Assistant football coaches at Colorado were given this past week off from work.
Several of the players took the opportunity to go home and visit family.
Head coach Karl Dorrell kept going to the office, though.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused CU’s season to be postponed until at least January, but Dorrell can’t bring himself to walk away from the game right now.
Not in August.
This is the month of football’s annual rebirth, when college football teams around the country battle the heat to go through the grind of preseason camp; when analysts across the country break down backup linebacker competitions going on in NFL camps; when high school teams are gearing up for Friday night lights.
“Right now I feel I need to be in full-on football mode, because that’s what I’ve done the last 33 years,” Dorrell, 57, said during yet another Zoom call this week. “Even though it’s like this period of time where we’re not playing a game, I feel like I should be doing something right now because I’m so used to being in training camp or playing a game.”
Hired on Feb. 23 to coach the Buffaloes, Dorrell is in his 33rd year as a coach. Add in his playing days – one season in the NFL, four years at UCLA, four years at Helix (Calif.) High School, etc. – and Dorrell is probably closer to 50 years of annual falls on the gridiron.
Given that history with the game, it’s not much of a surprise that Dorrell’s tone is a bit more despondent than it was in the spring and early part of the summer.
Yeah, he understands why the Pac-12 – along with the Big Ten, Mountain West and MAC – pulled the plug on the season. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to accept. Six other Football Bowl Subdivision conferences are pushing forward and going through camp. The NFL, where Dorrell has worked the previous five seasons in 11 of the previous 12, is in camp and preparing for its season.
“That’s really hard,” he said. “In the back of our minds we’re like, ‘Well, that should be us. We should be attempting play.’”
Hope quickly returned to his voice as Dorrell said he’s pulling for the ACC, Big 12, SEC and others to have a successful return to the game.
“I’m actually crossing my fingers and hoping that there’s some positives from these other conferences that do play because maybe that will reopen the door or revisit our situation about, maybe, re-establishing a schedule for the fall,” he said. “I’m hopeful. We’ll see how things develop from the other leagues, the conferences.”
Dorrell added that watching the NBA and NHL successfully return and go through their playoffs – albeit in bubbles, which aren’t possible for college football – adds another layer of hope.
“It’s given us something to see and to be excited about and know that there’s a future in it, that this pandemic will not stop us from playing sports,” he said. “We know that at some point in time we’ll be full-speed at it again. So there’s a lot of hope that we all should have.”
Colorado’s COVID-19 numbers are a reason for hope, as well. The numbers are trending down in the state and, in Boulder County, fewer than two percent of PCR tests have come back positive in recent days.
“The football guy in me says, ‘Well I can play, though. I can still play. I’m in Colorado and I can still play!’” he said.
He understands why the Buffs can’t, though. Half of the Pac-12 Conference is located in Arizona and California, which continues dealing with high numbers. Seattle and Salt Lake City, homes of the Washington Huskies and Utah Utes, respectively, have had high positivity rates, as well.
“Seven of our 12 schools are in heavy community footprints where the virus is still pretty high and that’s the big reason why we do not have a fall season,” he said. “From a public perspective, they think it’s apples to apples across the country and it’s not necessarily the case.
“There’s technically a reason why we made the decision and it was for the betterment of our conference. You get it as to why, but that still doesn’t stop that feeling you have inside about playing.”
Dorrell’s introductory press conference was on Feb. 24, giving him all of three weeks to assemble a staff and prepare for the first day of spring practices with his new team.
About four days before spring drills were to start, however, fear of the spread of COVID-19 caused many aspects of life, including all major sports games and practices, to be canceled. Many players went home. Dorrell and his staff quickly learned about Zoom and have it used it so much that, frankly, Dorrell is tired of it.
“We’ve been at this remoteness for quite a while and it’s actually wearing you down in a way,” he said. “I think our players feel that way. It’s Zoom fatigue. The extension of it, taking it to new level, is this fall, just because we’re supposed to be in camp, we’re supposed to be playing a preseason game or getting ready for the first game or all those things that’s not in play.”
Prior to the Pac-12 making the decision to shut down the fall season on Aug. 11, Dorrell was able to get on the field with his team for the first time. It was just a few walkthroughs, but, he said, “What was fun about it was it was such a break from the Zoom stuff and we needed it. We needed it badly.”
This past week, the NCAA gave the approval for 12 hours per week to be spent on football, including five hours on the field (with no contact). Dorrell plans to maximize all of that time.
“I’m trying to do as much in-person meeting just because I’ve missed a lot of face time with these guys,” he said. “So there’s a lot to catch-up with this fall that I’m planning to really start bridging the gap in a number of areas.
“We’re going to take advantage of this time in front of us to really develop, really get things in order, really create cohesiveness with this football team, and to get our systems as good as we can make them.”
This year has tested the coaches to find new ways to teach and he applauds the staff – and players – for adapting.
“We’re trying to create as much as we can to keep it fresh, keep them learning, to keep them probably processing the information as close to real time as possible,” he said. “I think we’ve done all those steps. Getting on the field is the most important one now.
“At some point we’ll play and we’ll get to showcase what we’ve learned and what we can do, and put it against someone else.”
It’s possible that the Pac-12 plays a spring season, but Dorrell has no idea when he will coach his first game with the Buffs. He also has no idea when he’ll get to coach his first full practice with the team. But, he won’t stop working to be ready for those days.
“That’s basically what I’ve been doing this week is going through the fall, looking at different scenarios of what to do,” he said. “What are the things that I think our team is lacking and trying to address some of those issues, because I have the time to do that now.”
For Dorrell, this has always been the time to do football. He took a vacation for “me time” around the Fourth of July, but he can’t allow himself to step away right now.
“There is so much on my mind, about this fall, this team,” he said. “There’s so much that needs to be done.”
Going through a fall without football games to coach is disappointing, but Dorrell understands the big picture of the coronavirus pandemic and that many lives have been impacted. He doesn’t have football this fall, but it’s not all bad.
“This whole year has been interrupted,” he said. “But I still have good health. I still am in a place where I want to be. I’m living in a state that we were planning to live in long term.
“There’s a lot of positives in my life right now that I have no room to complain. Even though football is something we want to do, we desire to do and we’ve been doing it for a great bit of time, I have to really count my blessings that I do think I’m in a pretty good situation. It’s just that we’re missing a couple pieces from the playing standpoint.”