Under normal circumstances, Buddy Stephens and Ken Karcher would be around a month away from leading their teams in their season-opening games. Instead, they have an extra month to prepare.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NJCAA voted earlier this month to move football and the majority of its fall sports to the spring. With the assistance of the NJCAA, however, the Mississippi Association of Community College conducted its own vote and decided to proceed with a six-game football season and a playoff starting in October.
Stephens, East Mississippi’s 12-year head coach, said the parameters aren’t ideal, but he ultimately wants the conditions to be.
“Playing a reduced schedule is not what you’d want to do, but it’s what you’re forced to do,” he said. “The No. 1 thing is you always hope you get to play, but you want to make sure it’s under safe conditions. Safety is the No. 1 concern with me, and I know it is with some of the other coaches around the league.”
Karcher, East Central’s head coach of seven years, said his squad is heading into unprecedented territory, and safety during this time is among those key new elements.
“You look at the NFL or a major college or high schools, we as coaches are all going to be adjusting to multiple things,” he said. “The key is, when you make decisions, that you’re making them based on the health and safety of the kids, and so there’s going to be a lot of new things we’re all going to be working through. It’ll be an interesting time.”
While normally getting three non-divisional matchups to start its nine-game season, MACC member schools will play their entire schedule within their respective division. While the contests will become more important more immediately, Karcher said he’ll get ready for whichever opponent is next.
“I think my role as a coach is to prepare for whatever is given to us, so if it’s a division-only schedule in the fall, then we’ll do our best job to make sure that we have our kids prepared to do that — both from an X’s and O’s standpoint and from a health and safety standpoint,” he said.
Stephens said the number of games doesn’t matter. What is most important is preparing his student-athletes to compete each week.
“We’re not building a piano. We’re not putting together a space shuttle. It’s just football,” he said. “And whether we play a six-game season or we play a regular season, the No. 1 thing is making sure the kids have had enough time to get acclimated, to get in shape and to play a full football game.”
The MACC can still suspend its football season and conduct one in the spring if it decides health conditions are still too dangerous, Commissioner Steve Martin said last week. If a season is played this fall, however, teams will become ineligible for postseason competition. As a coach who’s won five national championships, Stephens said he always wants to guide his players to a deep playoff run but understands the association is in a different situation.
“It concerns you that you’re going against what the NJCAA’s recommended, but in the state of Mississippi I think we’ve got the best community college system — seven of the last 10 national championships have been won by Mississippi schools — and I think we’ve got a good thing going,” he said. “We’re trying to look out for everybody involved, and if we have to play this year without having the opportunity to play for a national championship, so be it. There’s nothing we can do about it; we have to do what we’re told, and we’re going to play when they tell us to play.”
Practice starts dates and safety protocols have not yet been announced by the MACC, though a recommendation from school athletic directors is expected this week, Martin said. While he has extra time, Karcher said his responsibilities are unchanged.
“I don’t know when we’ll be able to start going with our players, obviously nobody is even on campus yet,” he said. “So we as coaches are preparing like we always would.”
Stephens said he and his staff are working on recruiting, finishing playbooks, starting gameplans and strengthening his program for when his team returns to campus.
“We’re just going to be working on doing everything we can to do the little things that’s going to help our kids be safe,” he said. “Whether it be making sure that we’ve got everything in place for when they come in, that we give them great instruction and we make it very clear on how we’re going to operate to stay No. 1 COVID safe, and then No. 2 get ready for ball games.”
Oct. 1 is slated to be Week 1 competition for MACC football.