Football: Safety trumps start of season for Cajuns coach Napier
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, May 4, 2020
Nearly everyone in college football these days, it seems, has an opinion on when the 2020 season will start.
Ragin’ Cajuns coach Billy Napier is an exception.
He has no idea and isn’t afraid to admit that.
“We’ve got big-picture issues we’ve got to solve relative to the entire country,” Napier said, “before, I think, you cross that bridge.”
For now, he added, decision-making must be framed by “the best interest of the entire country, and the world.”
“College football is certainly important to me,” said Napier, whose Cajuns went 11-3 last season with a LendingTree Bowl win over Miami (Ohio).
“But there’s a lot of people a lot worse off than I am. (Starting the season) is down the road on the checklist … in my opinion. I think we’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is still plaguing the nation and reportedly responsible for more than 60,000 deaths in the United States alone — and more than 230,000 globally — looms much larger, in other words, than even kickoffs and touchdown throws.
Between his admonitions about perspective, however, Napier does have some opinions on the matter.
For him, it’s all about safety first.
So Napier bristles when some suggestions are made, including ones of a shorter-than-usual period of summer workouts and an abbreviated preseason camp just so the season can begin as scheduled.
As things stand now, more than six weeks since the college sports world was shut down in mid-March, UL is scheduled to open Sept. 5 at Cajun Field against Southland Conference-member McNeese.
“That may not be the best thing, in my opinion here, to get in a hurry here and have a short prep for an on-time start,” Napier said during a recent Zoom teleconference.
Every time Napier and his colleagues discuss the matter, he suggested, something new is learned.
“Most of my conversations have been very fluid,” he said.
“I do think contingency plans are being put together based off of a start date — not only the first game, but also maybe what the consensus is out there amongst the professionals of how much time you need with the players relative to the first day that they are back and they’re active.
“There’s been a lot of time spent,” Napier added, “on what that maybe eight-week (or) six-week period looks like relative to the activities that you can do — or is recommended to do — with the players, for player safety.”
Yet there’s so much more to weigh in addition to just that.
'SOMETHING WE ALL LOVE'
The safety issue relates not only to the coronavirus, but also potential injuries that could be sustained during the season because of all the proper training time lost to stay-at-home orders.
Team weight rooms have been shuttered and in-person contact with strength and conditioning coaches has been banned, so some players aren’t in nearly the shape they’d typically be at this time of year.
Financial implications of a shortened season — and especially no season at all — also are aplenty, with some Power 5 athletic departments relying on football income to subsidize around 50 percent of their budgets for all sports.
For a Group of Five Sun Belt Conference school like UL, football income funds less of the budget — but is quite consequential nonetheless.
Then there’s the matter of fairness.
Some states are slowly reopening, but many are on different schedules.
Much of Louisiana, where UL and UL Monroe are situated, remains on lockdown through at least May 15. But things are looser in some areas of Texas, for instance, where Sun Belt-member Texas State is located.
The league includes football-playing schools in seven states — Louisiana, Texas, Alabama (South Alabama and Troy), Arkansas (Arkansas State), Georgia (Georgia Southern and Georgia State), South Carolina (Coastal Carolina) and North Carolina (Appalachian State) — and it’s possible that not all will be ready to return to the practice field, or even the game field, at the same time.
It’s not even clear yet if all the member schools will be open for on-campus classes in the fall, which raises the question of if it would be right to bring back student-athletes to play football and other sports when most students — as has been the case the last several weeks — are stuck at home and limited to learning and other interaction online.
But reality also suggests that a fall without college football would be quite a blow to the psyche of American sports fans already living without baseball, without NBA and NHL games, and with a long list of canceled events including basketball’s NCAA Tournament, baseball’s College World Series, softball’s Women College World Series and even now the Little League World Series.
“From a big-picture perspective obviously there’s a lot more at stake here,” Napier said. “I think college football, obviously, is something that we all love. … It’s become very much a business, and certainly entertainment.
“But I think the most important thing here is we’ve got to base all of our decisions off of staff and player safety, and then certainly the fan experience is gonna be based off the same things.”
'I WOULDN'T BE SURPRISED BY ANYTHING'
That prompts the subject of possibilities for what the 2020 season might look like if it can’t start like it has in years gone by.
Games without fans?
Conference games only, even if that means missing out on paydays like the $1.3 million one the Cajuns are slated to have when they’re scheduled to visit SEC-member Missouri in November?
A full season that starts later than usual, but perhaps without bye weeks?
What about a late-starting split season, with some games being played before the holidays and others during the time spring practice usually happens?
How about an entire season in the spring, even if that conflicts with usual March Madness and college baseball too?
All are ideas being bandied about, some more seriously than others.
“I do think there are some natural breaks in the calendar where you can have a two-week push, you can have a four-week push, and still play a full season and still maybe adjust the playoff championship experience later on,” Napier said.
Then there’s the matter of cost-cutting initiatives.
Might Sun Belt schools be asked to trim air travel, even for conference play? Could some conferences align into more geographically friendly groupings suited better to bus trips only, even if for just the season to come?
If so, it could mean UL does not play its scheduled Oct. 7 ESPN2-televised game at Appalachian State — a rematch of the last two Sun Belt championship games, both won by the Mountaineers, and arguably the Cajuns’ most-important game of the 2020 season.
Would Napier be stunned if that happened?
“I wouldn’t be surprised at anything at this point,” he said.
“You know, you’ve got lots of models that are being discussed. I think some of these people know what they’re talking about, and some of them don’t.”
'TIME WILL HELP'
Until everyone’s on the same page, or at least binding decisions are made — by conferences, if not the NCAA — what will happen is anyone’s best guess.
A Sun Belt spokesman said conversation is ongoing but no decisions have been made yet by the league, which has formed an advisory board of medical experts from a few of its member institutions to guide it through the process.
“We’re going to do what they tell us to do,” Napier said.
“Once they declare that, we’ll do our best to come up with the best plan that we can come up with.
“I think time will help,” Napier added, “and I think that’s what the people making the decisions need. They need time.”
It may not be until late May or sometime in June that anything is settled — if the virus and its spread even allows that.
Until a decision is made, Napier said, “I think, for me, there’s very little we can do besides control the current situation that we have.”
Which means online coaching only during the eight hours a week college coaches are limited to, and simply encouraging players to follow the makeshift training regimes they’ve been prescribed.
“Our expectation,” Napier said, “is the players are doing the work so they will be at as small of a deficit as possible when they do get back.”
And until they do return, it’s still all about continuing social distancing rules and adhering to the recommendations of medical professionals.
“I think we all have a certain responsibility to our fellow man,” Napier said, “to do our part, relative to practicing … what is being recommended within our community, within our state and certainly nationally.”