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In the Huddle: How to utilize the unexpected bye week

Coach Terry Dennis draws from his own experience as a coach and a player to wonder how Mizzou could best use their unplanned bye week.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The onset of a global pandemic, particularly in the western world, has undoubtedly put a damper on college football. Several weeks into the 2020-2021 season, COVID-19 has affected the ability for teams at all levels of the game to play football, from high school to the NFL. With this comes the onset of uncertainty; the possibility of an unexpected bye week on the horizon at all times. It is here where all members of Mizzou Nation currently exist.

Here we sit, nearly one week removed from a historic and monumental victory over the defending national champion LSU Tigers, having to wait until December 12 to play Vanderbilt. While this may not mean the end of the college football season, it does raise the question as to how teams continue to prepare to move forward, with no goal really set in stone by the week.

Ultimately, it’s another slap in the face for players. Especially this season, not knowing if training camp would ultimately be the, “end of the beginning,” even making it to the season becomes a rollercoaster of emotions. From a player’s perspective, this season seems like it’s been operated by a light switch in the hands of a two-year-old child. It’s on — then it’s off — then it’s on again, with rarely any consistency.

Just down I-70 in Kansas City, I serve as a coach for the Avila Eagles, part of the KCAC, an NAIA conference comparable to NCAA Division II. We’ve already seen two different unexpected bye weeks within the first five weeks of the season due to opponents being quarantined. The announcements come so abruptly, sometimes less than 48 hours before kickoff. For players, the sudden disappointment of knowing they’ve ultimately prepared for no result in the end is gut-wrenching.

However, this extra time has its perks. For Avila, having had to postpone the homecoming game against Ottawa, it allowed for key players to rehab injuries sustained in the most recent game, setting up for a clash for a bigger opponent ahead. For Mizzou, it gives two weeks of preparation for a trip to The Swamp, to face a 10th ranked Florida Gators team that has struggled to get the best of the Tigers, trading blows in the win column since the Tigers first entered the SEC. Still, though, the bye week doesn’t yet portend the end of football altogether. To a player, they’re still playing — just not as soon as they might have hoped. Going to practice, taking reps, lifting and conditioning; it isn’t like time stood still when Vandy got postponed. It’s business as usual. To generalize, time utilized by players to stick to the routine is time well spent — even when it comes at the expense of a, “lost,” game.

For coaches, the extra space between games becomes prime time for creative brainstorming. Coaches have to put themselves in players’ shoes and understand that, as a college student-athlete, morale is as essential as fun, which factors into rules of engagement. With or without a sickness running rampant throughout the nation, a coach has a job to engage the total person, individually and collectively — and they have to do with with dozens of guys on a roster. At a time like this, all of the non-football questions seem as loud as the questions directly related to the team itself.

Are the players genuinely happy?

Is this team truly together?

What can we do to show these men we care about them?

Can we make this into something fun and engaging?

Can we compartmentalize and balance business with pleasure?

How do we show we’re real people, not just coaches?

These are all questions coaches must ask and develop a plan to address. These kids have families, and those families want to see them play. They also want to see them have fun, unwind, and come into their own as young men. An unexpected bye week might mean that during what should’ve been a game, coaches organize a get-together for families coming in town for the game, such as a barbecue with games (social distancing enforced), catered by coaches, as a way for important people to meet each other, and players to still have fun.

When it comes to the on-field product, there are still standards of performance on the field and in the classroom, Nothing changes apart from Saturday, maybe with a few twists — or maybe nothing changes at all. To a coach, this is a time where the most important part of their jobs comes to fruition, and they have to prepare with the end in focus, while teaching the important skill of balancing work with real life. Give a great coach extra money, and he’s already earned it. Give a great coach extra time, and he’ll use it to build young men.

There is a next game, and at this juncture, it’s a trip to Gainesville. Coach Drink and staff still have momentum from this past week, in a win that arguably solidified their spot at the SEC coaching table. To make this program as special as it could be, it takes a little time; extra time to build off crucial successes.