia and had to watch the game on TV.
“I sat there,” he said.
“I didn’t sit there,” he admitted. “I stood and took notes.”
Despite being uncomfortable during the game, Miles was comfortable with the plan he and his coaches devised. He wouldn’t change the changes if he had to do it all again.
“That’s the way we would go,” he said.
Though he hopes like crazy he doesn’t ever have to.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
Coaches and COVID
Ten head coaches of FBS football teams have publicly announced they tested positive for COVID-19. Even though Alabama coach Nick Saban also tested positive, subsequent testing produced negative results and revealed his initial diagnosis was false.
Here’s a look at the head coaches who have tested positive:
Blake Anderson, Arkansas State: Tested positive after win at Kansas State. Anderson, 51, had a fever for 10 days but didn’t miss any games because of a postponement.
Jeff Brohm, Purdue: Missed the Big Ten opener against Iowa. Brohm, 49, reported fever, body aches, chest tightness and exhaustion.
Jason Candle, Toledo: Did not have any symptoms after the 40-year-old tested positive in July.
Paul Chryst, Wisconsin: Tested positive last week after win against Illinois. Chryst, 54, is part of an outbreak at Wisconsin, which has suspended all football activities.
Chip Kelly, UCLA: Said in early October he and his wife had contracted the virus earlier this year. The 56-year-old reported having few symptoms.
Les Miles, Kansas: Had minor symptoms after testing positive during a bye week. The 66-year-old missed the Jayhawks’ game at West Virginia.
Dan Mullen, Florida: Announced positive the day the Gators were supposed to play LSU, a game postponed by an outbreak on Florida’s team. Mullen, 48, returned for Florida’s game against Missouri on Oct. 31, a game that was pushed back a week.
Mike Norvell, Florida State: Missed the game against Miami. Norvell, 39, said he did not experience any symptoms.
Kevin Sumlin, Arizona: Was asymptomatic. Sumlin, 56, tested positive in early October before the Pac-12 returned to practice or play.
Scotty Walden, Southern Miss: Interim head coach tested positive the week of the Liberty game. Walden, 30, has since been named head coach at Austin Peay.