Spring camp cut short ... all athletic facilities closed ... players leaving to go home ... potential headaches with academics and returned missionaries ... uncertainty about the upcoming season.
There are a number of reasons why BYU head football coach Kalani Sitake could be disappointed or frustrated with how current events have hammered his program — but anyone who knows Sitake knows that isn’t his style.
Instead, he is focused on the bigger picture right now.
“The most important thing for everyone to understand is that human lives matter more than anything right now, more than my job or anyone else’s job and definitely more than a sport,” Sitake said during a conference call on Tuesday. “We are focused on trying to take care of mankind and be sensitive and supportive for others. The No. 1 thing on our minds is to do that and then we’ll work out the rest.”
He explained that as decisions were made by BYU to limit the spread of COVID-19, the Cougar football program had to adapt rapidly.
“Everything moved so quickly,” Sitake said. “It wasn’t even day-to-day; it was more hour-to-hour. Before classes were put online, we had made the decision to hold off on practice and wait this thing out, see what everyone was doing and get some feedback from our leaders. I was impressed with a lot of the leadership I saw from director of athletics Tom Holmoe and BYU president Kevin Worthen. We are now doing what a lot of programs are doing and that is trying to communicate with our players as much as possible. We are trying to promote the idea of taking care of each other, taking care of their families and then also being mindful of others.”
He said he has been pleased overall with how his players have responded.
“We have about a third of our players have gone home but we’re staying in contact with all of them,” Sitake said. “It’s our job as coaches and mentors to educate them as much as possible on the coronavirus but then also the adjustments and transition we are making right now. We’re not focused on football. We’re focused on today and what we are trying to get accomplished as people.”
Talk has already begun about the potential impact on the 2020 college football season but Sitake said now isn’t the time for that type of speculation.
“Worrying about August in March does us no good,” Sitake said. “When things change so much hourly, it’s hard for us to project and forecast that much.”
The American missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who have been serving in foreign countries are returning to the United States and that includes some BYU football players.
That might cause an influx of athletes in the Cougar program but Sitake again emphasized it is a problem he and the rest of his staff will deal with as it comes.
“It’s probably more of a case-by-case deal,” Sitake said. “We currently have 47 guys on our team that are on missions. We’ve asked them for some patience and understanding, knowing the situation. Keeping the line of communication is important for us. They are coming home, adjusting with the 14-day period and then many of them are getting reassigned to different areas. We are trying to educate them as well as be upfront and honest with them. The scholarship numbers are always an issue when dealing with missionaries and the timing of returning. This is just another adjustment we need to make. We’ll work through this as well.”
In addition, academic standards are being adjusted as classes have attempted to adapt to the circumstances by going online. That could impact eligibility for football players but Sitake is confident the NCAA will work through those issues.
“The NCAA has mentioned they are willing to grant another year of eligibility to some student-athletes,” Sitake said. “I applaud the NCAA for being ahead of it. Usually they react but right now they seem to be trying to jump ahead of it. I’m not really worried about the future although that is in the back of our heads.”
Sitake explained that a bigger emphasis is for the players to take care of themselves physically and mentally.
“We have programs in place,” Sitake said. “We sent out our workouts for the guys to do. They’ve been modified to help the players knowing that they are probably not going to have an opportunity to be in a gym. We’re doing a lot of different things, more of the running and agility part. We are keeping them updated and they basically have a checklist to get done.
“On the mental health side, we’ve been in touch with our counselors that are available to us through the athletic department. They’ve been consistently keeping in touch with our players and our coaches, everyone that needs any support at the time. I think it’s really important at this time. They’ve made the adjustment really easy.”
He said he has enjoyed seeing the positives that have emerged from the current situation.
“I’ve seen a lot families hang out together,” Sitake said. “I’ve seen a lot of people rallying around each other. I’ve been really impressed with mankind altogether, being able to take care of each other. It gives me a lot of hope knowing that people care and that people love each other.”