Grim reality: College football is beyond anyone’s control

No vocation cares more about control than coaching football. Before Washington played in a Super Bowl, coach George Allen went so far as to scout the California sun. (His findings: It’s bright.) Yet here the industry is, trying to wrap its arms around the virus that throws off all restraints.

College football coaches — well, not those in the Big Ten and Pac-12 — are planning for a season that might never start and, if does, might not reach completion. Even the conferences that want to play concede there could come a day when they can’t. So how does a control-freak coach handle that which is beyond anybody’s control?

Here was Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins, speaking Wednesday morning via Zoom: “The biggest thing is the core philosophy of our program – just control what we can control. Right now, here are the parameters we’re operating under. We come in here every day trying to get better, understanding the health and safety guidelines that are placed in front of us every day, following those while still developing at a high level. (We) do that every single day; control what we can control; have a great attitude; make sure our guys, our staff, everybody in the organization is in an environment to promote their health, promote their safety and continue to get better every single day.

“We live in that mindset 365 days a year, but it’s never been more relevant than it is right now.”

That’s really the only answer a coach can offer. The Yellow Jackets are wearing masks, keeping a social distance. There are, Collins said, “safety loops painted all over field. It’s ingrained for them to know where those distances are.”

Here, though, is the tangle: College football teams are part of college campuses. This week already has seen two of Tech’s ACC brethren — North Carolina and Notre Dame — suspend in-person classes that had barely started because of outbreaks of COVID-19. Nobody doubts that those conferences still bent on playing football are doing almost everything possible to safeguard players. What’s not possible, for reasons both logistic and economic, is for every college to construct an NBA-esque bubble next to the library.

Said Collins: “We talk about protecting our own individual bubbles, and then our collective bubble as well that we’re all involved in.” The hope, he allowed, is that his players will “continue that when they do go to class or are out on campus.”

That’s the hope. The reality: According to a White House document obtained by the ol’ AJC, the state of Georgia – Tech is based in Atlanta, the capital thereof – ranked first in the U.S. last week in new COVID cases. Some K-12 schools that have tried to open have been forced to close.

An hour after Collins’ session ended, Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity took to Zoom to discuss his school’s plan to stage home games at one-fourth of Sanford Stadium’s capacity. This also involves mask, hand sanitizing and social distancing. (Even at this late date, that’s pretty much all we’ve got in the struggle against the virus.) Someone asked a question that’s essentially unanswerable: How confident is the AD that football will be played?

Said McGarity: “I can only address what’s going on within our program, the way our young people that are here now – in football, volleyball and soccer and that are training in cross country – they’ve just done a marvelous job in adhering to protocol and doing everything we’ve asked them to do. What will the general student population do? That’s up for grabs there because we’ve seen what’s happened at other institutions, and we open class tomorrow. We expect to see some spikes. I don’t think anybody would be shocked about that. But we feel confident within our building that we’re doing everything we can do.”

Then: “Certainly we can’t control those circumstances that are not under our umbrella. You’ve just got to hope that people, if they want to see sports played, if they want to see students remain on campus, they’re going to have to adhere to the protocols in place. It’s obviously not like it was when we were in school. We were all students at one time, and who’s to say how we would have conducted ourselves back then in a pandemic? It’s difficult, it’s a change. You’ve got to have buy-in, and certainly our students have bought in. We just hope the general population will buy in as well and make it as safe as possible to continue to work towards play.”

For all the testing and masking and sanitizing and distancing, we’re all at the mercy of other people. The insidious part of COVID-19 is that those people can spread the virus without realizing they have it, but you knew that already. For those who care about college football, the great unknown is what happens when football players are joined by regular students on campus. If you’re looking for the reason the SEC moved its start date to Sept. 26 and the ACC to Sept. 10, there it is. The conferences are waiting to see, too.

Collins was asked if the news from Chapel Hill and South Bend proved sobering. “I just control what I can control,” he said. “I’m sure that’s going to get old. I’m sure that’s going to get boring, but that is the head space I live in constantly. Here’s the parameters we have set; here’s the health and safety guidelines; here’s the protocols that we have at our institution and within our football program, and (we’re trying to) make sure we’re doing those things that we can control at the highest level possible with a great attitude. I’m the one who has to make sure I’m setting that mindset, communicating that mindset. But it’s served us well. We’ll continue to progress in that manner, making sure our program is the healthiest and safest and continuing to follow the protocols at a very high level.”

That’s the part that is driving football people nuts. They and their players can do everything right, and it still might not be enough. The virus will do as it pleases. As we speak, the virus is undefeated.