Age & Preexisting Conditions Are Forcing New COVID-19 Safety Tactics For College Football Coaches

From Nick Saban to Lovie Smith to James Franklin, college football coaches are scrambling to deal with different COVID-19 protocols.
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The coronavirus may have coaches thinking old-school in terms of how to social distance and isolate themselves from potentially attracting the worst virus in this country in nearly a century.

The stories of Paul “Bear” Bryant and his coaching tower still resonate through the University of Alabama campus. Bryant, who won six national championships (tied for the most in modern college football history) and thirteen conference championships while coaching the Crimson Tide football program, would stand in a tower overlooking each practice field and shout instructions to players and assistant coaches with the use of a bullhorn. This is considered a useless tactic in the modern coaching philosophy, as head coaches are now almost always amidst the action and in the faces of players trying to motivate, teach and direct.

However, in 2020, being in the direct face of a player may mean risking infection of COVID-19—which, for some of the game’s most notorious sideline dwellers, is as dangerous as it could get.

The Center For Disease Control has published information suggesting that, for numerous reasons, the disease puts adults in a specific age group (65 years or older) and minority race populations at a higher risk. Additionally, the CDC says those two populations are not only more vulnerable to acquiring the coronavirus, but also more susceptible to an immediate hospitalization, needing intensive care or a ventilator, and even death.

Because of that, the coronavirus may just have these coaches back in scissors trucks or towers barking down commands in an old-school fashion.

At Illinois, Lovie Smith comes close to fitting both of the criteria for being more vulnerable to the disease, as the 62-year-old is the first and only black head coach in football or men’s basketball in the school’s history. When asked in late May if he’s had a conversation about protocols based on his head coach being more vulnerable than other members of the population, Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman acknowledged those thoughts have obviously crossed his mind but stated his confidence in Smith’s health and responsibility of behavior didn’t allow for him to fully share those concerns.

“It’s a fair question. So, I would say two things in response,” Whitman said on May 22 when his athletics department announced specific safety protocols for the football and basketball players returning to the University of Illinois campus the following month. “Number one, Lovie will tell you he’s in the best shape of his life, lost inches off his waist and would take anybody to the woodshed when it comes to a pushup contest. More broadly, we have to consider the reality of a lot of staff members and some student-athletes who have any number of factors associated with them that potentially put them at a higher risk to be susceptible to the virus.”

Whitman’s comments on Smith were seen differently after Illini linebacker Milo Eifler spoke up about health and safety concerns for the on-campus summer workouts in the June and July months.

“If there was a vaccine? Of course, [if there was a vaccine] all college football players would be like, 'Put me in right now',” Eifler said. “In the back of your head, you're like ,'There's no vaccine, there's no way to, there's quarantining and after the quarantining, I guess I'm okay so I won't catch the virus again.' But then there's long-term effects. There's always this back and forth, you know what I'm saying?”

The coaching age issue

The first vulnerable population category is based on age, and the CDC has found that eight out of 10 COVID-19-related deaths in the U.S. are among people who are at least 65 years old. The oldest active Football Bowl Subdivision head coach is Frank Solich, and the 75-year-old has been a head coach at either Nebraska or in his current position at Ohio University for every year but 2004 since 1998.

Nick Saban, who is arguably the most decorated head coach in college football and has six national championships along with a statue of himself right next to Bryant’s near the entrance gate of Alabama’s home stadium, is part of the at-risk age. Unfortunately for the 68-year-old, acquiring arguably the best coaching résumé in college football usually comes with finding yourself categorized as a senior citizen. Therefore, the Tide coach has made multiple pleas with the public to help out people in his age bracket and all fans of Saturdays in the fall, including releasing a state-wide public service advertisement about wearing a mask that warned if the positive test rates continued to spike, college football in 2020 wouldn’t happen.

“Together we look forward to all that's to come, like the opportunity to play college football this fall, but the best and safest way to ensure that happens is to listen to the experts, follow their guidelines and take care of each other,” Saban said in an ad where he encouraged the Crimson Tide’s elephant mascot ‘Big Al’ to wear a face mask.

