BOZEMAN — The coronavirus pandemic has upended the sports world, and that includes Montana State football, which was forced to cancel spring practice and its annual spring game set for next month.
MSU sports information director Bill Lamberty checked in with Bobcat coach Jeff Choate recently to see how the fifth-year coach, his staff and players are dealing with the cancellations and social distancing.
Question: What was your reaction to the suspension and then cancellation of the spring practice season?
Choate: Prior to this happening I think UC Davis had 12 practices in, and you could say, does this create an advantage, but I think my feelings on spring ball are pretty well-founded. I just think what you do in March by and large probably isn’t going to have a huge effect on what you do in November and December, when it counts the most.
We’ve just got to be diligent and be accountable in terms of monitoring our kids’ academic progress, making sure they’re doing well mental-health-wise, keeping an accountability piece in place for them in terms of physical conditioning levels, and hopefully get back to work in mid-May, early June.
Q: How are the players coping with this sudden life change?
A: I think it’s not been bad so far. In some ways we’re only three days into this because coming off of spring break the way we were, we were going to be having kind of a transitional week anyway, doing some off-season training activities to get our guys started. Spring ball wasn’t scheduled to start for us until next Monday (March 30). It’s an interesting time without a doubt. We’ve had a number of web-based team meetings, they’ve gone well.
I think our assistant coaches are doing an excellent job of daily communication with their position groups, and Cole Moore and our operations staff are doing a nice job of making sure that, as communication comes to us from the league office, from our administrative offices, we get that information distributed to our players and (their) parents as quickly as we can.
Q: What is the process of keeping the student-athletes in good physical condition?
A: A lot of that is the accountability piece. Coach (Alex) Willcox has sent out a two-week plan initially. Each one of the movements has variations based on what the young man has available on-hand, everything from simply body-weight exercise and cardiovascular conditioning, maybe a little skill-based work, up to if you have access to a full gym. We’ve tried to be cognizant of the fact that not everybody’s going to have all the equipment available (so we’ve) given players variations for each movement.
The accountability piece is really on those guys as individuals. We do have a number of young men in town and I know those guys are champing at the bit, and want to come in and maybe check some things out or that type of thing, and we just have to pump the brakes a little bit right now. But we do have a plan in place to continue to move forward with these remote workouts as well as remote meetings.
Q: How has the recruiting freeze impacted that process?
A: At this point it hasn’t done anything because we would have been in spring ball, we wouldn’t have been out and about. The one piece that could affect it is, a lot of times when high school kids head out on spring break a lot of times they would stop by campus, so we’ll miss out on that. We’ve got to do a great job of sending out information, DM’ing virtual tours of our campus, game day experience, making sure our message is out there with our ’21 recruits.
We’ve got to do a great job of staying in touch with our ’20 incoming recruits, because all of their lives are impacted by this, as well, their academic progress, how the NCAA’s going to look at their eligibility, some of those things. So we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re not sitting here twiddling our thumbs, we’ve got a lot of work to do in terms of recruiting our ’21 class, filling some holes on our roster that we have left with potential transfers or bounce-downs, and then taking care of the guys that are in our program right now and will be coming in hopefully in August.
Q: What land mines or surprises have you encountered?
A: I think it’s been more of a blessing in disguise because it’s forced us to use technology a little more, the things that were already at our fingertips, already at our disposal. Because we’re all creatures of habit we just did things the way we’ve always done them, and I think we’re all realizing that there’s a lot of things that can be accomplished utilizing the technology that’s there. It didn’t have to be invented, it was already there. So I don’t look at that as a negative, I look at that as a positive.
We’ve been able to have regular staff meetings, both administratively as well as within our football staff. I mentioned that we have regular meetings positionally and as a team, and the kids have been awesome about it. They embrace the technology because it’s their generation, but it’s forced old dogs like me to maybe step into the 21st century a little more and it’s been good.
The things I’m concerned most about, the land mines, the academic piece is concerning. Generally speaking you can look a young man in the eye and get a pretty good feel for whether they’re on top of things academically or not. So a lot of accountability will have to creep in on these young men’s behalf. We do a good job within our academic student services, our position coaches monitor these guys, but it’s still a hurdle we have to overcome. We don’t want young men unable to compete in the future because of their inability to track and do what they need to do to do during this time when we’re using remote learning.
Q: What positive surprises have you come across?
A: I’ve spent a lot more time with my family, that’s been very positive. I’m getting out, getting more exercise and enjoying the outdoors here in Bozeman. I think I’ve talked to my mom and my brothers more via Skype or just phone calls. I think whenever there are trying times it has a tendency to bring people together and you start to focus on things that matter the most. Often times those are the first things you push to the back burner, spending time with your family, communicating with your loved ones, I think those are all positive outcomes of this tragic situation we’re going through.
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