I wrote this feature just over a month into the start of the pandemic, when people were still largely in quarantine and no one knew when live sports were going to come back. This was a fun opportunity to catch up with several Big Sky Conference football coaches about how they were handling their extra time at home and away from the game over which they obsess. - Frank Gogola
MISSOULA — Bruce Barnum is accustomed to giving orders as the Portland State football coach. He’s now been taking orders — food orders that is.
Barnum has taken over as family chef during the quarantine caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has been ongoing for about six weeks. He would normally cook dinner every Sunday during the offseason, but now he’s serving up delicious dishes on a near-nightly basis as he adapts to the new normal like most people around the country.
Barnum’s specialty dish is red beans and rice. It’s a hearty meal fit for an enjoyable sit-down with arguably the most gregarious coach in the Big Sky Conference.
“That one also takes the longest,” he said. “I start working on that after soaking the beans overnight and getting those ham hocks and bones simmered down. It’s a good 12 hours. I’ve also got the smoker going because I’ve got a bunch of stuff in the freezer I didn’t know was there, so I’ve been smoking something once or twice a week.
“I’m enjoying the family and trying to take advantage of what this profession doesn’t allow.”
People have navigated the unique time since the pandemic shut down campuses and closed many businesses in mid-March. The 13 counties with Big Sky football schools, mostly in small towns, haven’t been hit as bad as other places around the country and world. They had a combined 4,289 cases and 225 deaths; Sacramento, Portland and Greeley, Colorado, just north of Denver, are hit the hardest with 2,936 cases and 158 deaths.
There’s still football work to be done for the Big Sky coaches. They’ve been having staff meetings and checking in with players about academics through phone calls or Zoom meetings. The NCAA is allowing eight hours per week on virtual activities such as film review, chalk talks and team meeting. Then there’s virtual recruiting, which includes watching so much Hudl film that Southern Utah coach Demario Warren has heard “our coaches are tired of watching the vape advertising that they have on their Hudl film.”
One benefit of the quarantine for the coaches is spending valuable time with their families.
Barnum and his son Cooper, a high school senior, were self-isolating on the water by fishing together before Oregon and nearby Washington shut down the boat ramps. Montana coach Bobby Hauck had also been fishing in March after the virus shut down spring camp.
Barnum and his son have more recently spent time together working out at their small home gym.
“I wouldn’t call it working out together. His looks like you’re an athlete. Mine probably looks more like physical therapy,” Barnum joked, adding that he thinks news of him working out “will actually shock the Big Sky” because “that hasn’t been done for a few moons.”
He’s not sure how much weight he’s lost because he doesn’t have a scale at home, but he’s noticed one benefit.
“I feel better. I might even pull a Hauck or a Choate and run out with the team this year. That’ll wake any everybody up,” Barnum said with a laugh. “They’ll say, ‘Who the hell is that? Barnum?’”
He's also been there to comfort Cooper, who had his final high school baseball season cut short. Cooper will get to return to playing next year when he goes to Washington State to join his older brother, Brody.
Cooper’s college choices came down to Washington State or Oregon for baseball and Montana for football. He had even taken an unofficial visit to Montana and was blown away by its facilities compared to Portland State.
“I said, ‘Montana, are you sh-ttin’ me?’” Barnum recalled with a laugh. “He said, ‘Dad,’ and I’m like, ‘Don’t even talk about it.’ Bobby out-recruited me. How about that? I can’t even recruit a kid in my house. Hauck beat me on him, that son of a bitch.
“The guy who showed him a lot of love, and I’ve known him for years, was their D-line coach, Barry Sacks. He’s the one who put in a lot of effort recruiting him. I’d get home, and Cooper would be on the phone, and I’m like, ‘What the hell are you doing? Why are you on the phone all the time?’ He’d be like, ‘Coach Sacks called.’ I’m like, ‘That son of a bitch.’”
