In a normal year, Pirate Nation would be 17 days away from watching ECU’s football team welcome Marshall to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for the 2020 season-opener. This year, however, has been anything but normal with the COVID-19 pandemic upending spring, and now, fall sports.
Both the Big Ten and Pac-12 elected to either postpone or cancel their fall sports slates on Tuesday, leaving the remaining Power 5 leagues and three Group of 5 conferences to continue forging ahead toward a season.
Keeping the COVID-19 virus under control on college campuses and within athletic departments has always been the key to pulling off a successful campaign amid this pandemic. Some schools have been better than others at mitigating the spread, with multiple ones pausing on-campus athletic activities at various points this off-season.
ECU was one of those schools, pausing for a week in mid-July to deal with a small outbreak. Since restarting, the athletic department has tested regularly without any major flare ups. A recent bout of testing revealed encouraging results, leading head football coach Mike Houston to feel comfortable about continuing to run his team onto the practice field everyday.
“We tested everyone last Thursday,” Houston said on Tuesday. “Came out extremely satisfied, really excited about that. We’re testing everybody again tomorrow, so by mid-day Thursday we’ll have the results back. Feel good about everything. As long as our testing numbers stay where they are, I feel very good about everything. Just talking to the kids as we left the field — continuing to just harp on them — wear a mask, practice social distancing, wash your hands, be conscientious of trying to stay away from crowds. The testing is a huge factor because that’s the way to check and see, is this working or not.”
The Pirates were logging practice No. 9 of their preseason on Tuesday when the Big Ten and Pac-12 decided not to play football this fall. Houston said he was not surprised by that news and understands conference officials made their decision based on medical experts’ advice and guidance on the matter.
As of Wednesday morning, the American Athletic Conference and the remainder of the Group of 5 leagues still plan to push forward with a football season this fall, according to a tweet by SI’s Ross Dellenger. With that backing, the Pirates plan to continue practicing as if they will play their season-opener sometime in September.
“The thing we’ve got to do is, we’ve got to focus on us,” Houston said. “We talked the other day about creating our own headlines and not letting somebody else somewhere else write a narrative for us. If you spend too much time on social media or on the internet, you can convince yourself of anything. We get the opportunity to go out and practice tomorrow, so we’ve got to focus on having the best day we can tomorrow and we can’t worry about anything else.
“We got to trust the people that have the decision-making ability and the doctors to tell us when it’s the right time to do this or that or the other. But as long as we’re out there and we’re competing, then we’ve got to do it right and we’ve got to do it in a championship manner.”
Up until Monday, the Pirates were practicing and working out just steps from a campus largely void of students. When classes started back this week, however, that de facto bubble popped as some football players would be required to attend in-person courses and interact with students from all over the country.
To ensure his players’ safety, Houston has been instilling the importance of following proper procedures like wearing a mask and social distancing for the past several days and weeks. Since the small outbreak within the athletic department, the Pirates have prided themselves in keeping their numbers low, a challenge that becomes harder with 30,000 students now walking around campus.
“They were a little uneasy about the entire student body coming back, because we’ve been doing such a good job with keeping this thing under control within our locker room and they have a lot invested and a lot at stake,” Houston said. “They don’t want anything to take that away from them. I think that you see our guys are probably doing a pretty good job all around campus with the masks, and just being conscientious of distancing.
Houston and his players ultimately may not have a say in whether their season gets canceled. The SEC, ACC and Big 12 are still planning to play football this fall, but if one or more of them decide otherwise, it could throw a wrench into the AAC’s plans. Nevertheless, Houston has been preaching the coach cliche of controlling what you can control and not worrying about the rest.
What the Pirates can control are their own COVID-19 numbers, and their effort on the field to prepare for the upcoming season. Right now, all signs are pointing in a positive direction for the Pirates in those respects.