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An offseason like no other: Duke football returns amid a pandemic

Exactly one month after Duke suspended all in-person classes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, David Cutcliffe stood in front of a Zoom screen and stressed the necessity of a uniform response across college football.

“I think it’s really important that this isn’t done from conference to conference,” Cutcliffe, head coach of the Blue Devils’ football squad, said in the April 10 press conference. “I hope it doesn’t get too involved with state politics, but there’s a chance of that. I think there has to be uniformity.”

Five months later and, well, here we are.

The college football world has split right down the middle this summer—six of the 11 FBS conferences and three of the Power Five conferences remain scheduled to take the field this fall, including Duke and the ACC.

Of course, these decisions weren’t just made on a whim. Months of planning and preparation went into returning to play amid a pandemic, with virtually every part of the process requiring some sort of adjustment.

The beginning

It was the first week of March when Kevin Lehman, Duke’s executive director of football administration, first started to realize that COVID-19 was “different.” 

He and Cutcliffe had just left Portland, where the Blue Devil head coach was doing a lecture with Nike, when a Kirkland, Wash., nursing home a few hours north reported the first outbreak in the United States.

However, it was still unclear the degree of impact that COVID-19 would end up having.

A few days later, Duke wrapped up its third spring practice, with the players set to take a week off for spring break and return the following week for the remainder of spring camp. Lehman and his staff’s main concerns at this point centered on players being delayed getting back to campus and having them avoid COVID-19 hot spots during their vacations.

It wasn’t until spring break began that serious conversations started occurring regarding students not returning to campus at all. By March 10, that became the reality.

“In our administrative side, it was some students may not be able to [return to campus] because of flight delays or because of possible levels of exposure, so we may have some quarantine,” Lehman told The Chronicle. “And then it reached a point where students are not coming back to campus unless they have nowhere else to go.”

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While Lehman emphasized that the decision didn’t come as a “surprise” or a “shock,” he did note the rapid progression of the situation over those first few days of spring break, which led to a pretty emotional first team meeting.

“The first team meeting was somewhat somber, because we were really all hit dead in the mouth by this, not knowing anything, and anxiety naturally comes from the unknown and the things we can’t do anything about,” Cutcliffe said. “So I reminded them, ‘Let’s focus on the things we can do.’

“I’ve got a pretty simple mind, so what I said were two things in the first meeting, and I didn’t want to get past two things. All of us had enough on our minds. I said we can all pray, and this is an appropriate time regardless of your faith…. And we can all be strong.”

The preparation

According to Lehman, the first rounds of meetings were focused on providing the players accurate information in a compassionate and empathetic way.

“When we knew they weren’t going to come back in April, we communicated that. When we knew they wouldn’t come back in May, same thing: we would communicate,” Lehman said.

Lehman added that the team remained committed through the spring and into the summer to ensuring the players were safe and healthy, both physically and emotionally.

Amid the emotional rollercoaster, however, Lehman and his staff knew that preparation for a potential 2020 campaign would have to begin immediately.

“In a pandemic, you’ll probably make a mistake if you have to do stuff as you go, or if you have to make it up as you go,” Lehman said. “We started tackling how to prepare for literally [the season opener] in early April.”

Of course, the team didn’t know what its exact schedule would look like back in April, with the Blue Devils’ original 2020 slate being completely revamped in early August. But what Lehman was able to do was start planning on ways that the team would be able to safely travel to and from its likely ACC destinations.

One of the first things he made sure to do was stay updated on the COVID-19 guidelines for the companies the team would need to work with—Delta, Marriott, Hilton, etc.—to ensure that their cleaning and sanitation policies would ensure a safe environment for the staff and players.

From there, Lehman began looking at the smaller nuances, such as the fact that pregame meals in the hotel would have to be eaten on paper plates with plastic utensils and in rooms that allowed for physical distancing, and that extra buses would be needed to allow for physical distancing on the rides to and from the airport.

“Once you set up certain non-negotiables, or absolute truths, you figure out how to make them work,” Lehman said. “And that’s the fun part of the job—fun, if you could use that word—because it’s constant problem-solving.”

Lehman also noted how cooperative many of the companies were to accommodate their requirements.

“The travel industry, it’s been hit really hard,” Lehman said. “So all the people that we’ve contracted with or set up plans with are super, super excited to work with us because it means they’re bringing staff back in that may have been furloughed.”

Amid all the planning, however, Lehman made sure to keep in mind what the overarching goals were.

“As much as we want to have a season, as much as our kids want to have a season, keeping them safe is what the goal was,” Lehman said. “The No. 1 objective was having our kids in a safe environment on campus, and then everything else followed after that.”

