As recently as a week ago, Penn football coach Ray Priore was still allowing himself a glimmer of hope that his Quakers might play football this fall. Then, as Priore read the campus-opening plans at Harvard and several other Ivy League schools, that glimmer kind of left him.
“We were game-planning up until Monday,” Priore said.
The announcement came Wednesday: no sports in the Ivy League this fall semester.
So the glimmer shifts, now to the spring. Priore is by nature both an optimist and a realist. He knows that playing football games anytime this upcoming academic year is far from a sure thing.
“You play to the final whistle,” Priore said Thursday morning about the attitude needed during this whole pandemic. “You never know, there might be a desperation play. At least we still have hope. What I’m thankful for, at least we didn’t shut things down totally on campuses.”
He’s not denying all the obstacles and all the ramifications.
“A lot of things have to go right,” Priore said of playing even in the spring.
Penn’s coach talked to his team by video Wednesday night. Priore said about 80 questions popped up in the chat function.
When can we come back and lift? (They’ll come back when students return.)
Will we have to train with masks? (Protocols are still being developed.)
“Almost to a person, this probably impacts everyone differently, how you go through it,” Priore said.
For a freshman, for example, having the fall to train could be advantageous, since the Ivy League doesn’t allow incoming freshmen to report ahead of the fall semester in normal times, so the first fall is usually for learning the system. Extra training time could be helpful for injured players.
Seniors have other issues. Spring-sport Ivy athletes, their seasons canceled, were not given a chance to return and compete as graduate students. (Penn had voted to allow this, but that vote didn’t carry the day.) So if you see a Penn graduate transfer pitching on the softball field for Maryland, or competing in men’s lacrosse at Notre Dame, that’s why.
“My hope is that all the presidents and everyone who deals with athletics think that sports are as valuable an experience as any class a student takes,” Priore said. “I know our president truly believes that.”
The good thing about this decision, Priore felt, is that fall-sport seniors could enroll and train and hold off any decision until November or so, when it is hoped they’ll have more guidance on whether there will be a spring season.
“What I asked the kids to do -- I want to talk to them one-on-one,” Priore said. “We still need more information from the league office, how we’re going to handle some of these issues.”
Even for training, Priore knows there will be many protocols, as the Ivy League works to phase in training, starting with smaller weightlifting groups, moving toward what more resembles a practice.
Priore said he talked to new Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski recently, how many of the issues are the same whether in the NFL or at Stefanski’s alma mater.
Any sport, a locker room is built for a specific number, so it’s often impossible to practice social distancing in a room. He knows “the watchful eyes” that are going to have to be on his players, yet those watchful eyes can be vulnerable themselves.
“My message, we’re going to need to abide by all the rules,” Priore said. “One person getting affected could mean many more have to be quarantined. You really have to be meticulous.”
Seeing the data on positives coming in from around the country and around his sport, Priore said, “we’re probably not going to stand alone here.”
He gets that his players just want to get together with their friends. He feels that way himself, is sick of working out of his basement, wants to see his players.
“So 34 years at Penn,” Priore said, talking about his time as an assistant and the head coach. “Thinking about it: What do you do on a Saturday in the fall?”