Shut But Still Open

  • July 9, 2020

BY JAY GREENBERG

There are many questions the people who run Ivy League athletic programs can’t yet answer, except for the obvious first one.

“I’ll use this analogy,” said Bob Surace Wednesday after the school presidents suspended all sports until January 1. ”If its fourth-and-one at the 50, we are going to go for it but fourth-and-15 from the minus-20 with four minutes left and up two touchdowns, we’ll punt.

“From the information we had, everything is telling us right now to punt. Our schools don’t have to make a decision based on TV revenue and other things.  We care about our players and are doing what is right, the only thing we had to debate on this.

“I haven’t talked to a coach at any level who is not concerned about getting through this season without getting shut down.   They all have doubts for their kids and if you have doubts, then you know what the right answer is:  Wait until we know we can do this with less risk.

“It stinks.  I was in tears today talking to the team. I still break up thinking about it because I know what it means to them.  My dad was a coach and so for 50 years I’ve been at football games in the fall as a player, coach, and water boy. It’s being taken away now for the right reasons but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.”

It also doesn’t mean there won’t be a football season in the spring, even if it has already been decided by President Chris Eisgruber that, for the purposes of social distancing, sophomores and seniors will not be on campus in the fall, only taking classes online.

“There are solutions to all those things,” said Surace. “And not hard solutions, either.

“It just takes the administration and athletic administration to work together. If people care they will do that and I’d like to think our university cares about athletics.

“It’s not hard to find places for people to stay. If this virus is still spreading in February, that’s the challenge, the only one I’m worried about. As a football coach I can find solutions. But not to the virus.”

Athletic Director Mollie Marcoux-Samaan has pledged to work with underclassmen should there be no sports this school year and want to take leave to save a year of eligibility. This will not be a simple call for them, but still easier than for one of the deepest groups of seniors with All-Ivy potential the football program ever has had. They must decide whether to gamble there will be spring football at Princeton or take the year off and finish up their eligibility at another school.

“This just happened this afternoon,” said Surace. “We (coaches) weren’t given advance notice, could only guess this was going to be the decision.

“So we want to give the students the best information and we don’t have it all yet.

We’ll go through all that in the next week and figure out what’s best for them, which right now is sit tight because there is time to make decisions.  If it’s August and we hear the vaccines have failed then our advice will change.

“For the freshmen, sophomores, and juniors, the recommendation is clear that they should stay because if we don’t play in the spring they will be able to regain the year of eligibility.  But I don’t have full clarity on all answers.”

There is a three-tiered plan in place for the fall to allow the freshmen and juniors on campus to first work out individually, then progress to small groups and full practices.

A schedule, whether it be seven or 10 games, remains in the air, of course.  With so much television money at stake, it will be as long as a month until much of the rest, if not all, of college football throws in the towel on playing this fall, and perhaps take that long to know whether Princeton’s three non-league opponents on the 2020 season—Army, Virginia Military and Bucknell–will adjust their plan to the spring, too.

A date at Army, the most anticipated non-league contest on Princeton’s schedule since the formation of the formal Ivy League in 1956, would be a shame to lose, but Surace is not conceding anything. So neither should you.

“As uncertain as this whole thing has been, I’m an optimistic person,” said the coach.  “Medical experts believe there has been progress towards a vaccine.

“That’s a game changer. If by mid-December to early January we will have a vaccine as they say is possible, that will enable us to go back to normal. At any point it could fail, I realize, but it is trending in a way they feel good about and I don’t believe scientists they would say that publicly unless they have reason to believe it.

‘IF there is a vaccine and better therapies, and we follow certain risk-minimizing guidelines that are no hardship if we would just do them – washing our hands, wearing a mask, there is a better than average chance we can play. We are going to learn a lot from professional sports in the next few months.”

In the statement, the Ivy Presidents said only no sports until at least January 1, not a word about hoping to resume thereafter. That’s not necessarily ominous, but Surace says an expression of hope would not have been cruel.

“Their language was not a strong as I would have liked,” he said. “Look, right now I realize we’re all just trying to get to tomorrow, but they could have said we will play in the spring if we can do it.

“The athletes care so much about representing their schools that it would have meant a lot to them to hear that if it’s safe to go in the spring, then we’ll figure out in January how we are going to schedule it.

“I think they meant to be positive, just could have put in a different way. These kids have been amazing, have done everything we’ve asked of them since we had to send them home. They are inspiring in how well they have handled this really challenging time. They just need some positivity.”

Not even before the undefeated 2018 season have the Tigers had so many players of All-Ivy potential returning but really, the bad year for this to happen would be any year.

“To say we have the best senior class we’ve ever had, and we have a really good chance at a title, well, every coach every year is thinking like that,” said Surace.  “You have to remove that and look at the big picture and ask, ‘why am I coaching?’, which is to help 18-22 year olds develop into men and go onto great things. So their safety comes first.

“We all know that we should be waiting until spring, as we’re doing. But I also know this hurts to the core.”

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