How Georgia Tech’s voluntary workout plan came together

Back in March – somehow, that was only three months ago – Georgia Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury met with his staff to lay out three priorities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic shutting down college athletics.

The first was to ensure the health and safety of Yellow Jackets athletes and staff. The second was to keep athletes on track academically as Tech’s education format shifted to online. Lastly, make sure that Tech athletes would be ready to go when the NCAA gave the green light.

“When he did that – this was way back in March – I think that set us on a course and gave us our marching orders,” deputy AD Mark Rountree told the AJC.

The first two objectives appear to have been met. Tech athletes averaged a 3.23 GPA for the spring semester, setting a record for the athletic department. Tech will initiate the third leg of Stansbury’s mission Monday, when it begins voluntary on-campus workouts for its athletes. It will be the first of three phases of workouts to fully return Tech athletes.

Planning for the workouts – initially available only to Jackets athletes living in the Atlanta area, as on-campus housing is not yet available – has been profound and intensive.

“You’re really creating this process from scratch,” Rountree said.

Typically, for a broad-ranging plan such as this, the department might heed the parameters and instructions from the NCAA, the ACC and the University System of Georgia. In this instance, entities such as the state of Georgia’s Department of Public Health, Gov. Brian Kemp’s office and Tech’s own medical team provided guidance and boundaries that also had to be followed.

“It has been a lot of information,” Rountree said.

With those parameters, an athletic department working group charged with creating a structure for the return of athletes and staff to activities from Covid-19 brought its expertise to bear on decisions like the testing protocol, restrictions on facility usage and maximum number of individuals permitted in a workout group. Of that, the group landed on 10, with two staff members.

“We had strength coaches, sports-medicine staff, physicians and facilities folks,” Rountree said. “I think having that group discuss, ‘Hey, what do we think is safe, what do we think is appropriate in our facilities’ (was helpful). That’s how they came to that number.”

The group also included football assistant coach Chris Wiesehan, men’s basketball assistant coach Anthony Wilkins, football strength coach Lewis Caralla, sports-medicine director Carla Gilson, baseball player Hugh Chapman and 22 others from across the athletic department and institute, including doctors and members of the health-services department.

“I know there’s been moments that I’ve gone, ‘Wow, I’m glad we had that person on the committee,’ ” Rountree said. “Because, obviously, bringing in different points of view and bringing in a diverse group was very important for us.”

Starting Monday, the Phase 1 group will work out in four different weight rooms – the department’s primary strength-training facility at the bottom of the Wardlaw Center (adjacent to the south end zone of Bobby Dodd Stadium), the Zelnak Basketball Center, Russ Chandler Stadium and the Brock Football Practice Facility, in which weight racks have been set up.

About 75 Tech athletes across various sports will work out Monday, Wednesday and Friday in one-hour sessions, running from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The equipment will be wiped clean between each session.

The plan is for the first phase to last approximately two weeks. Athletes and staff will be tested upon arrival on Monday, and the athletic department will conduct surveillance testing and testing for athletes and staff who are symptomatic. That does leave open the small possibility of athletes who have been infected by the coronavirus after arrival but do not show symptoms.

As such, the level of exertion in the workout plans will be moderate by design. It is an acknowledgement of the unknown risk level for asymptomatically-positive people to experience cardiac complications when they engage in high-intensity exercise.

Phase 1 will also give staff a chance to assess the implementation of the plan before moving onto Phase 2, which will involve more athletes and more facilities opening up. That would likely include batting cages, gyms, courts “and things like that,” Rountree said.

In welcoming back athletes from beyond the Atlanta area for the second phase, Rountree has been working with the housing department to admit athletes into on-campus housing. Speaking earlier this week, he said the plan was not yet “rock solid,” but “they’ve been great to work with as far as our planning to bring student-athletes back to campus.”

Beyond that, the path could continue with the possible start of summer workouts for football on July 13, according to a recommendation that the Division I Football Oversight Committee completed on Thursday to submit to the Division I Council for a vote on Wednesday. Basketball coaches are also hoping that the council approves the start of on-court training in July.

It is a slow, day-by-day process that hopes to eventually reach actual competition, including the football season opener against Clemson on Sept. 3 at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

Rountree also has a hand in that, as he is also involved with a working group tasked with designing a plan for event operations and fan engagement. He is also on an institute-wide COVID-19 task force for service and outreach. In more typical times, he is the administrator for football (which includes scheduling) and oversees the athletic department’s capital projects. Among other things, he served as a link that helped bring women’s basketball coach Nell Fortner to Tech last April.

“Mark Rountree deserves 18 gold stars,” men’s basketball coach Josh Pastner said.

Rountree deflected Pastner’s praise to the working group, the members of which have contributed their time and effort while continuing to do their regular jobs.

Monday will begin Phase 1. Then it’ll be onto Phase 2 and beyond, perhaps with actual games at the end of the process.

“I know for me personally, all the people on our staff and those who have been doing the work to bring back our student-athletes and our coaches – to me, that’s the story I tell,” Rountree said.