Like a quarterback having to audible at the line of scrimmage, the six head coaches of the Canada West football conference are having to adjust their game plans on the fly when it comes to mapping out a schedule for the 2020 season.
Brian Dobie is preparing for his 25th season at the helm of the University of Manitoba Bisons. And even after a quarter-century of coaching at the Canadian university level, the changes being brought on by the coronavirus pandemic have him searching for answers. One of those solutions has been the approval of a proposed five-game schedule.
“For quite a time now — since the early stages — we have been talking about everything from players’ eligibility, to summer school, to, of course, leading up through training camps and into the season,” Dobie said of the discussions he has been having with his five head coaching peers in the conference.
“So what we’ve decided in terms of hashing everything through, all the coaches had input to their athletic directors. And the athletic directors, as a group, made a decision that if there’s a shortened season — and anything can happen — maybe we do get to start training camp as per usual Aug. 14. Right now that’s out the window; it’s not gonna happen. So the shortened season is the next best option.”
What has been determined thus far is a round-robin format where the six teams would play each other once. What still has to be figured out is which teams get to play three home games and which have the disadvantage of playing only twice on their home turf.
Dobie says there is always a long-shot scenario where things could change for the better. And coaches are keeping that possibility as part of their planning playbook as well.
“We know right now, the earliest we can start is Sept. 1, which is about 15-16 days later than our norm. If we were given the green light, and I know there’s a very good possibility that won’t happen, but there’s also a possibility it will,” Dobie told 680 CJOB Sports Show host Christian Aumell on Wednesday night.
“So the contingency plan there is to start Sept. 1 and play your first game around the 14th or 15th of September — and you have a slightly shortened schedule.”
Dobie says if that kickoff date is pushed even further back to the middle of September or early October, the schedule is even shorter — which could hatch an even more radical approach.
“What if there was no football season for us at the university level? Let’s say all the universities went online and there’s no in-class. What if that became the situation?” he said. “But maybe things start back up in January and we get volleyball and basketball. But what about the possibility of having a shortened (football) season in the spring? Now that would be really different. That’s thinking way out of the box.”
And Dobie says the uncertainty has been nagging away at his players like a missed tackle or a dropped ball in the open field.
“As a coach, what we’re trying to do right now is ensure continuity, motivation, goals, hopes. Call it what you will. Our players are concerned. They’re not able to get in the training they can normally get in.”
Dobie said one of his B.C.-based players told him on Tuesday that he and his family were staying home and physically distancing — which is what the Bison football program is asking of its athletes — but it was coming at the expense of his fitness with no weights, gym equipment, or other ways to train.
“It’s tough, so they’re frustrated, they’re concerned. The word uncertainty is used all the time in every conversation,” said Dobie. “We’re trying to find ways to keep the ball rolling in a positive way as opposed to having to push it uphill.”
The Bison coach says the toughest part is dealing with change, and everything continuing to evolve during the pandemic. But he’s constantly reminding his players to keep the uncertainty in perspective.
“We’re talking sport. We’re talking passion, which is a big part of our culture here. But we’re not talking life and death, compared to people working in hospitals and police departments, and the list goes on,” said Dobie. “I keep pointing that out to our athletes. You’re in a situation that’s of choice, and a motivating one. Keep moving forward.”
Perhaps the longtime mentor uses some of that pep talk on himself. Instead of spending last month on the field for veterans’ practices and then transitioning into spring camp, the always upbeat Dobie has had to adjust to a far less busy routine of putting out little fires and dealing with players concerned about scholarship money, getting into summer classes, eligibility issues and other assorted problems.
“Right now I’d be in Ottawa at the East-West Bowl, and that obviously was out the window,” said Dobie. “I’ve been spending a lot of time recruiting — obviously not in person, but over the phone. Recruiting class is almost done for this year and now I’m moving into 2021. There’s some great recruits coming out of Winnipeg for that class. Thank God for the invention of cell phones!”