Gary Andersen had to break the news to his players over Zoom. The Mountain West Conference had just axed all fall sports, including football, ending the 2020 Utah State season before it had a chance to hold workouts scheduled to resume Aug. 24.
Days prior, the MW announced a pandemic-shortened season. But that was before some of the biggest conferences in the country decided fall sports was too risky. As of Thursday, the Pac 12, Big 10, Ivy League and many others won’t play fall seasons. In Utah, BYU is the last program standing.
Now the Aggies are left to pick up the pieces of a season that already got cracked when spring practices were canceled in March at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s a very difficult time,” Andersen said Wednesday in a conference call this week with reporters.
Andersen said the situation is “extremely disappointing” for everyone involved, but spoke in favor of the conference’s decision to cancel the season. He called it a “slam dunk,” particularly with the specific situation for the Aggies in regards to positive coronavirus tests.
Andersen did not specify how many people within the football program tested positive. While he described the number as “not substantial,” he said it would have been difficult to field a full-strength team or even an entire position group.
The reason for that, Andersen said, had to do more with contact tracing than a slew of players contracting the virus.
“It gets very difficult as you go through track the young men that are involved and the amount of days that they lose,” Andersen said. “That’s where it gets difficult. It’s not the true ‘Oh we had a bunch of kids that had it.’ It’s the tracking that, in my opinion, is the very hard part to make so it a football team can functionally put a quality product out there on the field.”
The MW said earlier this week that it would explore rescheduling fall sports, including possibly holding the season in the spring of 2021. Andersen balked at that idea because it would mean essentially playing two full seasons in one calendar year.
He believes a spring season is “not feasible” and potentially detrimental to player health.
“I’m always going to be in it for kids. I’m never going to stop saying that,” Andersen said. “That is not a possibility for our young men to play 20-plus football games in a year if I have anything to do with this decision.”
Andersen hopes that in the coming months the NCAA will allow some kind of activity in the fall, perhaps similar to what teams do in a normal spring. In the meantime, however, Aggies players will be expected to hit the books.
Andersen said he’ll ask players to increase their course load from 12 to at least 15 units. And, he’ll encourage strongly that players attend in-person classes so they’re part of the general campus population as much as possible.
“Quite frankly, we’re going to put our kids into as many classes as we can that are in-person classes — whatever that looks like in the different classes that they’re going through,” Andersen said. “We need that.”
Players were allowed to go home and decompress until the school semester starts at USU on Aug. 31, Andersen said. After two weeks of allowing them to acclimate to schoolwork, the football team will begin an offseason program similar to what it does every January.
Andersen plans to speak to every player individually about what happened to the season. He said they reacted with confusion, but also a sense of relief that there’s finally a concrete sense of direction for the near future.
Off the field, Andersen said he and the rest of the coaches are going to continue engaging with their players as much as possible, which is normally what they do anyway.
“Our coaches are going to be around them a lot,” Andersen said.
While the past few months have been more than challenging for the Aggies, Andersen has found some positives out of the experience.
“I’m proud of the way these kids have grown, I’m proud of the way they’ve developed,” Andersen said, adding that even he and his staff have become better coaches through this experience. “I don’t like what’s been taken away from them. But they understand that it’s probably the best interest for them that they’re not playing right now.”