Pac-12 coaches keeping players engaged during COVID-19 pandemic

Pac-12 Network analyst Yogi Roth, upper left, hosted a webinar Wednesday with coaches Herm Edwards of Arizona State, upper right, Jonathan Smith of Oregon State, lower left, and Chip Kelly of UCLA, lower right.
Pac-12 Network analyst Yogi Roth, upper left, hosted a webinar Wednesday with coaches Herm Edwards of Arizona State, upper right, Jonathan Smith of Oregon State, lower left, and Chip Kelly of UCLA, lower right.

During a recent Madden video game tournament between Oregon State players and staff, Beavers head coach Jonathan Smith didn’t do well.

“I got blown out,” he said.

Winning wasn’t the point of the tournament, however, which was designed to create team camaraderie during the COVID-19 pandemic that has shut down sports and led to stay-in-place orders around the country.

“We kind of learned early on when we all separated, the guys missed each other the most,” Smith said during a Pac-12 webinar with media on Wednesday. “They love ball and they want to learn it and they’re doing school, but they miss the interaction. We wanted to do some unique things to keep them engaged with each other.”

Wednesday was the third of four webinars with the conference’s head coaches. Smith was joined by Arizona State’s Herm Edwards and UCLA’s Chip Kelly.

The three coaches touched on a variety of topics, including player engagement during this unique time.

“Unless you were around for the (flu) pandemic in 1918, you’ve never gone through this before,” Kelly said.

The Bruins have had guest speakers talk to the team during Zoom meetings, but Kelly said there’s been an emphasis on staying connected as a team.

“What you do miss (as players) is that camaraderie in the locker room and not talking about football, but talking about life,” Kelly said. “It’s physical distancing that we’re going through right now, not social distancing. We want to make sure that guys don’t get excluded.”

Coaches have been in frequent communication with their players, not only talking Xs and Os and making sure academics are in order, but staying aware of the mental health of all the student-athletes and staff.

“This is a moment in your life when you need to reflect on your life,” Edwards said. “Our whole life … there’s been a schedule. Everyone is on a schedule. Now all of a sudden, you don’t have a schedule. You have to make your own schedule. I challenge guys: This is a time that you need to reflect on you. What does your schedule look like every day? Does that schedule allow you to become a better version of yourself?”

Although there has been no in-person contact or practice time on the field as a team, the coaches said they’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to teach more.

“We’ve probably spent more time right now as coaches with what we’re doing right now, to actually teach our players,” Edwards said. “As a coach, you’re a teacher; that’s what you do. You give them knowledge.”

None of the coaches have been through this type of situation, but Edwards said the ability to adjust has been vital.

“I think it has a lot to do with our attitudes,” he said. “Attitude is your best friend and your worst enemy. How you go about doing this I think is very important. The reflection that you project to your players is very important. We live in a world as coaches that the unexpected is always about to happen. It has happened.

“A plan that can’t be changed is a bad plan. Our plan had to be adjusted.”

All three said they’ve stayed motivated by teaching the players, as well as the desire to stay ready for when football does return.

“There’s going to be a light at the end of the tunnel,” Smith said. “We don’t know exactly how long this tunnel is that we’re in, but we’re going to get an opportunity to play, to get them back. … The unknown is what it is and we’re working through that by continuing to work hard on the day to day, because the light is at the end of the tunnel.”

For now, the coaches are waiting to see how long they’ll be in the tunnel.

The governor in Arizona has said pro sports can return this week. The governor in Oregon has said mass gatherings – likely including football games – might not happen until at least October. In California, several universities will likely continue online learning in the fall and stay-at-home orders could last for months.

All three coaches Wednesday said they’ll wait for definitive answers.

“The virus will tell us when we’re going to be able to come back and when it’s under control and they have the proper testing and whatnot in place,” Kelly said. “Until that time, we’re going to keep planning like we have a season coming up. No one has told us that we’re not playing; no one has told us that we are definitely playing.

“You just have to go and be very agile in terms of how you’re handling this whole situation and adjust to whatever happens. Nothing that was said (in various states) in the last 24 to 48 hours directly impacts us playing games in September, but you never know. We’ll continue to monitor it and let the experts and the medical people determine whether it’s safe for our players to come back and play.”