'I was a little bit of the Grim Reaper.' Old Dominion football has emotional journey after sitting out pandemic season
Conversations about how to approach the 2020 college football season amid the coronavirus pandemic heated up at Old Dominion late that July, coinciding with a spike in COVID-19 positivity rates in the Hampton Roads region of southeast Virginia.
With no vaccine on the near horizon and area hospitals running low on resources and overrun with COVID-19 cases, the university at large was facing an even more pressing dilemma: Would it be possible for ODU to open, let alone play football?
The Monarchs already were dealing with the limitations the pandemic had foisted upon every program in the Football Bowl Subdivision. In Virginia, state regulations prohibiting gatherings of 50 or more people had forced ODU to embrace a difficult and almost untenable practice model, with three groups of 37 players gathering each day and coaches conducting three straight practices in the brutal summer heat.
As every conference weighed the possibility of conducting a full season during a pandemic, ODU officials, including athletics director Wood Selig and first-year coach Ricky Rahne, began to realize the only option on the table: to cancel the season and try again the following spring.
Of the 123 FBS programs with a conference affiliation, only one sat out all of the 2020 campaign: ODU.
On Friday night, the Monarchs will return to play as 31-point underdogs at Wake Forest (7 p.m. ET, ACC Network), snapping a 653-day dry spell nearly without precedent in the history of the sport and taking the field for the first time in coach Rahne's 21 months on the job.
It's been an arduous, emotional journey since the Monarchs opted not to play.
"When you look at it, we decided not to play the day before the Big Ten did, or hours before the Big Ten did," Rahne told USA TODAY Sports about the decision to cancel in 2020. "I think those things were happening across the country. I think there was a little bit of people wanting to see, ‘Well, is the conference going to opt out?’ But we were at a position where we were at a totally different deal than all the other states."
"I get the sense that there’s a tremendous amount of camaraderie because of what everyone went through together," Selig said. "Having been through this all together and been somewhat unique — not everyone was going through what we were going through — has served a purpose to really unify this group."
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'I was a little bit of the grim reaper'
A former record-setting quarterback at Cornell, Rahne, 41, was hired in December of 2019 after six seasons under James Franklin at Penn State, the last two as the Nittany Lions' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
His first three months on the job followed the same script for any first-year head coach, full of the sorts of schematic installations and roster evaluations that represent the first step in any significant rebuilding process. Just the second head coach in the program's second incarnation — ODU played from 1930-40, shuttered the program, and then returned in 2009 — Rahne inherited a team that won just once in 2019.
In March, like every other team in the FBS, players and coaches scattered during the early days of the pandemic. For the Monarchs, the announcement that offseason drills were canceled came during spring break. Rahne, his wife and another couple were on vacation in Germany, one day away from a brewery tour in Cologne, when President Donald Trump warned Americans traveling abroad to return home before the borders were closed.
Rahne then told players over text messages not to return to campus after spring break for at least a week, maybe longer. It turned out the absence would last until June.
"I was a little bit of the grim reaper," Rahne said of his first six months. "There wasn’t a whole lot of laughing. There was me telling us we weren’t going to play. There was me telling us we weren’t going to have spring practice. Or there were guys that maybe didn’t fulfill their academic obligations who, you know, I let them know they weren’t going to be on the team anymore. If a kid got a call from me, it usually wasn’t good news."
The Monarchs returned to the field early that August but got in only a handful of practices before shutting down for the season, the last coming with Rahne and the staff aware of the decision.
The team was told on a morning Zoom meeting on Aug. 10. Players logging into the call could see every coach on the screen and immediately sense the vibe: something is very definitely up.
Rahne quoted Abraham Lincoln in breaking the news. Give me six hours to cut down a tree and I'll spend the first four sharpening my axe, Rahne said. Guys, this is our time to sharpen the axe.
"I remember being sick to my stomach," said senior offensive tackle Isaac Weaver. "It was tough news to swallow."
Even still, Selig said, "I would make the same decision 100 out of 100 times."
A different kind of season
To understand what 2020 was like for ODU requires first understanding the normal rhythm of a non-pandemic season. Players exist in a routine: practice is always at the same time; meals are eaten at the same times; teams leave for road trips at the same time from the same place; stay at the same hotels the nights before games; and while the dates of games may change — some Thursday, others Friday, some Saturday — every moment of every week is spent working toward game day.
