New Hampshire Coach Sean McDonnell says of playing spring football season during the pandemic: “We’re going to hit something, something will come along. I think we’re prepared, I think we have to be very resilient in how we do things.” David Zalubowski/Associated Press

As teams at college football’s highest level, the Football Bowl Subdivision, played through the fall – and a coronavirus pandemic – their colleagues at the Football Championship Subdivision took notes.

What worked? What didn’t? What adjustments were made? What happened if there was a COVID-19 outbreak?

“Certainly I talked to a lot of coaches I know, especially from Power 5 schools, and how they did it,” said Nick Charlton, the head coach at the University of Maine. “Sure, the resources are different, but at the same time, it’s really a matter of what your (COVID-19) protocols are and making sure you follow them.”

On Tuesday, the Black Bears will begin practicing for their six-game Colonial Athletic Association spring football season, which begins March 6. The CAA, which canceled the 2020 fall season because of the pandemic, is one of 12 FCS conferences that will play this spring, with a national championship game scheduled for May 15 in Frisco, Texas.

Officials are hoping to have the same outcome as their FBS cousins, with playoffs following an abbreviated regular season. They realize it is not going to be perfect. The FBS season was littered with COVID-related game cancellations.

Joe D’Antonio, the CAA Commissioner, believes the FBS experience provided a blueprint that FCS leagues can follow.

“Most of what we’ve learned, we’ve taken from the policies and procedures manuals (of FBS programs),” he said. “How it works in terms of field setup, setting up locker rooms, testing officials, where the chain crew goes, postgame meals. We’ve taken ideas of the logistical aspects of playing a football game and we’ve learned a lot of that from our FBS friends.

“We were fortunate enough to have them go through it and learn a lot from what they ultimately were able to accomplish. Even with all that, they had a lot of stops and starts. But ultimately they got through the season.”

New Hampshire Coach Sean McDonnell, back leading the Wildcats after missing the 2019 season for health reasons, said it’s not just the FBS that provided valuable lessons. He said watching what UNH’s winter sports teams have done has helped him immensely.

“Both our men’s basketball and hockey programs have had stoppages in play,” he said. “But they have a plan in place to help alleviate some of the problems of tracing and things like that, by setting up your locker rooms, busses, everything the right way.

“We’re going to hit something, something will come along. I think we’re prepared, I think we have to be very resilient in how we do things.”

Charlton stressed that his program is following very rigid COVID-19 safety protocols, established by both the state and the university. Testing is done regularly. According to D’Antonio, the CAA offers schools the choice of either providing one PCR test per week, administered within 72 hours of a game, or three antigen tests per week in the days leading up to a game.

Charlton said UMaine will follow a regimen that includes both types of testing. He realizes there are going to be bumps in the road, much as there were during the FBS season.

“The reality is we all have to make great decisions, we have to make the sacrifices necessary to play,” he said. “We will follow the protocols put in front of us to allow us to practice as a full team.”

Both Charlton and McDonnell stressed that football is unlike any sport being played right now. Its rosters are much larger, but more important, it is being played outside.

“There’s a huge difference being outside on football field instead of inside a hockey rink or a basketball arena,” said McDonnell. “I think it’s a huge difference for everybody.”

Being outside, especially in the Northeast for schools like Maine, New Hampshire and Albany, presents its own issues during winter.

“It’s something that we’re going to have to navigate every day,” said McDonnell. “It’s different, man. Maine, New Hampshire, Albany, it’s a lot different than Elon, Richmond or James Madison. They worry about rain and wind. We worry about snow and ice.”

Both Charlton and McDonnell said they will change practice schedules depending on the weather. But as Albany Coach Greg Gattuso said, “The problem now is there is no precedent for what we’re all getting ready to do. At the end of the day, playing in the winter is a huge challenge. And when you throw in a pandemic, it becomes something else. There is no one you can call to get the answers.”

And because of that, said Charlton, you really have to trust in what you’re doing.

“To be honest with you, as much as you can rely on research and conversations with people who have already played, ultimately in the state of Maine and at the University of Maine, there are some things and protocols which are specific to our situation,” he said. “We know what it will take to play. It is important to learn from people who played. We see an avenue to play. Our players have done a great job so far, we feel, to be in a position to play football this spring. We’ve got to continue to make make good decisions.”


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