It’s been 83 days since Indiana University — and the rest of the Big Ten — wiped out the 2019-20 sports calendar in response to the growing coronavirus pandemic. In that time, Tom Allen has filled his schedule with a steady stream of Zoom calls and texts, walks with his wife and honey-do projects around his home.
All the while, the IU football coach has pictured the day when his program will be reunited — how his team will practice, how they’ll adjust and how he’ll greet each of his players when they walk back into Memorial Stadium for the first time in months.
“I’d love to give them a big ole bear hug,” Allen said. “Probably going to have to give them either a fist bump or an elbow bump or whatever the protocol is for that.”
Then again, given that bumps and physical signs of affection are classified as no-nos in the return to campus plan that IU Athletics released Wednesday, he might just have to settle for a wave from a safe distance. Not that Allen will mind much. He’s eager to simply have his team back in front of him.
And now he has a schedule for when that will happen.
Indiana will welcome its roster of more than 100 players back to Bloomington in three waves, beginning with the first group of 68 players due at the facility on Tuesday. Once athletes arrive on campus, they’ll go through a series of steps before getting back into workouts, a process that will start with COVID-19 testing early next week. Allen says 34 of those players will undergo tests on Tuesday, with the other half of the group coming in for testing on Wednesday. Players will quarantine for two to three days while they wait for results, then, once they’re cleared, they’ll go through an orientation to understand IU’s new rules and procedures. From there, small-group workouts may commence.
The cycle will repeat itself two weeks later when the second group of 25 players arrive at IU. A third wave of players will arrive two weeks after that.
“So the 15th, 29th and July 6 will be the start dates for each of those three groups to be in the weight room,” Allen said. “There’s a process we have to go through.”
A process that will require some patience.
Even with players back in town, Indiana will try to limit the amount of in-person activities during the early stages. That means the majority, if not all, of IU’s team meetings will continue to take place on Zoom. Those that do take place in person will require attendees to wear masks.
Meanwhile, in the cavernous Memorial Stadium weight room, two groups of 10 — nine players, one strength and conditioning coach — will work out on separate sides of the room. The groups, themselves, will function as family units: IU will put roommates in the same sections so that guys who live together will also work out together.
“When you get on the football fields and practice areas it’s the same thing all divided up, spaced out evenly in groups of 10,” Allen said. “The North End Zone, the South End Zone, the beach. Use two full fields, four complete groups going there divided up evenly to where there is really no interaction with guys and they’re socially distanced properly and will not be in contact with each other. Very, very organized plan for that and basically there’s a rotational basis and that schedule is based on classes meeting. They have summer school classes going on right now. All online but still, there’s a lot of responsibility with that.”
And who’s to say this process won’t change? One or two positive COVID-19 tests, either in the football program or in any of the other fall sports programs returning to Bloomington, could force Indiana to alter its course. For now, Allen and others at IU are content to try the approach they’ve laid out.
It’s all come together sooner than Allen thought it might. Allen said if you had told him last month that the team would begin reconvening in mid-June, he may not have believed it. There are still hurdles to clear, such as figuring out a structure for fall camp when the whole team will have to get together. Allen said Big Ten coaches seem to be in agreement that they would need a six-week ramp-up period in order to thoroughly prepare players for the grind of the season. But such a schedule, Allen says, can be arranged in due time.
“This summer is going to look different than any summer I’ve ever been a part of in my coaching career,” Allen said. “I think with all that being said, it’s all the more reason to focus on the things we can control. I can answer questions about the season and this and that. That’s really irrelevant right now because we’re going to focus on what we know. What we know is we’re ready for our players to come back on June 8. That’s the date of travel and they’re going to be with us on the 9th and the 10th to get tested and get them ready to lift on the 15th. That’s the focus.”