Except when you don't have any games to play.
"It became a reality to them when they had something they really love taken away from them," said offensive coordinator Kirk Campbell.
In the wake of the announcement, the program gave players time away from team activities while considering the next steps. Emotions were all over the place, said senior linebacker Jordan Young. What do you do when perhaps the defining aspect of your life — the act of preparing for and playing football — is suddenly taken away?
"We were taking something that had been part of their DNA since probably they first started walking," Selig said. "To ask them not to compete, not to play their sport and to keep their distance from their teammates and their coaches, that was really difficult. I wasn’t so much worried about the possibility of getting the coronavirus for those young men. I was really worried about how they were handling it mentally and emotionally."
For the first month of the season, the ODU staff spent every week planning game as if they were coaching at West Virginia, a team with the same basic schematic setup on both sides of the ball. In October, the school reached out to the NCAA asking about reopening practices. One day later, the NCAA granted ODU the option to conduct 15 practices during the fall season. Three days after that, the Monarchs were back in pads.
"We were able to focus on our culture. We were able to focus on our technique and our fundamentals," Rahne said. "We were able to eliminate the production piece and the results piece from everything. And we were able to do it because they didn’t exist."
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Learning to sit on the sideline
For most of October and deep into November, ODU would practice three days a week and lift another three days a week. And without an opponent to play every weekend, practices were predictably physical.
"I would definitely say a lot of guys took out their anger on other people," Young said.
But even as the Monarchs were able to practice, Saturdays remained difficult.
Young would watch his brother, Avery, a defensive back at Rutgers. Weaver would watch his friends playing at other schools but would try to find a distraction.
"I don’t think I necessarily had the stomach for it last fall," Weaver said. "Every time you did watch a game, it was a little bit of a painful reminder that I should be playing a game today and I’m not. That’s pretty tough."
Seiler would take his daughters to Saturday morning gymnastics, come home and watch West Virginia and Kansas State, his two previous stops before joining Rahne at ODU. Campbell, an avid runner, would wake up, go on a run that could last 12 or 15 miles, spend time with his daughter and then watch games from the couch.
"For the first time in my life, I was watching games," Rahne said. "The morning games, to be honest, were hard for me. I had to work myself into watching Saturday games. On Sunday, I watched more NFL games than I ever watched in my entire life. But in terms of the Saturday games, I probably really didn’t start watching them until 5 or 6 at night. Because they were a little painful, you know? I missed it.
"It was weird. I found myself like, 'OK, this is what they’re going to do here, this is what they’re going to do there.' I’d tell my wife, and she’d look at me like, I don’t really care."
Practices ended before Thanksgiving. Finish well academically, Rahne told players, who left campus and did not return until deep into January. The season that wasn't ended with a bittersweet taste: ODU had not been able to play alongside the rest of the FBS, but the chance to practice and train under the first-year staff was the silver lining to an otherwise painful situation.
"Ultimately, I felt like it was a time when we were able to progress a whole lot," Young said.
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Enormous questions linger about this specific team — including which one of three contenders will be the starting quarterback, which might remain unanswered until the ODU offense takes the field against Wake Forest. Nearly 60% of the Monarchs' roster has never played a game wearing the ODU uniform, Rahne said.
And there are still questions about how the 2021 season will unfold amid the unsettled pandemic, as cases in several states remain at high levels. In Virginia, COVID-19 cases hit a seven-day average of 3,281 on Thursday, the state's highest rate since February.
One year to the day that ODU opted out of last season, Rahne and Selig met to discuss another possible roadblock: the contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls "the predominant strain of the virus in the United States."
The challenge posed by conducting a season during this next stage of the pandemic — and, more immediately, the challenge posed by the Demon Deacons — won't be easy. But it'll be easier than anything the Monarchs have gone through the past 18 months.
"You can’t plan everything," Rahne said. "You’ve got to be ready to adapt quickly."
The team has changed; the roster has been turned over, infused with freshmen and transfers. But so has the Monarchs' perspective. Want to love playing football, even when you're picked to finish at the bottom of your Group of Five league? Then have it taken away from you.
"Now I know what it’s like to go out there and not have this anymore," Weaver said. "It’s really given me the perspective that this last season, my senior year, I’m guaranteed 12 more games. That’s it. And I’m not even guaranteed those games. No one knows what’s going to happen."
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football: Pandemic left Old Dominion on sideline for 653 days