NIU, Mid-American Conference tackle issues of playing in a pandemic

Frazier confident in NIU’s ability to keep athletes healthy

View+of+the+East+side+of+Huskie+Stadium+Sept.+24%2C+2019+in+DeKalb.

Jarrett Huff | Northern Star

View of the East side of Huskie Stadium Sept. 24, 2019 in DeKalb.

James Krause, Senior Reporter

DeKALB — The Huskies football team can make plans to see their Mid-American Conference rivals on the field this fall, as the conference voted unanimously Friday for football to return in November.

Head Football Coach Thomas Hammock said there was a feeling among his players today that hasn’t been felt in a long while: excitement.

“Today there was a buzz about them,” Hammock said. “A lot of these young men were texting me saying ‘Is this going to happen?’ It was a buzz with our coaching staff. I think that’s one thing that gets missed sometimes. The players talk about how they want to play, but as coaches we want to coach.”

The MAC was the first Football Bowl Series conference to postpone its fall sports on Aug. 8 due to COVID-19, with three other conferences following suit. The MAC returned to the FBS a day after the Mountain West Conference was the last of the other three to rejoin.

Athletic Director Sean Frazier said thanks was in order for the patience shown by those in the MAC, despite it being the last to return.

“Just like in typical MAC form,” Frazier said. “We were the first one to postpone and the last to come back from the FBS perspective. Kudos to our presidents, medical staff, coaches, administrators and our student athletes for their due diligence.” 

The season is set to begin on Nov. 4 with a six-game schedule over a seven-week span. The conference championship game is currently scheduled to be played at Ford Field in Detroit on either Dec. 18 or 19. 

Full schedules are expected to be announced next week with training camps beginning Oct. 5, according to the MAC press release on Friday. The NIU football team, currently quarantined after a person in the program tested positive last Friday, is expected to be able to be cleared to practice by that date, according to Frazier.

The decision to play is a change of course for NIU and the Athletic Department, with Frazier originally citing the unknowns of COVID-19 as a factor. Now after several weeks working with the conference and others, Frazier feels more comfortable with the school and department’s ability to keep the players and staff safe. 

“I was immersed in this,” Frazier said. “I’m not saying that I’m a physician now, but I’m better educated now. This is better understood. I’m understanding the science, the medicine and the ability to safeguard.” 

Protocols and testing requirements have been put in place by the MAC for their 12 programs. Student-athletes and staff are required to be given an antigen test four times a week with all positive tests being followed up on with a polymerase chain reaction test.

Frazier said the ability to get faster results on those who have COVID-19 in order to isolate the virus has him feeling better about playing now than he did in August.

“I’m confident in our protocol,” Frazier said. “Do I think we could sputter and shut down based on our robust protocol? Absolutely, it might happen. But, I do feel much more comfortable in our ability to screen, mitigate and protect than I did a month and a half ago.”

The MAC’s complete protocols will be released next week. NIU President Lisa Freeman said in an NIU Athletics press release Friday that the conference and it’s medical experts have assured her and other presidents that the protocol can lead to games being played safely.

“This was a difficult decision, just as it was to postpone the season back in August,” Freeman said in Friday’s NIU Athletics press release. “In the end, we had to have assurances from the members of the MAC Medical Advisory Board, including representatives from our partners here at NIU from Northwestern Medicine, that the testing regimens and safety protocols could be implemented.”

No general admission or tailgating will be allowed at games, but the MAC has let individual institutions decide on the participation of marching bands, dance teams and cheer squads being at games.

Without fans to amp up the players, Hammock said his team has come up with a potential solution to keep players energized.

“We created a juice committee,” Hammock said. “It has some coaches and some players trying different things we can do to bring our own energy and create the atmosphere that’s going to be conducive to the type of football that we want to play.”

Hammock brings coaching experience from the NFL and some of the top college programs in the country, but he and his staff are set looking at the new challenges COVID-19 has created for every football team in the country. 

The focus of training camp will be on having his team ready for whoever their first opponent is, whenever and wherever they play them. 

“What you see is some teams are ready to play and some teams are not,” Hammock said. “What we talked about as a staff is we have to start playing clean football first. It may mean a pared down menu of plays and getting guys in certain spots to do certain things, but we want to play clean.”