HELENA — Though it might not feel like it to college football fans across the country, the sun came up on Friday.
That was Troy Purcell’s message to his Carroll College football team after the Frontier Conference postponed the 2020 football season to the spring of 2021 on Thursday.
“We had a great day (Friday). We got all the recruits here and the freshmen here, and they’re excited to be here and we’re going to move forward,” said Purcell, Carroll’s second-year head coach.
The NAIA permitted its member football teams to begin practicing this weekend. Some conferences still plan to do that, but the Frontier Conference, after weeks of persistent determination to keep football on the fall schedule, backtracked Thursday and joined the many college conferences and programs to hit pause on their sports calendars because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“You watch other conferences have to hang it up or move it to the spring, you’re just thinking, ‘Alright, we’re in Montana. We’re kind of isolated a little bit more, cases aren’t real high,’ (but) it’s always in the back of your mind,” Purcell said. “When it happened it wasn’t too much of a surprise, because the closer we got to the season, the more I thought we’re not going to have a season.”
With the clarity and finality brought by the official postponement, Purcell and the Fighting Saints can now begin to move forward. Uncertainty has hung over the fall schedule since the coronavirus first starting canceling sporting events in mid-March. The Frontier had to pivot multiple times, first announcing an eight-game conference-only schedule and then having to adjust when the league’s out-of-state programs — College of Idaho, Eastern Oregon and Southern Oregon — pushed their seasons to the spring.
Still, the Frontier aimed to play this fall and remained steadfast in that effort until Thursday when it made its determination. While it’s easy to focus on what will be missed this fall, Purcell is keeping a positive attitude and passing that approach to his team.
“No freshman class has ever had this type of opportunity where they can come in and learn the offense, learn the defense, learn the special teams in five weeks,” Purcell said. “Usually it’s your fall camp, but then you’re stuck right into scout teams. You don’t really get a good feel of the offense and defense and special teams, so it’s going to be a great advantage for them.”
After missing spring practices and with no games on the fall schedule, Purcell said his program will be able to shift its schedule. The Saints, who finished 6-4 and ranked No. 25 last season, will still begin workouts, starting with two weeks of conditioning and meetings. Then they’ll enter into a schedule similar to that of a spring camp, culminating with a “fall spring fling game,” according to Purcell.
The Thanksgiving break will mimic the traditional summer break for the players. Once they return, it’ll be like they’re starting fall camp in preparation for the upcoming spring season.
“We’ve just got to know what those dates are as we’re moving forward into the spring, and we’ve got time now,” Purcell said, noting the spring schedule will ultimately be determined by the NAIA’s playoff schedule.
“I think they’ve got to try to make sure they start the season as quick as they can,” Purcell added. “Maybe just conference games again. We’ll play our seven, eight games and then get into the playoff series, and then maybe you push the fall back a little bit and give these kids an opportunity to recover. It’s never happened before. … Taking care of the guys is No. 1. The higher-ups above my pay grade are going to have to look into it a little higher and make sure everybody’s safe and ready to go and move forward.”
No matter what happens with the fall or spring schedules — or the 2021 fall schedule, for that matter — Purcell and his team will adapt. One group might not have that opportunity, though it remains to be seen how eligibility questions are answered going forward.
“The hardest part is with the seniors,” Purcell said. “The seniors are the ones, especially the December grads, on how we can move forward and what the rules are for them because they were supposed to graduate. We had six of those kids, some great kids. You want to have an opportunity. You only get to play this game maybe 12 years or whatever as a player, and then it’s over. … I feel for the seniors more than anybody else.”