The return

As all this preparation for the season occurred behind the scenes, student-athletes from other ACC schools began to return to campus for summer workouts, which were allowed to begin June 1.

The majority of the conference’s schools had athletes return to campus sometime over the first two weeks in June, with neighboring North Carolina returning its first batch of football players June 12.

Meanwhile, Duke’s athletes stayed at home, with very little public information as to when they’d be allowed back to Durham.

Finally, on June 30, President Vincent Price included a short bullet point in his fall semester update: “student-athletes will begin a phased return to campus July 12.” Duke Athletics later announced that football would be the first team to return to campus on that date.

But why did it take so much longer than most other ACC schools?

“I can’t speak to the specifics, but I think everybody wanted to make sure when we did it, we’d do it right,” Lehman said. “And that it would be best for everyone within the Duke community, not just Duke football, or Duke Athletics or even Duke University.”

The initial return to campus wasn’t perfectly smooth, however. 

While it took a few weeks for Duke to release the official numbers, it was eventually announced that 25 student-athletes—later said to all be members of the football team—had tested positive for COVID-19 between the team’s return July 12 and July 31.

“We had a few early issues with people [bringing] things from home they didn’t know, you had a couple of parents that were sick with it and didn’t know it and you get into a dorm setting and you’re obviously going to have a transmission,” Cutcliffe said Aug. 21. “I think we have found that the transmissions really occur in living spaces probably globally more than any other place.”

Lehman said that these early positive tests “didn’t cause any issue that wasn’t manageable,” with one of the biggest changes being that all athletes were placed in single rooms rather than having roommates, a policy that coincided with Duke’s housing change July 26.

The Blue Devils never had to pause their offseason workouts, and since the start of August Duke Athletics has reported just one additional positive test among all student-athletes.

“I don’t think if we didn’t have the type of kids that we do, we would be successful with it,” Lehman said. “And I quite frankly think the type of kid we have is different enough to where they say, ‘I understand, thank you, I appreciate the effort you’re doing to try to make this successful for us.’”

The season

While things were back to running relatively smoothly on Duke’s campus, talks across the country about the plausibility of an upcoming college football season began heating up.

Slowly, schools began to drop.

Connecticut was the first FBS school to drop fall football when it cancelled its season Aug. 5, with the MAC becoming the first FBS conference to cancel its fall season three days later.

Then, on Aug. 11, the big dominoes fell: the Big Ten and the Pac-12 officially postponed their fall football seasons. Meanwhile, the ACC, SEC and Big 12 all announced they would continue on, with Cutcliffe expressing his optimism that Duke’s season would still occur in full.

“In my heart of hearts I believe we can play 11 games, and we’re going to get it done,” Cutcliffe said Aug. 14. “I feel really good about that.”

Part of that optimism may have been due to a meeting the entire athletic department, including all student-athletes, had with Dr. Cameron Wolfe, a doctor in the division of infectious diseases at Duke and the chair of the ACC medical advisory team.

“[The medical advisory group’s] meetings left [Wolfe] in a position to where he was able to have confidence that the season will be able to move forward because we were putting plans in place that were able to do that,” Lehman said. “The other conferences, again, I can’t speak to it. You don’t know what their conversations were, you don’t know what their feelings were, you don’t know what the sentiments were within their governments as to how guidelines were set up.”

Four Duke players did opt out of the 2020 campaign due to COVID-19 concerns, including two starters: long snapper Ben Wyatt and linebacker Brandon Hill. Other than those four, however, Cutcliffe hasn’t noted any other player concerns as the team marches toward South Bend, Ind., for its season opener.

The future

While he’s grateful that his team is able to continue with its fall season, Cutcliffe’s worst fears are occurring right in front of his eyes.

Not only did the FBS fail to come to a uniform plan, but even the Power Five conferences split apart.

“The subject you’re bringing up to be honest with you is bothering me, personally,” Cutcliffe said Aug. 14 in response to a question on the possibility of two different 2020 college football seasons. “I was hoping at the beginning of this thing…that we would get a unified approach. I felt like from the beginning that that was going to be necessary. I do have a fear of never seeing college football be the same.”

And therein lies the true story behind the most unique offseason the sport has ever seen—not in what’s happened already, but what’s still yet to come.

“It’s too early to be seen,” Lehman said, “But I think that if anybody expects [that] there’s a point where we’re just going to flip around and do everything like we’ve once done it, they’re not looking at the world realistically.”

For more preseason coverage of the 2020 Blue Devils, check out our football season preview for features, predictions and more.


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