As coronavirus cases continue spiking across Riley County and the country, the message from Chris Klieman and Kansas State’s coaching staff remains the same.
Be safe. Be smart. Always be aware of your surroundings.
“We just keep preaching it as much as we can,” Klieman, who is in his second season as the Wildcats’ head coach, said during his weekly press conference Tuesday. “It’s not something that goes unsaid on a weekly (or) daily basis, whether it’s (from) our trainers, our strength and conditioning staff or us as coaches in position meetings or after practice.”
Prior to the team’s game against Oklahoma State last weekend, Klieman said he made it a particular point of emphasis.
“I remember saying it last week: ‘Guys, this is getting hotter and hotter,’” Klieman said. “COVID is spiking everywhere. Our campus has a bunch, and I think it’s more of the kids in general, student-athletes on campus living in residence halls that are spiking so much, because it’s not — knock on wood — as much our kids in apartments off campus, because those kids don’t come to campus very much. They’re just coming to the facility and back home.”
The ongoing pandemic reaches far beyond just the football team for Klieman, though. His daughter, Hailey, is a freshman in college.
“I’m petrified every day and calling her to make sure she’s taking care of herself. She hasn’t had it, but it’s just kind of where we’re at,” Klieman said, “and it’s not just at Kansas State. You look across the landscape of colleges, we knew there would be a spike like this, and, unfortunately, it’s getting the best of us at K-State.”
The same is true elsewhere, though.
As of Friday morning, 13 games involving FBS teams originally scheduled to be played this week have been postponed, canceled or rescheduled. Two of those games had their announcements come down Friday morning: No. 15 Coastal Carolina’s game at Troy was postponed because of positive tests and injuries on Troy’s roster; the Pac-12 canceled the Arizona State/Cal contest, citing the Sun Devils inability to meet the required number of scholarship players available. (One of those positive tests includes Arizona State’s head coach, Herm Edwards.)
More than half — four of seven — of the SEC games slated to take place this weekend have been postponed, most notably top-ranked Alabama at defending national champion LSU. One of the contests still set to go on, Arkansas at Florida, will take place without a head coach; Razorbacks head man Sam Pittman tested positive for COVID-19 twice this week, forcing him out of Saturday’s trip to Gainesville, Fla.
With no program owning a manual on how to render the virus obsolete, Klieman admitted he has talked with coaching colleagues — “some of your closest (friends) in the profession,” he said — to converse about best practices.
“But I don’t think there’s a template or that anybody has a manual that says, ‘This is how you do it,’” he said. “We knew this was going to be an unbelievable challenge. I don’t think the outside world — unless you’re in our facility every day — knows how hard this is and how difficult the time is for these 18-to-22-year-olds, and us as coaches.”
Two weeks ago, Klieman met with his assistants and members of the Wildcats’ support staff. He laid out a plan that detailed how they would divvy up this week’s practices — its final open date of the fall. The plan also included K-State’s strategy for allocating scholarships for the tricky 2021 season, when the Wildcats not only will welcome new signees, but have players returning after a “free season.” (The NCAA granted a one-year eligibility waiver for all student-athletes this fall, the 2020 season won’t count against the eligibility clock.) Further, the plan assessed the Wildcats’ walk-on numbers, laying out how many they may need to add next year.
With more than 20 young players out of practice this week because of positive COVID-19 tests or contact tracing, Klieman’s best-laid plans are out the window.
“That template is gone because there are a lot of kids we need an evaluation on who are sitting in their dorms in isolation,” he said.
So it’s back to the drawing board.
“What can we get done this week so we can still prepare for Iowa State, but still push the program forward for the kids who have had COVID, who are young players who don’t have to deal with the contact tracing and are still practicing? There’s a fine line for that,” Klieman said. “We don’t have enough tight ends. We don’t have enough defensive linemen. We don’t have enough running backs. We don’t have enough safeties. How do we construct a drill or a practice so that we can get a great evaluation of these young kids?”
It’s far from ideal.
“But it’s also reality,” Klieman said, “and the new normal.”