Is spring the thing? Ex-Region coaches think Illinois got it right
Back in March and April, when the balance of the prep basketball post-season and the entirety of the spring sports season were cancelled in Indiana, Craig Buzea cautioned some friends who are football assistant coaches that the COVID-19 pandemic's effect could carry over to the 2020 football campaign.
"They looked at me like I had three heads," the Homewood-Flossmoor coach said. "Now it's well beyond that. I remember (ESPN's) Kirk Herbstreit saying how it was going to affect the fall and he was catching all kinds of crap, but I was reading up on it and realized he was probably right. I started thinking, how are we going to play football with this? The only way is if there's a vaccine or we just say the heck with it, it's not a big deal, you might get sick but you're not going to die, so we're going to live with it, which is what some people want."
More recently, Buzea had another bit of clairvoyance when he began trumpeting the move of the Illinois prep football season to the spring. On Aug. 3, the Illinois High School Association took the step, bumping football, boys soccer and volleyball to a period starting Feb. 15 with practices and ending May 1. Spring sports move back to May 1 with a June 26 end date rather than any of them going to the fall.
"I started thinking, let's just flip. Baseball would love it, they just got done with travel, it's good weather, you don't have that brutal April," Buzea said. "It's condensed seasons, everybody gets 10 weeks. It may not happen, nobody may play the rest of the school year, but at least football gets a chance to play. For people thinking it wasn't going to happen, that it was too much for the schedules, take a look at the New York schedule."
New York has squeezed an entire school year of sports into a span of about six months. Twelve states plus Washington, D.C., have made the switch.
"I think Illinois did it right," said H-F associate head coach Zac Wells, who played three sports at Merrillville. "The best thing for us is our multi-sport kids don't have to choose. At minimum, they get to play their seasons. I'm a little nervous for Indiana. I hope they figure out a way. A big part of high school is the social learning, the camaraderie, the friendships. It's not just A-B-Cs, 1-2-3s. Sports provide a mental relief and anything we can do in athletics that reduces that stress, it's a big deal."
The calendar allows for approximately six games, beginning March 6, with the option to have a post-season at the discretion of each sport.
"They have six months to figure it out," Buzea said. "What else are they going to do? Our kids couldn't care less when they play, they just want to play, so they're going to hang in there."
The Indiana high school football season is scheduled to start Aug. 21 with scrimmages this weekend. Former Region coaches Craig Buzea and Zac Wells of Homewood-Flossmoor have their doubts. Illinois recently moved the sport to the spring. (Photo by Robb Quinn)
Wells, like Buzea, lives in Indiana, where his daughters play sports at Crown Point, and both coaches wonder how the states can be so polarized in their takes on this issue.
"I'm the least political person in the world, but I've learned a lot through this and I think a lot of it is politics," Buzea said. "I think Illinois has done a tremendous job avoiding becoming New York. At one point, I think that's where they were going. The mayor, governor, whomever, they're catching a lot of crap, but I think it's the way they've monitored things and a lot of it has to do with staying with what they're doing. At one point, I wouldn't have thought we'd get any summer camp, and we got 15, 20 days, which was very surprising. The IHSA has a well-made plan."
On the other side of the border, Indiana is moving forward against an increasing current at the prep and collegiate levels. Finances could be a big reason. Athletics are part of school budgets in Illinois, so they aren't bound by regular-season gate receipts like Indiana.
"If schools aren't safe enough to hold classes, how is it safe for people compete face to face?," Buzea said. "A lot of colleges are in bubbles and places like Ohio State still had an outbreak. I talk to buddies still coaching there, how do you think it's going to happen if the NCAA can't figure it out? They don't have an answer. In high school, you go home to mom and dad, they were at work, you've got brothers and sisters who were with people. You see schools cancelling. I still don't see a way how they can go forward. Nobody wants their guys to play more than I do, but it's not looking good for anybody."
The Indiana Football Coaches Association met Sunday, but to this point, the Indiana High School Athletic Association has made no indication that spring football is on the table. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, Indiana is one of 13 states that has made no change to its schedule. Other states have delayed the start of the season or are waiting to make a decision.
"From a selfish standpoint, I need somebody to be playing. What the heck else am I going to do?" Buzea said. "You've just got to take the emotion out of it and look at the facts. Nobody wants to make that decision, but what happens when the first high school player dies? It's inevitably going to happen. They have protocols in place, they can get back rather quickly, but what uf a team gets three, four, five (cases)? Who's going to be the guy to say, go ahead and play? I hate to see it, but the odds are very much against it."