What goes into Georgia Tech’s COVID-19 protocols on the road

Georgia Tech players fill to-go cartons for their meal prior to their Sept. 12, 2020 game against Florida State in Tallahassee, Fla.

Credit: Georgia Tech Athletics

Credit: Georgia Tech Athletics

Georgia Tech players fill to-go cartons for their meal prior to their Sept. 12, 2020 game against Florida State in Tallahassee, Fla.

When Georgia Tech players, coaches and staff board team buses, each rider has one row for his or her own for social-distancing purposes. Beyond that, they are asked to not sit directly behind the person in front of them, so stickers are placed on alternating seats – aisle, window, aisle – reminding them where to sit to maximize distance between other passengers.

When the Yellow Jackets board their buses Saturday to ride from their Boston-area hotel to Boston College’s Alumni Stadium, it will be their third road game, with bus rides to the airport, airport to hotel, hotel to stadium, stadium to airport, airport back to campus. It should be routine by now.

However, for the Jackets' ride through leafy Chestnut Hill, Mass., Georgia Tech director of football operations Scott Wallace was planning for the bus seats still to be adorned with the warning stickers. Charged with ensuring the healthful and safe passage of the Tech team in a year when that mission’s complexity has skyrocketed, Wallace is consumed with fulfilling his responsibility to the team.

“We’ve kind of gone above and beyond,” Wallace said in an interview with the AJC this week. “I don’t think we need to put stickers on every chair anymore, but it’s not going to be football ops' fault if anything goes wrong.”

The scope of “anything going wrong” has taken on far greater meaning and urgency amid the coronavirus pandemic. At a time when people are encouraged to stay home and avoid large groups to minimize their risk of COVID-19 infection, Wallace is herding a party of about 150 people onto buses, airplanes, hotels, locker rooms, stadiums and back to campus. In ensuring that buses and meals are on time, hotel rooms are not lacking and, in this strange year, hand sanitizer is ever-present, Wallace’s objective is for no one to think of him.

“I don’t need accolades, I don’t need people to notice it,” Wallace said. “If it goes unnoticed, it means it was done right.”

Wallace, who was coach Geoff Collins' director of football operations (DFO for short) at Temple and came with him to Tech, has earned his boss' respect and appreciation.

“He’s the guy that makes everything in this organization happen,” Collins said on a videoconference with media following the Jackets' season-opening win over Florida State, a trip for which Wallace arranged for the team to ride to Tallahassee, Fla., in 11 buses to facilitate social distancing. “I’m just the guy that gets to hop on Zoom calls. But he’s the one that makes things happen. I couldn’t be more proud of him and the entire operations staff.”

Wallace got his start in the business after graduating from Division II California University (Pa.) -- where he played quarterback and defensive back -- in 2011. Passionate about college football but certain he didn’t want to coach, he said he offered to work for free at the University of Delaware – he grew up nearby in Kennett Square, Pa. – and assisted the DFO there. He lived with his parents and earned money serving breakfast at a diner two days a week.

From there, he was hired at Temple in 2014, becoming DFO there for former coach Matt Rhule in 2015 and then keeping the job upon Collins' hire in 2017. He describes the role – overseeing the budget, team travel and Collins' camps, among other duties – as a dream job.

“I don’t know what else I would rather do,” Wallace said. “Everyone’s like, ‘What’s your end goal?’ I’m like, ‘Well, I love what I’m doing right now.’”

His passion for his work has been tested this year. Travel planning began in June, when players began returning to campus for workouts. Wallace said he was “worrying like crazy” about travel. One of his strategies?

Ask Collins.

“So I’d start planting the seed because I know once you do that, he’ll go nuts thinking about all different ways to be creative,” Wallace said. “We were talking on the phone eight or 12 times a day in the summer when we were out of the office. It’d be a phone call every 15 or 20 minutes, and then he’d get on another phone call, and then he’d call me back: ‘Oh, I heard this.’”

The changes in travel were made with keeping social distance as much as possible.

At the hotel, both home and road, everyone on the trip stays one to a room, which was a priority for Collins. Previously, players bunked two to a room. Wallace said he believed that Tech is one of two or three teams in the ACC to make that accommodation.

“I still look at it, like, ‘Are you crazy not to do that?’” he said.

It has meant an increase in rooms from 102 to about 148. (The standard travel party has shrunk from 165 to 147 or 148, as the travel list has been trimmed to limit health risks.) Fortunately for his budget, Wallace is reserving more rooms at a time when hotels are desperate for guests.

“So we’ve been able to negotiate, saying, ‘Well, we need more rooms, you need the business, our budget has not gone up. So how can we meet in the middle?’” Wallace said.

Georgia Tech director of football operations Scott Wallace at the Yellow Jackets' game against Louisville at Bobby Dodd Stadium Oct. 9, 2020.

Credit: Georgia Tech Athletics/Danny Karnik

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Credit: Georgia Tech Athletics/Danny Karnik

With flight costs having dropped slightly, travel expenses haven’t changed too much, Wallace said. But Tech has been willing to spend extra when necessary. He cited the 11-bus charter down to Florida State for the season opener, when last year the team never used more than five. Now, the minimum is six.

There are smaller details. Wallace brings gallon-size hand-sanitizer pumps and has them placed strategically throughout the team hotel. He asks the hotels to put small bottles of sanitizer in each room.

“One thing that I’m most proud of, from some of the things I’ve heard throughout the country from people in my position, is (athletic director) Todd Stansbury, coach Collins have done an amazing job at making sure that the priority is keeping student-athletes safe, keeping the staff safe,” Wallace said.

When the team leaves the hotel for the stadium, buses leave in three waves 10 minutes apart – rather than in one caravan – to minimize crowding in the locker room. (After games, the entire team is in the locker room together. Players gather around Collins for a few minutes, then retreat to their lockers.)

When they leave the locker room after the game, players grab boxed meals and eat in an open-air setting, properly distanced, at the stadium. (Previously, they ate on the bus.) When buses fill, they head to the airport one by one, rather than en masse, limiting the time team members have to wait in lines.

“It’s worked really, really well for us,” Wallace said.

Meals were Wallace’s biggest worry, he said, “because that’s such an easy way to let your guard down.” On the road, rather than eating together as a team, players load up to-go cartons from a buffet and take them back to their rooms.

For home games, the Jackets used to go to Maggiano’s for a family-style dinner. Now, Wallace has the restaurant cater dinner at the team hotel and players can eat together, but circular tables are divided by plexiglass screens.

“Even though, technically, you’re six feet apart on a six-foot table, you should be good (without the screens),” Wallace said. “I said, ‘I don’t want to risk it.’”

It all follows protocols developed for practice and meetings. In the preseason, team-wide meetings were held in the north stands of Bobby Dodd Stadium, with Collins reviewing practice clips on the stadium video board. At practice, players on the sidelines are required to stand in painted loops to stay separated from one another.

“We’re always doing the best we can to keep socially distance and just keep the right protocols,” left guard Jack DeFoor said.

Wallace has plenty of help, starting with assistant DFO Kevin Cone (a former Tech wide receiver) and staffers Nicole Earley and Delvin Jones. Position coaches have reinforced the necessity of masking and other mitigation tools. Collins “talks about (following protocols) so many times every single day,” Wallace said. “It’s almost been drilled into their head. ‘This is what we do, and this is how we stay safe.’ They’ve bought in and done a great job.”

Thanks in no small part to Wallace’s efforts, the Jackets have to this point avoided outbreaks like those that have derailed other teams.

“It takes everybody,” said Wallace, and that includes the mission leader who hopes to go unnoticed.