Despite an abbreviated spring season due to the coronavirus pandemic and multiple MEAC schools opting to participate in the fall, the remaining programs left standing when the 2021 campaign officially begins this month are ready to compete after nearly a full year away from the field.
Some coaches can’t wait to get started. Others are just pleased a season will take place at all after the likes of Florida A&M, Bethune-Cookman and North Carolina Central sought fit to play in the fall.
The resounding refrain is a tempered optimism that an abbreviated season — controlled largely by testing, CDC protocols, medical experts, and however virus variants behave — can actually happen.
Morgan State head coach Tyrone Wheatley, who is in his second season, explained the program took into account what would be in the best interest of the athletes first before ultimately preparing for a spring season, though he acknowledged the unpredictable nature of COVID could alter the best of plans.
“You kind of go back and look at what (FBS) schools did in the fall and you try and play off of that,” he said. “You always want to make sure you have these young men’s best interest at hand and making sure their safety is okay.”
Well before spring practice began, Wheatley explained that the football programs received input from medical experts, doctors, and even athletic director Dr. Edward Scott prior to making a commitment.
“When all the lights turned green for us to be able to play and say we can do it, that’s what it was. But if all lights were red, we definitely wouldn’t be playing.”
For Norfolk State head coach Latrell Scott, he was grateful that the university and the MEAC agreed to cautiously try to hold a season after months of widespread uncertainty.
“We are thankful to the MEAC and thankful to our president and athletic administration for putting us in the situation even to compete,” Scott said. “There are a lot of programs around the country, for whatever reason, that they either felt that they couldn’t do it or we didn’t have the resources to do it.
As Scott sees it, being able to play football — even only a handful of games — has been a much-needed morale boost for his players amid a tumultuous 2020.
“I’m glad to be in the number of the ones that did,” he said. “I think the spring season is great for us. It gives our guys an opportunity to play football. I think our kids will be much more productive in the classroom because they understand the opportunity that they have.”
Before anyone can breathe a sigh of relief just arriving at the starting point, the six schools that are embarking on this journey are going to have to navigate whatever unforeseen COVID-related challenges await them.
The spring season format will obviously be different than any other in the history of the conference.
The active football-playing school is split into two divisions — Northern and Southern. Commissioner Dennis Thomas said the re-alignment was intentionally assembled that way to cut down on long-distance travel which required flights. Each road trip will be taken by bus to limit possible public exposure to the virus.
“We want to ensure that coaches and players are out of harm’s way,” said Thomas. “We can’t be an aircraft carrier. We gotta be able to change directions on a moment’s notice.”
If the regular season is completed without widespread interruption, winners of each division will meet in the first-ever MEAC championship game on April 17, following the conclusion of a seven-week race which has built-in open dates in anticipation of any stoppages.
But setting a schedule hasn’t been the easiest of tasks for the conference as the league has been forced to revise its slate on three different occasions during the offseason due to Bethune-Cookman, Florida A&M, and North Carolina Central opting out because of either COVID-19 or safety concerns.
“If you would have told me a year or two ago this is the world we’d be living in, I would have told you (that) you had some serious problems,” Thomas said, who received guidance from the league’s Forecasting Committee that helped put together the conferencewide schedule. “We have adapted. We have made adjustments and the conference had been planning for football season, basketball season, volleyball season — all the sports we’ve had since last April.”
On the other end of the spectrum, first-year Howard coach Larry Scott has been determined to push ahead — safely — in the midst of all the present risks out of sheer obligation to the athletes.
“Why can’t we as HBCUs find a way to play? Everyone else has,” said Scott. “Give us some light. Give us some hope. Give us the protective measures and policies and procedures and we will execute it.”
Scott was adamant that if FBS could find a way to piece together season, Black colleges should attempt it.
“We will get it done just like we see our counterparts doing at predominately white institutions and open,” he said. “We can do that, too.”
Buddy Pough, the longest-tenured coach in the MEAC, desires some semblance of normalcy. The South Carolina State head coach and his program have had their own issues with the virus. An outbreak during fall workouts forced the cancelation of practice.
Between quarantines, frequent testing, and team meetings conducted over Zoom, the operation of football — at least preparing for it — doesn’t seem recognizable these days.
“We’ve had our problems with some of the issues of the coronavirus,” Pough said. “Some of the issues and protocols you deal with have been hard on our young folk.
“We missed the general camaraderie of being together. We’ve had psychologists and mental health specialists on our staff in ways we’ve never had before. I think it’s kind of been the norm around the country that young folk have struggled with isolation and quarantine and just not being together.”