Neal Brown’s West Virginia University football team has persevered through the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions that have come with it as best they could. Not that it has been easy. The second-year coach admits that it hasn’t.
College football teams aren’t some Utopian enclave protected from the emotional and psychological toll of those restrictions and the effects the virus can have. A college football team with 85 scholarship players, even more walk-ons and dozens more in staff and support roles would be like any business of that size.
“We’re not immune to that,” Brown said during a recent video conference. “We’ve had staff members who have struggled with it. We’ve had players who have struggled with it. But I think we’ve been able to help to this point. It’s an ongoing process.”
The crux of that process, Brown said, is to remain aware of how everyone is feeling throughout the program and make sure they receive the support they need until life returns to more of a sense of normalcy.
Normalcy and routine are two of the largest components lost in the lives of football programs, Brown said. The normal year for a football player or coach runs almost like clockwork. Fall camp starts, and then comes the season. Then comes bowl season and next the winter workout sessions. After that is spring ball, final exams, then a break. After that break comes summer workouts, a small Independence Day break, four more weeks of workouts, another break and the process begins anew for another season.
The pandemic tossed those plans in the garbage. For WVU, spring football was shelved after just a handful of practices. The only interaction coaches have been able to have with players has been through virtual meetings. Brown admits he’s starting to see some “Zoom fatigue” creeping in.
“I think myself, like a lot of head coaches in all sports, you fight the battle of what’s enough and what’s too much,” he said. “Right now, we have eight hours we can meet on football. Well, there’s no way in hell we can hold their attention for eight hours on football. We’re not even going to try.
“But we are trying to have Monday through Friday some kind of contact with them so we do have an understanding of what their health and wellness is,” he continued. “We do have an opportunity to encourage them to take care of their academics or encourage them to work out.”
Health and wellness — especially mental health and wellness — is Brown’s top priority at this point. It’s why he said the virtual meetings were so important. He gets to look at the athlete’s faces, so he can read how they’re feeling. He knows the players and can tell when something is awry.
If something is, he has a chance to help that player get through it.
“Maybe they just got up and just got on the Zoom and they’re running late,” he said. “Maybe they lost somebody. Maybe someone has the virus that they know. Maybe they’re having something financially. That’s why we have eyeball to eyeball contact Monday through Friday.
“It has little to do with the game of football,” he added. “It has little to do with academics. It has mostly to do with are they safe and are they well. We just have to be in tune with it.”
What will help most, Brown said, is a return to routine. That means a return to campus. The NCAA recently announced that players can come back to campus for voluntary workouts starting June 1, though it looks like the Big 12 will start a little later than that date.
The Mountaineers’ college football brethren are ready for that to happen. The Athletic recently conducted a confidential survey of 45 current players and 80 percent of them said they were comfortable with coming back to campus even if their non-athlete classmates don’t join them.
Brown said his roster feels similarly.
“I think they’re itching to get back and get ready,” Brown said. “I think for the most part the guys want to play football, which is important to note. I think they do want to play. I think they have concerns just like anybody else about certain aspects and they have questions, but they want to play.”
Contact Derek Redd at 304-348-1712 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.