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On Thursday, Syracuse Director of Athletics John Wildhack addressed the media after the Atlantic Coast Conference announced its plans regarding football and fall Olympic sports yesterday. Wildhack called the guidelines a “path to play.”
For football, ACC teams will play 10 conference opponents and one non-conference opponent. For Syracuse, that means a tougher schedule with an added road game at Notre Dame. When Wildhack informed SU head coach Dino Babers of this, he joked that he stood 20 feet away instead of the socially distant six feet.
“But I told him if you’re ever gonna play a road schedule like that, 2020’s the year to do it, because nobody’s gonna have a full stadium,” Wildhack said.
Wildhack also tackled issues spanning from the potential of fans in the Carrier Dome to SU athletes using their platforms to address social issues.
Below are five takeaways from Wildhack’s virtual press conference.
So far, no opt-outs
Yesterday, Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley became the first high-profile player to opt-out of the 2020 season due to health concerns. As of now, no Syracuse student-athlete has done the same, Wildhack said.
Wildhack has had meeting with players and their parents, and said everyone who’s returned to campus is “energized.” Anyone who does decide not to play will have their scholarship honored.
“So again, football gets the most attention of all sports, but our student athletes, they want to play. They want to compete. And we were very clear with all of our student athletes and our head coaches, with their families, their parents: If anybody felt uncomfortable coming back, they didn’t have to come back.”
However, there is one international athlete, who Wildhack did not specify, that may not be able to return because of border issues in their home country. Football, men and women’s basketball and other fall sports teams have returned to campus for voluntary workouts. Sophomore center Jesse Edwards arrived on campus from the Netherlands to quarantine this week, according to The Athletic’s Matthew Gutierrez.
‘Undetermined’ whether sports would continue should SU cancel in-person instruction
If more than 100 students test positive at the same time during the fall semester, Syracuse will pause in-person classes and institute a shelter in place order, the third of the university’s five-level shutdown plan.
Wildhack said it’s undetermined whether sports would continue if SU reaches that 100-case threshold. That creates the possibility that Syracuse deems it unsafe for student-athletes to sit in a classroom, but safe to practice and play contact sports.
SU Athletics will make that decision in concert with university officials as well as campus and community health experts.
“The primary goal is the health and safety of everyone and if we don’t feel comfortable, if we’re told it’s not the appropriate environment to play or to practice, then we won’t,” Wildhack said.
Additionally, there isn’t a set number of cases that would shut down football training camp, which begins as soon as Aug. 6. Similarly, SU would work with experts to determine the severity of a potential outbreak.
Life (with or) without Liberty
To fill its one non-conference game, Wildhack said the Orange’s “first option” is Liberty University. The two programs are in their third year of a four-year contract, one that Wildhack has previously said SU has no plans to renew.
Liberty has been a controversial opponent in part because of its president Jerry Falwell’s divisive political views. Last year, Syracuse shut out the Eagles 24-0 as their head coach, Hugh Freeze, coached from a hospital bed in the press box as he dealt with a staph infection.
Western Michigan, another scheduled non-conference opponent planning to play football this fall, is another contender for the spot. Syracuse was supposed to travel to Kalamazoo in 2020 and host WMU in 2023. It’s possible those games get flipped, since Syracuse would have to host the Broncos this year to follow the ACC’s guidelines.
With those pre-existing contracts, Liberty and Western Michigan are the clear favorites to play the Orange’s lone non-conference game. However, Wildhack said he’s fielded calls from other programs interested in coming to Central New York.
“We’re not gonna have an issue filling that plus-one,” he said.
There’s no doubt playing sports in a pandemic, without a bubble, will be challenging. Wildhack knows this, and realizes how easily things can fall apart.
Earlier this week, Rutgers had to quarantine its football program after 15 players tested positive. The outbreak is reportedly linked to an on-campus party. Wildhack sent a link to the story to all of Syracuse’s coaches, reminding them that to have a season, everyone needs to be diligent in following protocols.
“We’re going to really have to have tremendous discipline when we have a full campus of students,” Wildhack said.
To further prevent potential outbreaks, Wildhack said teams will limit traveling parties to only essential personnel. He added he wants traveling teams to try to make as close to a bubble atmosphere as possible, limiting contact to transportation, hotels and the site of contests. If that means one fewer booster event — or a virtual one — so be it.
“I told them yesterday, I said I think we need to quarantine everybody in the hotel,” Wildhack said. “Anybody who’s there. I’m there, I’m not doing a donor day. Or if I do it, I’ll do it virtual. But if you get to the hotel, you stay at the hotel. Period. I think we need to be that specific and stringent.”
Earlier today, the NCAA announced it will allow athletes to show support for social justice issues by wearing patches. Professional athletes in many sports have used their platforms to bring awareness to issues such as systemic racism, most notably by kneeling during the National Anthem.
Earlier this month, Syracuse hired Salatha Willis as Associate Athletic Director for Diversity, Culture and Climate. Willis has helped facilitate team meetings and discussions with coaches about how to handle promoting their beliefs.
Wildhack said those discussions have been productive, and he’s thankful for the thoughtfulness of SU’s student-athletes. He expects to see in-game activism in college sports.
“As we sit here in 2020 and we support one another, part of supporting one another is no tolerance for racism,” Wildhack said. “No tolerance for systemic racism. My personal opinion is, I think appropriate recognition, that type of thing, we’re open to that. But we want our student-athletes to come back with their thoughts.”
- Moving the football season to the spring would be a last resort, Wildhack said. But if key metrics of COVID-19 don’t look better in two months, and “that became our only option, then we’d look at it,” he said.
- As of now New York state prohibits colleges from allowing fans inside stadiums for sporting events. However, Wildhack is hopeful that changes in the fall and is working on preparing models for possible seating arrangements and precautions.
- When asked about potentially adopting a one-division conference schedule permanently, Wildhack said there’s been no such discussions. However, he is frustrated by the current model because of how infrequently some Atlantic teams play some Coastal Teams. “We host Miami once every 12 years, we go down there once every 12 years. That doesn’t intuitively make a lot of sense to me,” he said.
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