While most of the state’s college football fans’ eyes are focused on Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, J.J. Eckert knows something counterparts Lincoln Riley and Mike Gundy don’t know at this precise moment.
The Northeastern State football coach knows when his first game is officially scheduled.
But will it be played? That’s the million-dollar question being asked around the country while searching for answers to the current COVID-19 global pandemic.
“I’m really optimistic,” Eckert said during a Monday afternoon phone call. “I’m praying that we’re able to play. I really want to believe that we’re going to be playing on Oct. 3.”
NSU’s football schedule was altered by the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, which announced on Monday that all sports practices won’t start until the week of Aug. 31. Competitions won’t begin until the week of Sept. 28.
The league’s plan allows schools to continue to monitor COVID-19 and make decisions about athletics and other campus activities based on conditions in respective communities and with guidance from local and state health officials.
“This plan allows our student-athletes to get back on campus and get acclimated with the student body before we begin practices and competition,” MIAA Commissioner Mike Racy said in a statement. “We remain hopeful that the MIAA student-athletes will be able to practice and compete this fall, but we need to be patient and make sure that we are doing that in a healthy and safe environment for our student-athletes, coaches, and administrators.”
Rogers State doesn’t have a football program, but is also an MIAA member. Six fall sports will be affected by the calendar shift – men’s and women’s programs in cross country, golf and soccer.
Chris Ratcliff is entering his fifth year as the Claremore school’s director of athletics. Like Eckert, he is optimistic that fall sports can be played, but he doesn’t think the odds are swaying that direction.
“I anticipate we will get another set of changes,” Ratcliff said. “The new norm is that you just have to roll with the changes. Maybe it changes again next week.
“I really hope we are able to compete in the fall. Does it look like it? If I was a gambling man, I wouldn’t bet on it. There’s so much changing … you have to be able to change directions and go with it.”
He’s been impressed with how his coaches have adapted to the fluid situation.
“Our coaches are great people and are doing a great job,” Ratcliff said. “They’re communicating … they are all focused and very driven people.”
The NSU football program plans to prepare for its Oct. 3 homecoming game against Missouri Southern in Tahlequah.
The Riverhawks’ circled date is different from two Division I programs in the state.
OU is reportedly trying to move up its season and home opener against Missouri State. The scoool’s administration is targeting the final weekend in August as opposed to Sept. 5 in an effort to space out games. The school hasn’t heard back from the NCAA.
Oklahoma State’s season-opening game against visiting Oregon State was canceled after the Pac-12 announced it was bypassing nonconference games.
Eckert, like most college football coaches, doesn’t like having things out of his control. But he’s had to adjust to changing schedules from only having three spring football practices to preparing for a shortened season.
“It’s ever-changing and it’s a tough scenario,” Eckert said. “But it’s one of those things where if you tell me right now on July 20 that you guarantee that we’re going to play seven games in the 2020 season, I’d say that would be an accomplishment.
“That’s hard to believe, but the way that things have changed, you have to realize there’s a loss that’s going to take place at some point. You want to play as many games as you possibly can in this equation.”
Eckert is thankful for the three practices his team had before spring break. There’s work to be done after the Riverhawks finished 0-11 in his first season as coach.
He has a plan for the return of players, which is now 40 days away.
“It has its own challenges, but it’s not like they gave it to us and we have two days or two weeks to prepare,” Eckert said. “That kind of time frame gives us time to come down with a really good strategy and make sure that the student-athlete’s safety is of utmost importance.”