Little more than two weeks before ECU was set to take the field against Marshall to kick-off its 2020 football season, Athletic Director Jon Gilbert and head coach Mike Houston were on a Zoom call with reporters explaining why that would not happen.
As things stand right now, ECU’s football program has 30 individuals that are either isolated in or quarantine stemming from the COVID-19 virus. That number prompted the athletic department to place the team on pause last week, and with continued positive results after testing this week, the decision to postpone the season-opener was made.
“Obviously a tough decision,” Houston said. “I was able to get all the players that are not in quarantine and isolation right now together in Minges this afternoon to tell them in person. A lot of disappointment. They’ve been very resilient throughout. It’s tough, they’ve invested so much, they’ve been so excited about having a date. There’s where the next struggle is going to be is finding that next motivation from that next date.”
Right now that next date for the Pirates is Sept. 26 when UCF is set to make the trip to Greenville, North Carolina. That game was rescheduled on Thursday by the American Athletic Conference from its original date of Sept. 24.
While a make-up date for the Marshall game has yet to be determined, both athletic departments are invested in attempting to find a date that works for both parties. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the tragic plane crash involving Marshall’s football team after it played the Pirates in Greenville. Gilbert said other things have priority at this point, like making sure his student-athletes return to the practice field in a safe manner, but multiple options are on the table for a make-up date.
“When we (Marshall AD Mike Hamrick) spoke by phone multiple times today, we both indicated that — given the significance of the game with the 50-year anniversary of the plane crash game — that we were going to do everything we could to make that game a reality,” Gilbert said. “That could be at the end of the season, it could also be in the middle depending on how the season plays out.”
With the Marshall postponement, ECU will not play its first game until Sept. 26 as things currently stand. That obviously opens up the possibility of scheduling a game on Sept. 19, the date vacated by Norfolk State after the MEAC canceled its fall schedule. Adding a game to that date would get the Pirates back up to 10, but would also add an extra layer of difficulty in regards to keeping the team healthy.
“I think we need to pause for a couple days to see what’s out there,” Gilbert said. “No. 1, there are not a lot of teams with availability. Two, the way this works is, from a testing protocol standpoint, I want to be mindful of making sure that we can play the Central Florida game. I don’t want to pick up a team, play that game and then potentially have an issue where you couldn’t play the following week.”
During the season, the AAC, much like every other Power 5 conference that is still playing this season, will test for COVID-19 at least two times per week. In order for the Pirates to schedule a non-Power 5 opponent for Sept. 19, they would need to meet or exceed the AAC’s testing protocols. That is obviously a challenge for schools with smaller budgets and makes it hard for ECU to find a suitor on short notice.
“I want to be very mindful and deliberate and not rush out in any regard,” Gilbert said. “I want to make sure we get healthy and are ready to return to the field first.”
Gilbert said making a decision when the Pirates can get back on the practice field will not be as easy as getting underneath a predetermined positive case number or positivity rate. The decision will be made to return based off on the timeline of when quarantined and isolated players are clear of the virus and can once again participate. In that vein, nearly every impacted student-athlete is on a unique timeline, keeping this a fluid situation.
Right now, Houston said most of those affected are asymptomatic, while those displaying symptoms are only doing so in a mild manner. Many of those that have been quarantined from a contact tracing standpoint, Houston said, have had no symptoms and have tested negative. Still, per NCAA guidelines, close contact individuals can not test out of their situation and must be quarantined for 14 straight days.
Positive cases can return after 10 days and a negative test.
For that reason, and the continuing nature of testing, a firm date can not be placed on when ECU football will return to the field. Already into their eighth day of inactivity, it is likely the pause will stretch into next week, but Houston and his staff are taking it day-by-day.
“I think it’s day-by-day,” Houston said. “At the same time, we do hope to return sooner rather than later. I think that just having the ability to begin some conditioning and weight training socially distanced over the next couple of days is a good first step. Those that aren’t in quarantine, I’d like to get them back active. Hopefully at some point next week we can get back out on the field and start practicing again.”