Coaching in the COVID-19 era: 3 Idaho high school football coaches detail challenges of playing during a pandemic

While some states have delayed the high school football season to 2021 because of coronavirus-related concerns, more than 30 states, including Idaho, opened this fall playing football.

SBLive Idaho asked a panel of three coaches from each region in Idaho — Rocky Mountain’s Chris Culig (south/Boise area), Lakeland’s Tim Kiefer (north) and Blackfoot’s Jerrod Ackley (east) — to answer six questions on how COVID-19 has impacted their season:

SBLIVE: WHAT IS YOUR OPINION OF COVID-19, AND HAS IT CHANGED SINCE THE SEASON STARTED?

TIM KIEFER: “For the most part, people fell into one of two categories: Category 1 – We need to isolate and shelter to protect ourselves until we find a vaccine.  This approach is going to be long and painful and at great personal and societal sacrifice. Category 2 – we need to isolate and protect our at-risk population while not overwhelming our medical system in a fashion that allows us to still function in our modified professional and personal lives. 

Tim Kiefer

No question, (people in) Idaho have chosen Category 2. We are trying to push forward and provide structure and normalcy as best we can for our students. I felt this going in – and still feel this is the right approach. The best way to do this is still a work in progress and we are getting better. I think if I was an (administrator) or a coach in a region that is still “shut down,” calling on the experience of the school districts that are going through it right now would be smart.”

(Feature photo by Erik Smith)

CHRIS CULIG: “We have been dealing as a program with COVID since June 3 when we went back to our off-season conditioning. Obviously, it is a serious situation that we need to deal with every day.

Chris Culig

We decided to do whatever we needed to make sure we could have a season. No matter the rules or the regulations we had to deal with, we decided we want to play – so take care of what needs to be done.

I feel the (health-code) restriction on just two parents or nobody (allowed) in the stands when in “RED” (high-alert designation) is contradictory to other areas of our life, so I struggle with it.”

JERROD ACKLEY: “First thing I can tell you is that it is real, and I’ve experienced it on a number of levels.

Jerrod Ackley

I can tell you from personal experience, the symptoms and side effects are more extreme than what the flu is, and the way it spread to me and my assistant coaches was pretty eye-opening.”

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SBLIVE: ON A SCALE FROM 1-10, HOW WOULD YOU RATE THE ‘FEAR FACTOR’ INVOLVING COVID-19 WITH YOUR PLAYERS AND COACHES?

KIEFER: “Truthfully, our kids are worried about protecting at-risk people in their lives as a No. 1 fear. But my guess on the day-to-day (interaction), they fear being quarantined and missing the game they love, or one of those games getting canceled. 

I don’t think any of the kids that chose to come out and play is worried too much about the actual virus. They made a choice at the beginning understanding the risks.  Whether that is right or wrong of them to think that, I cannot say. But it is accurate.

At first, us coaches worried about what it would look like moving forward. But once we got going, things very quickly started to feel like a close approximation of normal.”

CULIG: “At a 6 in their everyday life. We give it the respect it deserves, but I do not sense any fear.”

ACKLEY: “I don’t think with players and coaches, the fear factor is real high. The wife of one of my assistant coaches, she was in a panic and did not want him to coach at all, and they have been cautious with it. And I understand that, because one of their young kids has asthma.

But if I had to put it on a scale with us – 6. I know how rapid it can end up with somebody who does not have it. And with my kids – a 2 or 3, because they feel bullet-proof.”

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SBLIVE: WHAT IS THE BIGGEST WAY COVID-19 HAS IMPACTED YOUR SEASON?

KIEFER: “We have had two games canceled – one because of us (with COVID-19 cases) and one because of another team having cases and quarantine.  The one game (canceled) that had the biggest impact was our “homecoming” game against Post Falls. That was hard for our guys.”

