By Dave Ongie, News Editor
On the Friday before the start of spring break, ETSU football coach Randy Sanders was in his element.
His players were finishing up their final offseason conditioning session that was supposed to usher in spring practice following a week off of school. This year’s spring camp was setting up to be particularly vital for a roster full of young players hungry to earn some playing time during the upcoming season.
But as Sanders stood up to address his team at the end of the conditioning session, he suddenly found himself in uncharted territory. Nothing in his 30 years of college football coaching could prepare him for the uncertainty his coaching staff and players were facing in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“It’s not something I’ve ever been through. There are not many people alive on earth who have been through any situation like this,” Sanders said. “I told them I had no clue what the future looked like, what was going to happen, but go home, stay safe and be careful traveling.”
And just like that, the ETSU football team scattered to the four winds. Social distancing has left college football in a state of suspended animation with players at home doing their best to knock out online coursework and stay in shape so they’re ready to return to the field at a time that has yet to be determined.
In Johnson City, Sanders has been working the phones extensively to keep tabs on his players as they continue to work out and take online classes in their respective homes. He’s also watching a lot of game film of his own team as well as tape of prospects, and he’s in regular contact with his assistant coaches.
Since ETSU athletic director Scott Carter lives just down the street, the two men are occasionally able to have a face-to-face meeting, albeit at a safe distance, at the end of Sanders’ driveway. Other than that, Sanders admits to being a little stir-crazy with his spring routine thrown out of whack.
“I have cleaned my boat about 15 times even though I’m not getting much chance to get it dirty,” he said. “I probably have been driving my wife and daughter crazy.”
While everybody seems to be getting used to the “new normal” of social distancing, the big question in every sector of American life is what life after distancing measures will look like. With the traditional start of football season just over four months away, Sanders isn’t sure what exactly next season will look like.
For now, he is keenly aware that the loss of spring practice came at an inopportune time for his program. “If there was ever a team I’ve been around that needed spring practice, this was it,” he said. “We have so many freshmen and sophomores, so many unproven guys that needed to go out there and show what they could do. As coaches, we needed to see what they could do, because these 15 days in spring are critical going forward so you know how to plan once you get into May, June, July and into August.”
No matter what happens between now and the kickoff of next football season, Sanders knows the offseason is likely to remain atypical. In order to ensure player safety, he said at least 30 days of conditioning and practice will be required in order for his team to be ready to safely take the field.
For now, Sanders will be keeping his boat clean, enjoying home-cooked meals and doing whatever he can to ensure his team is ready to go when the time comes.
“All I know is I wake up in the morning and I do what I can do,” he said. “As I tell the team, you control what you can control, and you can’t worry about the rest of the stuff. I don’t have a lot of control over the timetable right now.”