MISSOULA — So far so good for the Montana football team in its return to campus this month.
No Griz players have tested positive for the coronavirus since the team started voluntary workouts in the Champions Center on June 1, Montana athletic director Kent Haslam said during a Zoom press conference on Tuesday afternoon.
Their return to campus is the first step on the path to 2020 football season being played after the pandemic shut down college athletics in mid-March. They were able to come back because Montana entered Phase 2 of its re-opening, the Big Sky allowed schools to proceed with athletics at their discretion and the NCAA moratorium for on-campus activities ended May 31.
“So far, it’s gone very well,” Haslam said. “Our strength and conditioning staff and our trainers have worked hard. It’s been an education process, no doubt for everybody involved: Getting your temperature checked, keep your mask on, disinfecting, staying apart. I think it’s a matter of being diligent in what we’re doing.”
Just because a player hasn’t tested positive yet, that doesn’t mean the team is in the clear. Haslam isn’t naïve about that.
“We know that we’re going to have a positive test. It’s inevitable,” Haslam said. “And then how we manage that, how we isolate, how we contract trace, how we treat that is going to be the next test for us. There’s no doubt. Just like anywhere else in society.”
Keeping an eye on if a player comes down with the coronavirus can potentially extend all the way through the season and the playoffs.
“We’re going to have incorporate some testing, we’re going to have to incorporate monitoring of their symptoms,” Haslam said. “We certainly have faced outbreaks of other viral diseases among teams because they travel together, they’re closer together. The flu can go pretty quickly through a football team. They flu can go very quickly through a soccer team. And so, making sure that we’re testing and we’re protecting.”
Playing games involves two teams, so the hope is other teams are also following proper guidelines to keep their players healthy and contain the spread if someone there contracts the coronavirus.
Other schools around the country have reported a handful of players who’ve returned to campus and have tested positive for the coronavirus. Reaching out to those schools about how to deal with a situation should one arise is a possible option for Haslam and his staff in addition to following guidelines from the Missoula City-County Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a time in college athletics where there’s been more cross-sharing of information because every one of us are plowing a brand-new field,” Haslam said. “We’ve never done this before. There is a lot of cross-sharing. There’s no doubt about it. So, sharing and talking about those things, absolutely. The NCAA and the Big Sky Conference have really left it up to the individual institutions, which is probably the best approach because each county is different, each state is different.”
Fan safety is another component to consider with the return of football in the fall. Montana is having ongoing conversations about to create plans for how to handle everything from ticketing to stadium amenities to entering and leaving the stadium, among other topics.
As far as the on-field product, there’s much work to do before the season opener Sept. 5 against Central Washington in Missoula. The Griz had been sidelined from in-person team activities since their spring camp was canceled on March 13, and players have returned in varying conditions.
“In terms of the physical conditioning, that’s a broad spectrum,” football coach Bobby Hauck said. “Some of them had access to work out and some of them didn’t. So some of them are very deconditioned and they’ve deteriorated physically.”
Hauck feels the return to campus has been beneficial beyond just the physical training aspect.
“I think from a mental health standpoint, it was imperative to get them back,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of growth in terms of just the happiness factor and being in a good place mentally for our players since they’ve been back.”
The players have been working out in groups of 10 based on living and work arrangements, undergoing daily checks of their temperature and for symptoms. They are also asked to stay in their cars until called into the Champions Center and must wash their hands before entering the weight room.
The locker room and Nutrition Center are closed for the summer, and players have to bring their own water and wear masks while in the facility — all measures designed to try to keep players safe while working working with a strength and conditioning coach.
“It was fun getting them back,” Hauck said. “We love our guys. They love us and each other. It was great to have everybody here, and it is great to have everybody here.”
Other sports teams will begin to return to campus around July, according to Haslam.
“We have a good group in and now we need to start that process of reintroducing some other sports in,” he said. “We’ve got other student-athletes that really are anxious to get back and going. Soccer and volleyball and basketball will start to come back onto campus in the beginning of July. So far, it’s gone really well.”