Virginia Football Coach Bronco Mendenhall Continues To Guide Program Through Pandemic Variables

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Bronco Mendenhall
Virginia football Bronco Mendenhall discussed the pandemic with reporters in a video conference call on Thursday. ~ file photo

The NCAA Division I Council announced Wednesday that student-athletes in football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball may participate in on-campus voluntary athletics activities again beginning June 1 as long as all local, state, and federal regulations are followed. The NCAA had placed a moratorium on those types of workouts through May 31 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The status for other sports will be addressed via another vote in the future per the NCAA.

At the University of Virginia, football players will not be back on Grounds, Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall said Thursday. UVA and its facilities remain closed at this time. The school already announced that the first two summer class sessions would be conducted online as well. Until things open at the school, players will not be returning for any sort of workouts.

“Even though the NCAA has and is allowing voluntary workouts starting June 1, as we know in this environment they’re really not determining what’s happening,” Mendenhall said in a video conference call with reporters. “The states and each institution really are determining what is safe so we’re following state and CDC guidelines and working with our own medical people. Right now, our institution, meaning our fields, our offices, and our weight rooms are not open. So even though the NCAA has voluntary workouts allowed June 1, the University of Virginia will not allow and the state of Virginia will not allow those workouts to begin. Until our state, the CDC, our medical staff, and our institution says that it is safe and we have the structure and we have the resources and we have the testing and we have all the protocols in place, until then our players will not be returning to Grounds.”

Obviously, that opens the potential for schools to be operating differently based on their location and that can create a competitive disadvantage among sports teams. Mendenhall acknowledged that possibility, noting that having a training staff, strength and conditioning coaches, sports medicine personnel, nutritionists, and others available in person for student-athletes is invaluable. He also noted that the advantage could potentially change if some schools that open early end up closing again.

That’s just one of many angles surrounding the pandemic as colleges evaluate if, and how, to bring back sports. Mendenhall has worked through many of those angles in different roles this spring. The ACC football coaches as a group make recommendations to the conference and the NCAA for example. He’s also a member of the American Football Coaches Association Board of Trustees, another group that collects information and opinions from its members to provide feedback to the NCAA oversight committee.

One thing that Mendenhall has learned from those roles during this crisis is that there are many factors at play.

“The variance by state is changing the whole model. It’s making it very difficult to have universality in start times,” Mendenhall said. “… I hope at the very, very minimum it’s established [as] a universal start date for number of practices before a first game and at some type of equality that way.”

The NCAA extended its waiver that allows teams to hold eight hours per week of virtual non-physical activities through the end of June, in part because it recognizes that some student-athletes may not be able to return to campus or be comfortable returning to campus even with moratorium on voluntary workouts lifted. That’s the framework that Mendenhall is working within for the Virginia team.

Other than the mandatory break during final exams, Mendenhall and his staff have conducted meetings with players and incoming recruits (those that have completed graduation requirements at their schools) under the eight hours per week/two hours per day rules. In the morning team meeting, Mendenhall said the coaches and support staff try to address the varying challenges and stresses created for the players during a pandemic on a mental, physical, and character related level.

The Cavaliers also hold football specific meetings and break down into position meetings as well. They’re using that time to do installation of schemes and concepts among other football specific topics.

“It seems like a lot longer than a month. Time seems to go slower without seeing our players and interacting in person with them and my coaches except through Zoom,” Mendenhall said. “… We’ve been able to have 8 hours per week, 2 hours per day in meetings, team meetings and position meetings etc., installing and talking about our season, re-emphasizing our goals, and then also checking on the well being of each of our players. It’s been really good to have that interaction and to be talking football and to add structure to our players. … The highlight of each day is seeing my team online and having some interaction with them for the first couple of hours of every day.”

Most of UVA’s players are not enrolled in the first summer school session, Mendenhall said, but will be taking classes in the later sessions. As noted above, the first two summer school sessions are being conducted online. There has not been a decision about the third summer school session, which is scheduled to begin on July 13. Currently, between six and 10 players are in Charlottesville, many who are from the area anyway.

While the coaches wait for decisions to be made about students returning to Grounds, Mendenhall is planning for what things might look like when the players do finally return. As one might expect, there are many categories surrounding those decisions. Mendenhall listed housing, meals, and transportation as just three examples that the University must evaluate for all students not just student-athletes. From a football standpoint, for example, those details normally include lodging during summer school and preseason camp in August as well as team meals in the John Paul Jones Arena dining hall. There could also be required modifications to the training areas in the McCue Center where the weight room is located.

Mendenhall said there is a spectrum of options within each category and many of the decisions have to be evaluated on a predictive level. Everything from quarantine periods and coronavirus testing – that’s what Wyoming has announced, for example – to other specifics could be in play.

“All of those plans are still in the works. There are so many variables and so many different time frames,” Mendenhall said. “Literally, I’m on meetings almost every day and I haven’t found any consistency yet from one day to the next. It changes so fast. New dynamics and new problems come up. There’s a lot of moving parts in terms of the housing for the players, the meals for the players, the transportation – and this would be for all students as well, not just the players. For all students, how to keep them safe, how to keep them and give them the best care, let alone practice and work out and train with weights and possibly share equipment. No modifications have been done up to this point and about every scenario possible is being considered how we might take this on when given the clearance to.”

That doesn’t even take into account the actual football part of the equation. Mendenhall said he’s put a lot of thought into practice designs based on varying degrees of safety protocols.

“I’ve thought about it a lot and I stay up at night thinking about it,” Mendenhall said. “Brian Hainline, the Chief Medical Officer for the NCAA, he recommended not sharing a ball for four weeks. I don’t know how you play football without sharing a ball. That’s just one small little component of the game and what practice might look like. The passing game is pretty hard when you can’t deliver the ball to anyone else. So, those subtle but impactful decisions are rampant throughout this entire predictive phase, which is where we are right now. It’s all predictive. It seems like new and better data continues to come in by the day. My hope is by the time that we allow our players to return, we have the very best and most current and best protocols and data in place to allow them to be safe.”

With so many unknowns, it’s obviously unclear what’s ahead for college football season. Virginia is scheduled to open its season on Sept. 7 against Georgia in Atlanta. Some colleges and universities have announced plans to have on-campus classes on a different timeline this fall; UVA has not announced a decision at this time. Notre Dame, for example, announced it will begin the fall semester two weeks early, cancel fall break, and end the semester before Thanksgiving. Naturally, fan speculation tries to align a potential football season within similar parameters.

Mendenhall reportedly discussed potential options with VAF donors and football alumni this month. He told reporters on Thursday that he is optimistic about some sort of fall football season right now. He also said he wants the safest and most secure option for the student-athletes before even thinking about playing football.

“I think football will start in the fall. It’s too soon to tell whether it will start on time and what it will look like,” Mendenhall said. “The way I think about it simply is that football supports and enhances humanity, it’s not in place of or more important than. That’s the way I’m going to support and run our team. When it’s safe and when it’s appropriate and when all can benefit, I’m for playing the game. If that’s contrary to benefiting others or the health of others or maybe even philosophically seeming more important, then I’m not for that. My hope is, because I believe it can help other people, my hope is that we can play it for a boost in spirit and a sense of community to rally around and then certainly a financial component to help the athletic department and the other sports and other coaches and the student-athletes have opportunities.”

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