CULIG: “We lost the ability to play three games due to scheduling changes. We lost some team-bonding activities and fun. Meetings must be smaller, so it’s been hard to get the same unity. Everything takes longer because we divide into smaller groups. For example, we would get 60 kids in the weight room; now we are about 25. Position meetings are 15 (players) or less, so getting the entire offense or defense together is a challenge. The energy of pregame without fans is different. Once the game starts, it is all good. But you feel it in pre-game.”

ACKLEY: “It has been really big on our team. I came in as a brand new coach, and our football camp was canceled, which is a really big deal when you are set to install a new offense. We did not get that time. And when you roll into fall camp, you are immediately five days behind.

Also because of COVID, southeast Idaho shut down 7-on-7 leagues for the summer. The coaches and the teams we play against – that did not happen to them. So, we were at a competitive disadvantage as well.

A few weeks ago, we were supposed to play Rigby. On the Monday night of game week, there was an outbreak, and (school administrators) shut us down completely for a week. It ended up being a member of our offensive-line group … so we went 14 days without our varsity offensive line. We did not see them a single time, and that is a group you do not want to miss seeing in a game like we had Saturday night (against Shelley).”

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SBLIVE: OF ALL THE COVID-19 HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL PROTOCOLS, WHICH ONE DO YOU SEE AS THE MOST IMPERATIVE OR IMPORTANT TO FOLLOW — AND WHY?

KIEFER: “Social distancing. Keep your players apart as best you can — buses, practice, locker rooms, team dinners, hanging out, in class, in the weight room. Keep them apart — and keep them moving around. 

We modified much of what we have done, but have had to omit very little. We’ve just been creative on how we did it: For team meetings in fall camp, we did everything on whiteboards against the fences outside. Film study is in the commons’ area where they can spread out. Locker room usage (when we had to use them) is done in shifts OR we had a coach in there rushing kids through, etc.

We got hit before the Post Falls game from a bus ride. What we learned was that we needed two buses to spread players out in. We also had an addendum (in district policy) that allowed parents to drive their own kids to and from the game.”

CULIG: “Following off-the-field safety precautions. We have so much control and can enforce safety while our players are part of our family for a few hours a day. But convincing them and all their non-football playing friends outside of football (to follow safety protocols) is the hardest thing. We do our best to encourage strict safety measures away from football, but you have no visibility into what is happening.”

ACKLEY: “It is imperative to social distance when you are inside with a group for 20 minutes. That is the most important thing to follow. And it is not the easiest thing to do, especially when you are talking about meeting in a high school classroom and putting a team of 120 players together.

In terms of the way the (coronavirus) spread, when I got it, I was in a small group with several guys for over 20 minutes. We were just sitting around talking, laughing. Out of our group of eight coaches, six tested positive for COVID. That was an eye opener.”

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SBLIVE: WHAT PROTOCOL HAS BEEN THE MOST CHALLENGING FOR YOUR PLAYERS TO FOLLOW?

KIEFER: “Social distancing. They like to be around each other. We have to constantly remind ourselves.”

CULIG: “Remembering to wear their masks walking from their car to the field and back. It is hard to socialize with a mask on.”

ACKLEY: “Drinking water, by far. It is hard for kids to stay hydrated, especially in August. And for the first couple games of the season, we put 60 water bottles on the sideline for the players. We finally figured out that using Dixie cups is the best thing during games. That way, players just take a drink and then throw them in the garbage can.”

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SBLIVE: DO YOU THINK IT IS OK FOR FOOTBALL TO BE PLAYED DURING THIS COVID-19 PANDEMIC?

KIEFER: “Absolutely! It has been tough, and it has been different. But it is the best thing for the physical and mental health of our kids. At the end of the day, if that is not in line with how you feel about the pandemic, then make the choice to not play. 

(What COVID has done) has made kids realize that nothing is guaranteed, and that they need to cherish each practice and game.”

CULIG: “Yes, no question.”

ACKLEY: “I think the benefit of kids being involved in something greater than themselves is imperative for society. … Every single player of mine has worn a mask every single day at school because they wanted to save their football season.”

Thank you for joining the discussion on SBLive!

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