College football must pay close attention to NFL

College football enters this week with 76 of the 130 programs still intending to play this season. With four of the 10 FBS conferences having already called off their seasons, a shroud of skepticism lingers over the sport.

The narrative in the NFL, more than three weeks after rookies reported, is resoundingly different. While there have been occasional hiccups and 67 opt-outs, the NFL’s use of daily COVID-19 testing and cutting-edge contact tracing technology has fostered an air of inevitability about the season pushing forward.

So as college football sputters toward kickoff, it’s fair to ask what the sport could learn from the early success of the NFL. Yahoo Sports reached out to three NFL coaches with recent experience in college – Jacksonville’s Doug Marrone, Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel and Carolina’s Matt Rhule. They lauded the success of the NFL’s daily testing, marveled at the tracing technology and applauded the dedication and professionalism of the players for adapting to a flurry of new protocols amid a pandemic. 

The blueprint for success that emerged highlighted the NFL’s level of synchronicity and spending. The lack of cohesive leadership and player representation has turned college football’s playing efforts into a disorganized mess. And the expenses of daily testing and electronic contact tracing are beyond the means of most college programs.

“I can’t even imagine or fathom the challenge that they have,” Marrone, the former coach at Syracuse, said of college football.

Each coach brings a strong degree of empathy to what college coaches are going through on a daily basis. Rhule, the former coach at Baylor, said he called Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, his old pal from the Big 12, a few weeks back when he’d read about the Sooners’ early testing success. Vrabel declared he has the “utmost confidence” in the protocols at Boston College, where one of his sons, Tyler, is a redshirt sophomore left tackle. (BC has one positive test out of 792 in the football program.)

What became clear is the inherent advantages the NFL brings with it. Vrabel called the enterprises “completely different,” rightfully brushing off any effort to compare.

The NFL's resources to play amid the coronavirus pandemic are mostly beyond college football's means, but there are still lessons to be learned. (Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The coaches painted a portrait of cohesive leadership – at the league and player levels – that doesn’t exist in college sports. They also raved about the collective responsibility embraced by their players. It’s created an atmosphere that Marrone jokes is near surgical level. “If you walked around our building, you’d think you were in an ICU unit,” Marrone recently said to his brother-in-law, who is an electrocardiologist.

As the SEC, Big 12 and ACC attempt to start the season and the Big Ten and Pac-12 look to reboot in the spring, the biggest takeaway from the three coaches were the robust benefits of daily testing. (Technology advances could be pushing this closer to an inexpensive reality, as Yahoo’s Charles Robinson reported this weekend.)

The NFL test results come back within 24 hours, and it’s the byproduct of an extensive and expensive venture through an independent lab that the players collectively bargained for prior to the start of a season. The daily testing will continue “until further notice,” the NFL Network reported. That’s been greeted with universal enthusiasm.

Vrabel said he has expressed to his team the value of daily testing this way: “The testing isn’t going to eliminate the virus. It’s going to contain and identify it.”

And knowing that everyone who enters the facility is getting screened every day comes with a greater sense of security and accountability. Players and staff both feel safer and have a daily psychological deterrent to any behavior that could end up exposing them to the virus.

“It helps create a heightened awareness when you are tested every day,” Marrone said. “You’re thinking about that. I have to watch myself here. You know it’s every 24 hours, so you are thinking about it.”

Rhule, the first-year coach, got in front of his team recently and shared the story of his 15-year-old son, Bryant. As a ballboy at Panthers practice, Bryant Rhule is tested the same way that others are. Rhule told the players that his wife, Julie, gave Bryant a choice of summer activities. He could go to tennis camp like his two sisters to help make friends in his new town. Or he could work at Panthers practice.

“I told him, ‘I’d love for you to go to camp, but if you do you can’t go back to Panthers practice,” Rhule said he told his son, as attending the camp would increase his exposure. “These are all hard decisions. You don’t get both sides.”

The Panthers hold their 80-person team meetings in a 200-person club lounge. Sean Padden, who runs the Panthers’ football operations, kicks off the staff meeting by having players check their contact tracing devices to make sure “no one is blinking.” (Essentially, no one is within 6 feet of each other.)

Along with daily testing and mask wearing vigilance, the contact tracing devices track how much time is spent in the proximity of others and the length of their interactions. If someone is too close, a red light blinks. If someone tests positive, their close contacts are put into quarantine.

Matt Rhule is less than a year removed from his coaching stint in the college ranks at Baylor. (AP)

The Panthers have a horn every 11 minutes in practice that signals all the players need to run from each other. “Instead of water breaks,” Rhule said with a laugh, “there’s COVID scatter breaks.” Rhule said the biggest issues have come during lunch and in the training room, where a buzzer goes off every 10 minutes and the trainers walk away.

Marrone said there’s plexiglass separating all the Jaguars when they eat meals. Vrabel gave his players credit for the dedication they’ve shown, as he said that some have even elected not to see their families for the entire season. “That’s a great sacrifice,” he said.

One of the coolest parts for Marrone, who is in his seventh season as an NFL head coach, has been seeing the NFL community come together to share best practices. Teams so paranoid that trash cans are emptied in visiting locker rooms to make sure no proprietary information is left behind have been leaning on each other.

“In the NFL, you tend not to share information,” Marrone said with a chuckle. “This is one of the first times that I’ve seen all 32 teams sharing information among the trainers about what they feel works and is doing well.”

Rhule wore a hat, sunglasses, mask and a headset microphone before his first speech in front of his team at training camp. Before he got up to speak, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater teased him: “You look like Janet Jackson.” Rhule laughed and pleaded for at least Michael Jackson in “Smooth Criminal.” He has since upgraded his daily camp look to Darth Vader, with the mask and microphone.

“The point was to show how ridiculous I looked, but still find humor in it,” he said, noting he coaches the entire practice in a mask and also works out with one on in the weight room. He added about the entire experience: “It’s been really, really hard. We’ve worked at it. But it’s really hard.”

And that’s the same thing college coaches have found, as their programs walk the same tightrope without the same frequency of testing, caliber of technology and control of the daily environment. All with amateur athletes surrounded by the temptations of college campuses.

Marrone summed up the NFL experience so far this way: “Just realizing this whole landscape of what we’re doing is totally different than anything done before in football setting.”

As the NFL pushes ahead, expect the best practices to trickle down.

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