Utah football never returned from spring break thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak, doing the Utes no favors

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah coach Kyle Whittingham at the first day of spring football practice in Salt Lake City on Monday March 4, 2019.

The University of Utah football team’s spring practice schedule is always a little quirky.

Similar to previous years, the Utes this spring were to practice three times, take a week off for spring break, then return for final 12 sessions, capped by the annual Red-White Game on April 11. They got those three practices in on March 2, 3 and 5. After that third session, the team was on spring break, save for anyone who had academic responsibilities on March 6, the final day of classes.

Practice was to resume on March 17, but it never did. With the coronavirus pandemic escalating, Utah suspended all practices and organized athletic activities indefinitely on March 13. The next day, the Pac-12 indefinitely suspended all organized athletics-related activities until at least March 29.

On a Monday conference call with beat writers, Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said that cancellation was the responsible thing to do, and that the safety of the country trumps anything going on in sports right now.

Still, the timing of things, with Utah on spring break, did Whittingham no favors.

“It was frustrating because we were on spring break, so we did not have an opportunity to have a team meeting and kind of lay down what was going on and what the course of action was,” Whittingham said. “We were on spring break, so it just became extended spring break. Once it was determined that they were going to go online with all the courses, a lot of people never came back, so we missed out on having a chance to have a reset meeting, I guess you can say.”

In the middle of athletics being suspended, the university moved to take classes online. It cancelled classes on March 16 and 17 with the intention of going online beginning March 18. At that point, getting players going with the new academic setup became a chief priority, but again, having to do so without the benefit of any face-to-face contact was a hurdle.

By comparison, the Utah men’s basketball team held a team meeting on March 16, plus had meetings with academic support staff before leaving campus for the foreseeable future.

“Right now, our focus with our players is academics, making sure they’re adjusting to this online routine and being responsible with their online tutor appointments and those types of things,” Whittingham said. “The onus right now is really on each of the position coaches to stay in daily contact with their group and players in their group, making sure we’re on top of all the academics and making sure we all have the virtual teach tapes we’re sending out.”

Academics might be the priority right now, but football, in some form, has to be part of the equation. Whittingham estimates that “90-plus percent” of his players are home with their families. Those players have been sent workout plans and have been briefed on what they’re supposed to be doing, but actually getting things done is going to prove difficult moving forward.

“The vast majority of gyms are closed down, so it’s tough right now for a lot of those kids to find a place to work out,” Whittingham said. “They’re not all on equal footing in that regard where they have access to the same stuff.”