BILLINGS — Tuesday was a particularly dark day for college football as the coronavirus pandemic sunk its mitts into the NCAA’s top tier, finally forcing fall postponements in the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences.
Autumn Saturdays won’t be the same this year. Except for here in our little corner of the world, it seems.
Notably, the Frontier Conference is forging ahead with its plan to play an abbreviated schedule this fall among its five Montana teams — Rocky Mountain College, Carroll, Montana Western, Montana Tech and MSU-Northern — despite the fact that the NAIA has pushed the playoffs to the spring.
At Rocky, 120 players officially reported to its Billings campus for orientation on Monday, including those that have already been on hand working out since July. It signaled the start of what second-year coach Chris Stutzriem hopes will be a sustainable and uninterrupted eight-game season beginning Sept. 19 against UM Western.
The Battlin’ Bears are expected to open fall camp with their first practice Saturday morning.
“When we can do football stuff, true X’s and O’s, I think you’ll see a lot of kids that have been waiting for this and have been hoping that this was going to happen. We’re excited to get out there,” Stutzriem said during a phone interview Tuesday. “From a coach’s standpoint, too, it will bring a little sense of normalcy when we get out on the field.”
Stutzriem said Rocky is slow-playing the re-start of football activities. Players filled out paperwork and were brought up to speed Monday on safety protocols regarding the team’s mask-wearing mandate and social distancing etiquette.
Right now, because football is the only sport on campus, the team is being spaced out into three different locker room areas, Stutzriem said.
Freshmen, along with their parents, participated in a separate acclimation meeting.
Equipment and gear were handed out. Heights and weights were evaluated, and some weight room work began.
Stutzriem said most players are “looking good” in terms of the shape they’re in, albeit not like in a normal year.
The coach said Rocky will go “very slow with install and very slow with how much we put on their bodies. The last thing we want to do is work them too hard. We have to understand that some guys haven’t been able to work out and be in the best shape coming in.”
“We’re going to prepare everybody,” Stutzriem added. “If we have four plays in on offense by Game 1 then we’ve got four plays in. But we’ve got to make sure we master those plays from our starters down to our fifth-string guys, because you don’t know who you’re going to have or not have. In a normal year you make sure your ones and twos are really good and your threes kind of know what’s going on, and the rest are probably going to redshirt for you.”
Stutzriem, who was diagnosed as an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19 in May, said he remains confident that the Frontier Conference can play its season this fall in spite of the announcements from the Big Ten, Pac-12, Big Sky, Mountain West and many other individual institutions that have pulled the plug on football.
At the NCAA’s top echelon — the big money programs — many coaches have expressed on national media outlets their desire to play and have publicly pushed back on calls to postpone the season amid the pandemic, from Nebraska’s Scott Frost to Ohio State’s Ryan Day to Louisville’s Scott Satterfield.
Players have also signaled their appetite to compete, the most high-profile among them being Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
“At that level there’s a lot of money at stake,” Stutzriem said. “And I hate to say it, but there’s a price tag for everything.”
It’s a completely different world in the Frontier Conference. But the same sentiments apply for those who harbor concerns about playing this fall no matter what school it is.
The only thing Stutzriem and his coaching staff can do is be prepared for varying scenarios and to put the safety of the players first, a goal that can seem disingenuous at the highest level of the sport.
If he has to, Stutzriem said he won’t be afraid to advocate for pumping the brakes.
“All I can control is what I’m in charge of, and that’s our football program,” he said. “Luckily we make decisions here between everybody and we’re going to support each other. I’m going to do what’s best for our guys, and if we feel good and we can play this fall, great. But if I feel like we need to hold off then we’re going to do that.
“My job No. 1 is to make sure guys are healthy and safe and that they’re growing. At the end of the day, if I don’t feel like our kids are safe moving forward, we won’t practice. If we get an outbreak of 10 or 15 kids or something like that, then we’ll stop and we’ll make sure that what we do is for the benefit of those kids.
“Our administration knows that. I know if I went to them and said, ‘Hey, we’re not practicing or we’re not playing this game,’ that they would back me 100%.”
With practice set to open Saturday, Stutzriem — and fans here in our little corner of the world — hope there are fewer dark days for college football on the horizon.