LINCOLN — The NCAA cleared the road for student-athletes to return to campuses for workouts. Nebraska will be at the front of the line.
NU will begin bringing student-athletes back for voluntary workouts on June 1 — the first day allowed by the NCAA — starting with the football, men's and women's basketball, soccer and volleyball teams, Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos said Friday.
Now the meticulous plan, coordinated in part with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, has to be executed over the next month as the Huskers try to stay safe and healthy during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have to be cautious about how we do these things,” Moos said. “We have a very strict protocol that involves testing, quarantines and all that, and it’ll take awhile.”
Some athletes — particularly members of Nebraska’s football team — are back in town and have already been tested for COVID-19. Others will come back “in waves” over several weeks, Moos said. The Nebraska men’s basketball team, according to a source close to the program, will have its players return between June 1 and June 6.
Prior to arrival, student-athletes will answer questionnaires about where they’ve traveled and with whom they’ve been around. They’ll try to isolate themselves as much as possible prior to coming to NU, then go into a minimum 48-hour quarantine upon their arrival, Moos said. After that, they will take coronavirus tests provided by UNMC. Moos didn’t know how many Nebraska had on hand, only that regular students may be tested.
“UNMC has been fabulous in helping us,” Moos said. “That has been a real, real positive for us. Extremely grateful.”
Nebraska has consulted directly with Dr. Chris Kratochvil, an Associate Vice Chancellor for Clinical Research at UNMC and the chairman on of the Big Ten's Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases, which has created protocols for safely adding students to campus. The guidebook is not out yet but will be soon, Kratochvil said.
It is the university's decision on how many tests they'll need, Kratochvil said. Nebraska athletics has been testing student-athletes in recent weeks. Samples are taken on campus, then sent to UNMC in Omaha. The typical COVID-19 test costs $50. To test a football team of 150 players, that could cost $7,500. Some have suggested players should be tested as much as two or three times a week. That doesn't include testing coaches, personnel and the rest of the teams on campus.
"The key thing really is that there's a broad range of availability of these tests and very active discussions on how they'll be utilized," Kratochvil said.
Initially, the NCAA on Wednesday only allowed football and basketball players to return June 1. By Friday, the NCAA had expanded it to all sports, surely pleasing Husker volleyball coach John Cook, who on his podcast had expressed frustration at Nebraska volleyball having to wait longer than football and basketball players. Volleyball and soccer compete in the fall, so Moos said “they’ll be folded into the campus protocol we had established for football and basketball in the last few weeks.”
Once cleared to participate in voluntary workouts — which are supervised by strength coaches — Moos said Nebraska’s staff will follow all guidelines and directed health measures. That includes social distancing, temperature checks, wearing masks and gloves, consistent cleaning and sanitizing of facilities, monitoring for symptoms and zero locker room access.
When a football player is in the Husker weight room, for example, he’ll be watched by staff as he washes his hands, Moos said.
“Constant wipe downs of the equipment, the social distancing of groups — and that includes the supervisors, too,” Moos said. “It’ll take awhile to put groups through the voluntary workouts.”
Moos credited the broad scope of his athletic department — 95% of which is working remotely, he said — with their work on developing aspects of the plan, particularly the performance staff — strength and conditioning and nutrition — academic advisors and life skills staffers. Moos said Dave Ellis’ “innovative” nutrition team has had better plans than any other in the Big Ten with its curbside, grab-and-go system.
“We’ve had to call audibles,” Moos said. “We’re at the line of scrimmage, we’re still learning about our opponent, we’ve had to call audibles, and I tip my hat to our staff. They’ve done an incredible job across the board.”
Nebraska shared its plan with the Big Ten, which instead of making a blanket announcement for all of its institutions — as the SEC did — has allowed schools to tailor their plans as they see fit. League athletic directors spend one to two hours on Zoom calls each weekday, Moos said, going over plans and contingencies. Big Ten football coaches meet once per week, Moos said.
NU administrators have been in daily contact with Husker football coach Scott Frost, whose opinion has been valued during the process, Moos said.
“We’re not going to stretch the rules in any way, but at the same time it’s important that our administration and our coaches are on the same page in regards to next steps and where we’re going and how we’re going to navigate this,” Moos said.
Nebraska will be a stickler for “following rules and regulations to a T,” Moos said.
He and his coaches believe NU is a safer place for student-athletes than wherever else around the nation and world they might be. NU has two international women’s basketball players from Australia — Issie Bourne and Ruby Porter — and four international players on the men's team — Yvan Ouedraogo (France), Dalano Banton and Shamiel Stevenson (Canada), and Thorir Thorbjarnarson (Iceland). NU coach Amy Williams expects Bourne back soon, with Porter arriving in July because of visa approval delays. Among the men’s players, it’s unclear when they’ll return, although Nebraska feels good about the possibility of the Canadian border opening up by June 6.
“We’re making sure not only the student-athletes are comfortable, but their parents are comfortable, that we’re following strict guidelines,” Moos said. “They’ll be in good care. Their sons and daughters will be in good hands.”