Whether they’ll be facing a first-and-10 or a third-and-long, New Jersey’s high school football coaches are working together on a game plan to prepare for a fall season.
The executive committee of the New Jersey Football Coaches Association, working in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday night introduced three potential starting dates for when players and coaches can meet to prepare for the 2020 season.
The first and most optimistic recommended start date, suggested during the NJFCA online meeting, is Aug. 1. That would keep the preseason and regular season on schedule, allowing teams with late-August games to open as planned.
The second date is Aug. 17, which would eliminate those August openers, said Rich Hansen, a member of the executive committee.
The third date would be Sept. 1, which Hansen said delays season openers until Sept. 24.
“The governor’s office, through the Department of Health and Department of Education, are going to drive the bus on this,” said Hansen, coach and athletic director at St. Peter’s Prep.
“We just want to be as prepared as possible to follow the guidelines they set forth, whenever that happens.”
Hansen, who also serves as president of the North Jersey Super Football Conference, said coaches have been working on multiple scenarios “for about a month,” and that the executive committee has sought insight from league presidents from around the Garden State.
“We’ve tried to get everybody’s opinion and everybody’s input and try to come up with dates that make sense,” Hansen said. “Obviously the most important component to all this is the safety of the kids and the coaches. But a lot of it is beyond our control and that’s what makes it so hard.”
“I’m happy to see that we’re trying to brainstorm and come up with some ideas and at least put a plan together and have different options,” said Don Bosco coach Dan Sabella. “That’s the smart way to go, and it’s good to see the leadership, and a lot of guys, getting involved with doing that.”
Gov. Murphy announced Monday that schools will remain closed through the rest of this school year, ending hopes for a spring sports season. So the focus turns to summer practices and a fall season that also includes boys and girls soccer.
Hansen emphasized that the NJFCA plans are “proactive” recommendations to be considered by the state’s governing athletic organization, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.
“We just wanted to give the state some options, pending the governor’s decision and the Department of Education’s decision in the coming weeks,” Hansen said. “And hopefully these options match what they have in mind and the mandates and guidelines that are going to come down the pike.”
What New Jersey coaches are saying
“A lot of different ideas were being tossed out there (at the meeting),” Vineland coach Dan Russo said. “One coach said eight to 10 games with no playoffs. I agree it would be better than nothing. If the choice is no games or a few games, I’m taking the few games. Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that. As coaches, we really have no say, it’s going to be up to the governor, health officials and the NJSIAA.”
“If teachers and coaches aren’t allowed into the building or on campus until September 1st, that’s going to put us behind the 8-ball,” said Millville athletic director Dave LaGamba.
“We’re going to roll with the punches and follow the guidance we’re given,” said Rancocas Valley athletic director Mike Lamb. “It’s a process. We’re going to have to take everything in steps. I believe we will be ready for any scenario that is thrown our way. Whatever happens, we will have a plan ready to move forward.”
“I think it’s good that we have some clarity on potential starting dates,” said Ocean Township coach Don Klein. “August 1st was really a target date for us, and if that’s the date it doesn’t impact the calendar, scrimmages. The August 17th date will have some effect, and September 1st would require a lot of adjusting. But whatever we have to do to keep everyone safe.
“This is going to be what the calendar looked like 20 years ago,” Klein added, “before this rush to start earlier and earlier and feel like you’re falling behind other programs unless you do that. Now it will be a level playing field for everyone.”
Ramapo coach Drew Gibbs, a member of the NJFCA executive committee and former president, said about 100 coaches participated in Thursday’s Zoom meeting – and it would have been more if the system had allowed more than 100. Thus, Gibbs said that there will be another online meeting Friday.
“I think the fact that the NJSIAA now solicits input from the New Jersey Football Coaches – and you have a lot of guys who care deeply about the game and they work so hard at it – and to have a little bit of a voice here in terms of how things are being done and being structured is real important for our coaching community,” said Gibbs, whose Green Raiders own a state-leading 26-game active winning streak.
Before any season starts
Football coaches throughout the state are in a holding pattern. In the meantime, they will continue to remain in contact with their players.
“A lot of it is just getting kids in shape and installing things so that in August, we can hit the ground running,” Elmwood Park coach Tom Mulligan said. “We do a lot of team building and camaraderie. That’s where a lot of your jell happens.
“It’s going to be a grind either way,” Mulligan said. “We’re going to have to hold kids accountable to do a little extra studying on their own. It can get done, but obviously you would like to have the summer to have more reps and better understanding. Repetition is always going to get you where you want to be.”
“So now it’s a waiting game,” said Tom Curry Jr., coach of North Regional Group 1 champion Park Ridge and boys basketball coach at sectional finalist Secaucus. “Are we going to start September 1st, or are we going to start August 1? Nobody knows, and I think that’s going to be the tough part. All the coaches have been talking, and we’re kind of just playing a waiting game.”
Don Bosco, last year’s Non-Public Group 4 runner-up to St. Peter’s, traditionally opens the season against out-of-state heavyweights. The Ironmen are slated to open Aug. 28 in Akron, Ohio at Archbishop Hoban and Sabella labeled it “a long shot.”
“We are planning on having football in the fall,” Sabella said. “We’re real hopeful for it, and we’re just trying to go day-by-day, but at the same time remain real positive about it. And, again, credit to the football coaches for being aggressive and coming up with different plans and showing some guidance with the process.”
North Brunswick coach Mike Cipot is just glad that there’s optimism there will be a season. If it means cutting out things from the playbook or having longer practices, he just wants to play ball.
“We have to be a little adaptable and be a little understanding to what they’re giving us,” said Cipot, who led the Middlesex County school to a 19-4 record over the last two seasons. “I kind of speak for the team and the kids, as well. Whether we start August 1st or August 17th, let’s just have a season.”
He praised the NJFCA and commissioner John Jacob for keeping the coaches aware and coming up with plans. Like every other coach, he’s been having virtual staff meetings and speaking to the players on video, giving them homework about the X’s and O’s.
“We’re being creative, too, as coaches just to keep them engaged and to maybe slice out something that we would normally do in June, but we can do now virtually,” Cipot said. “And once we are told that we can go on the field, we can just get back to business and do our normal practice stuff.”
If nothing else, the season could resemble past years when there were less organized offseason workouts.
“It’s like old-school,” Cipot said with a laugh. “It’s like we’ll see you in August and then we practice.”