Sacramento State head coach Troy Taylor has similarly been able to spend more time with his son, a college student at Utah who returned home for spring break and has been doing classes online since then. Taylor, his son and his wife have gotten in games such as Trivial Pursuit, Clue and gin rummy.
“I’m pretty good at gin rummy, but my wife, she’s a worthy competitor for sure,” Taylor said, laughing.
They’ve also played some basketball on their driveway and gone for bike rides or walks to get fresh air, making sure to socially distance. It’s one way he’s making sure he doesn’t gain weight because he’s noticed he likes to snack a lot while sitting around at home.
“The good thing is, is it’s been a lot of family time,” Taylor said. “The negative of it is people are starting to get a little stir crazy and we want to go back to normal life.”
The extra time at home has been especially meaningful for younger coaches in the conference who have little kids they get to spend time with during their formative years.
Warren at Southern Utah holds a unique spot as the Big Sky’s youngest head coach at 35 years old, so he has some of the youngest kids, ages 2, 6, 10 and 15. They’re a competitive group who’s spent their added time together with video games, card games or outdoor activities.
The most special time Warren has had with his kids has been with his youngest son, who turned 2 on Thursday.
“He actually likes me now, which is good because that wasn’t the case before all this,” Warren half-jokingly said. “He was too young to remember me the first summer, and then we got in the season, which we really struggled, and it was a really tough offseason to try to get our program back to where we wanted to, so I didn’t get to spend a ton of time with him.
"Now, he’ll crawl up next to me, still doesn’t like me as much as mom, but there’s some moments he’ll just lay on me and enjoy a movie or eat a snack, so that’s been cool to really get to bond with him and start to build that relationship.”
Montana running backs coach Justin Green has been able to take advantage of the extra time at home to spend with his three kids, including a newborn infant son. Griz strength and conditioning coach Matt Nicholson welcomed a newborn into the world during the pandemic, too.
Green has been teaching the younger of his two daughters how to ride a bike. After finishing his half-days doing football work, he’s also been able to help his 10-year-old daughter with her homework, and now she wants to learn to ride a bike, too.
“Normally this time, we’re getting ready for recruiting and getting around to all the coaches or schools. That time has been traded for family time, which has been good," Green said. “It’s really the kids part for me that has been great because of the fact that I spend so much time away from home, whether that be traveling for games or situations. It’s great being around and being able to help out.”
Green has been able to help with other chores around the house and made dinner a few times aside from his normal cooking on the barbecue grill.
UC Davis head coach Dan Hawkins similarly did some cooking by baking banana bread and marinating chicken on the grill. He also cut his grass while riding a lawnmower and wearing a UC Davis jersey and helmet.
Barnum has also been knocking out some long overdue work at home such as cleaning out the garage and cleaning up the yard. He also renewed his sponsorship with Dot’s Pretzels right before the pandemic hit.
“I’ve been in this game for over 30 years, so the to-do list that I’ve been ignoring, I’m chipping away at it,” Barnum said. “My wife is probably the happiest person in our self-isolation because everything is getting done around the house.”
When it’s time to relax, Barnum has turned to streaming shows. He finished the most recent season of "Ozark" — he “can’t get enough of cartel movies” — and spent about 20 minutes watching "Tiger King" before giving up, feeling “that show makes you wonder where Netflix’s ideas come from.”
Warren has watched some Netflix but has more so used the extra free time to dive into reading books. He recently finished “You Are The Team” by Michael Rogers, a leadership author, speaker and consultant who’s helped with culture building at SUU. He’s currently reading “The Film Doesn't Lie: Evaluating Your Life One Play at a Time.”
Taylor is also a voracious reader and recommends two books he recently finished: “Educated” by Tara Westover and “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt.
“I think this is a chance for you to put your time where your mouth is,” Warren said. “You always want to become a more devoted Christian or you want to educate yourself more or you want to spend more time with your family. If you don’t do those things, really how important are those things to you? I think that’s something I try to do every single day. There’s days I do a better job than others.
“I think that’s something everybody should do right now is try to spend time on those things that you say are important.”