<strong>Power 5 Conference coaches 65 years old or older</strong>

Nick Saban - Alabama

Mack Brown - North Carolina

David Cutcliffe - Duke

Herm Edwards - Arizona State

Les Miles - Kansas 

While only five of the 60 Power 5 programs employ a head coach over the age of 65, the CDC’s second category of vulnerable people could be where more accommodation plans need to be made for coaching staffs across the country.

The COVID-19 demographic vulnerabilities involving Smith made his announced return to the Illinois football facility last week that much more critical. Smith and his wife MaryAnne had reportedly been residing in a vacation home in Arizona during the COVID-19 stay-at-home period relegated by Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, and they decided not to return to the state of Illinois until the stay-at-home order had been lifted at the very least. On June 30, Smith, with a black face mask firmly covering his nose and mouth, returned to his office at the facility on the Champaign-Urbana campus ready to embark on a football season that continues to have public safety unknowns less than a month before the Illini start preseason camp.

“As a coach, you go into every game with an ideal game plan. It never goes that way. It is always about adjustments as a coach,” Smith said in April. “As we went into this situation, I knew we would have to be making pretty much daily adjustments. Right now, we’re living day-to-day and try to have a week’s plan and then adjust along the way.”

Pre-Existing Conditions For Coaches And Their Families

The CDC has warned folks with pre-existing and/or underlying medical conditions are endangered to serious complications if infected with COVID-19.

If the college football season starts on time during Labor Day weekend, James Franklin knows he won’t see his family for several months. As he prepares for a possible football season at Penn State, Franklin knows social distancing protocol take a whole new meaning than the medical protocols put in by his bosses for Franklin’s staff and players. 

The Nittany Lions head coach, who is preparing for his seventh season in State College, Pa., confirmed on the weekly Real Sports show on HBO that his family will stay in Florida, where they’ve been quarantining themselves during the coronavirus pandemic. Franklin's 12-year-old daughter, Addison, suffers from sickle cell disease, a condition which compromises a person's immune system. While data suggests that COVID-19 has a very low mortality rate among children, it has a higher rate among people with compromised immune systems.

“We’re fortunate as a family that we have a second home (in Florida),” Franklin said on ESPN’s Golic and Wingo radio show. “Not everyone has that option or luxury. We’ve been in Florida and my wife is sensitive to all of this. When I tell you we haven’t left our property in months, it’s true. We’ve ordered our groceries to be delivered. For our youngest child (Addison) every experience already is a little different than most but this is a new level of different.”

If there’s a 2020 college football season during these fall months without an effective coronavirus vaccine, Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson, who is a perfectly healthy 52-year-old man, is already taking precautions by preparing to live isolated from his wife, Catherine, a cancer survivor.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson stands with tight end Jack Freudenthal (86) and offensive lineman Justin Herron (75) prior to taking the field for the game against the Syracuse Orange at the Carrier Dome

Wake Forest Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson stands with tight end Jack Freudenthal (86) and offensive lineman Justin Herron (75) prior to taking the field for the game against the Syracuse Orange at the Carrier Dome

Clawson told ESPN doctors that Catherine Clawson's reduced white blood cell count puts her at a higher risk for serious medical issues if she tests positive for the coronavirus. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments for breast cancer three years ago.

Wake Forest is slated to open preseason football camp on July 12, when Dave Clawson will begin isolating himself from his wife—which obviously means not seeing her again until the season concludes.

"When I'm working on a daily basis, coaching 110 to 120 players and having a staff of 50, I don't know how I could go home at night and honestly tell my wife I couldn't have come in contact with [the coronavirus]," Clawson told ESPN. "I love coaching, but I love my wife more. There's no way I'm going to do anything that would put her at risk."

As COVID-19 positive cases continue to spike in many states during these summer months while colleges decide what to do with in-person classes, athletic events and student-athletes already contracting the virus during voluntary workouts, Clawson’s comment might remain prophetic leading into an unknown fall 2020 season.