Photo | Courtesy of University of South Alabama
With its first on-campus stadium weeks from completion, the University of South Alabama (USA) remains excited for the next chapter in its football program’s history even as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to complicate a season Jaguar fans have had circled on their calendars for years.
The idea of an on-campus stadium likely predates the Jaguars’ first kickoff in 2009, but things started to really take shape after an internal study in 2016 determined it was financially and logistically feasible for USA to move its “home” games from Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Midtown to a dedicated space on campus.
With that answered, questions about the stadium shifted from “what if” to when, where and how much.
Director of Athletics Dr. Joel Erdmann said the planning, fundraising, designing and construction that have gone into the project over the last three years has been a $74 million effort from USA’s board of trustees, public entities, private donors like Abraham A. Mitchell, for whom the playing field is named, and corporate sponsors like Hancock Whitney Bank, Hargrove Engineers and Budweiser-Busch Distributing.
The result is a stadium rivaled by few of USA’s contemporaries in NCAA’s “Group of Five” conferences. With a 25,000-spectator capacity, Hancock Whitney Stadium features all the amenities one would expect in a modern college football stadium, including a state-of-the-art video board and sound system, an end-zone terrace, suites, an 800-seat club level and premier chair-back and bench-back seating options. It will include hospitality areas for tailgating, special events and recreational vehicles.
With construction all but completed, USA expects to have a certificate of occupancy in hand by August.
“I can probably never fully recognize and appreciate all of the people who’ve been involved in this process from start to finish — concept to completion. It was the true definition of a team effort,” Erdmann told Lagniappe. “It’s been challenging, fun and rewarding all at the same time, but when people see the final product, I think we’ll all be very satisfied to know what we’ve created was worthwhile and something that’s going to be a part of this program, this school and this community for a long time.”
Over the last 11 years, supporters have made a home at Ladd-Peebles — a venue that saw the team secure marquee victories over big-time programs like Mississippi State and San Diego State. However, Erdmann believes having a stadium on campus will integrate the football program into student life and help plant the seeds of new traditions that will come to define what “game day” means for generations of Jags fans.
From how players enter the stadium to pregame events and the spots tailgaters claim as their own, Erdmann said he’s confident the stadium on John Counts Drive will ultimately become a central part of USA’s football program and encapsulate why the “home” in “home field advantage” is so important.
“It will be great to have a home on our own campus, and the sense of pride, togetherness and unity that will generate is going to be hard to measure. I think we’ll see ripple effects for decades and in generations of students, faculty and in the Mobile community,” he said. “We won’t know the full impact of Hancock Whitney Stadium until we experience it and start enjoying game days there.
“This is not a finish line, it’s a starting line,” he added.
Planning for a full schedule, but remaining flexible
Last summer, all of the suites and lodges for USA’s first game at Hancock Whitney Stadium sold out within 24 hours, and as recently as last week, the Sept. 12 matchup against Grambling State University was on course to be a sellout. Then the Southwestern Athletic Conference postponed its entire season.
That was one in a series of decisions that have called into question how, or if, college football will be played this fall as many parts of the country continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.
As it stands at the moment, most athletic directors and conference commissioners are continuing to project confidence there will be some kind of football this year — whether it’s an abbreviated, conference-only affair or a more traditional season delayed until Spring 2021.
The PAC 12 and Big Ten have already canceled all nonconference games, while the remaining “Power Five” conferences — the SEC, ACC and Big 12 — are expected to make decisions about what their respective seasons will look like within the next week. All three have expressed a desire to salvage some nonconference contests, but any reduction of their scheduled games could impact USA and other teams in the Sun Belt. The Jaguars are scheduled to play the Florida Gators Sept. 19.
The Sun Belt Conference has already delayed the start of its season until Sept. 3, though that hasn’t had any impact on the Jaguars’ schedule so far. While acknowledging it is a “fluid situation,” Erdmann said the current plan is to play a full schedule including six home games. If a replacement for Grambling State can’t be secured, the next home game on the schedule is set for Sept. 26 against the UAB Blazers.
Erdmann said “the keyword is flexibility.”
“If some changes come our way, some of which may or may not be in our control, we will adjust and react appropriately,” he added. “Like everybody else in the country, we hope to play football this year. We hope it will be on schedule, but if it needs to shift to October or November, we’ll do that, and if the circumstances dictate that we have to wait until spring, we’ll do that. We will exhaust any and all options to provide an opportunity for our team to have a football season, whether it’s 12 games or eight.”
Erdmann said he’s hopeful more information about each conference’s fall plans will be made available within the next two weeks or so. In the meantime, USA is moving forward with team workouts following a brief pause earlier this month after an undisclosed number of players tested positive for COVID-19.
USA has been following the NCAA’s “return to play” guidelines and the athletics department has released a list of COVID-19 mitigation measures that will likely be in effect whenever games are held.
Some of those include paperless ticketing options, social distancing at concession stands and restrooms, extensive sanitation efforts, screening fans as they enter the stadium and even facemask requirements depending on the status of local and statewide health orders.
Erdmann said there will likely be limitations on the number of patrons at games as well. While that would cause a “significant loss in projected revenue,” Erdmann said that would be much better than a “worst-case scenario” where there is no college football at any point in the 2020 academic year.
“Having a beautiful new stadium, that would obviously be disappointing and unfortunate from a lot of different perspectives, but if we’re not playing football, we’re likely not playing anything and that would have a ripple effect into many different areas,” he said. “The financial impact would be significant — in the range of $4 million to $6.5 million when you account for no season ticket sales, no related donations and there being no College Football Playoff, which we get about a million dollars a year from.”
While USA has calculated the potential impacts, Erdmann said he remains optimistic officials at all levels of the sport will be able to put together something for the fans during the upcoming academic year, even if it doesn’t look like, last as long or start at the same time as a typical college football season.
He asked season ticket holders, students, fans and the broader community to remain patient as officials navigate an unprecedented obstacle course, and regardless of what happens this year, Erdmann said best is yet to come for USA football as it heads into its eighth year as a NCAA Division 1 program.
“We are going to be on a windy road, so please hang in there with us, but we will get to the other side of this thing,” Erdmann said. “We’re all going to enjoy a bunch of great days at Hancock Whitney Stadium together — hopefully beginning this fall, but if not, certainly for many years into the future.”
Uncertainty at all levels
The collegiate level is not the only level where officials have faced hurdles to resuming football this season, and Alabama high schools in particular have had to figure out how to play in a state that is continuing to set records of daily COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
Last week, the Alabama High School Athletics Association (AHSAA) released its “best practices” for resuming fall sports during the coming weeks — a list of requirements and recommendations that leaves important decisions about participation, transportation and spectators up to local school districts.
In a press conference, AHSAA Executive Director Steve Savarese said the priority of the AHSAA’s central board of control has been to develop practices to “mitigate but not eliminate” the risk of exposure to COVID-19 that coaches and students-athletes assume when participating in fall sports.
He said even if seasons are cut short because of increased rates of COVID-19, AHSAA wanted to give local schools flexibility instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach for the entire state.
“Parents now have options not only about how they educate their children, but they must make a personal choice about whether they should allow their children to participate in extracurricular activities,” Savarese said. “Everyone should understand sports this season will not be normal. We can’t think in normal terms, therefore our board has provided schools flexibility to play or to not play without penalty and to allow school officials to use their judgment based on the latest health information available in their region.”
With the green light from AHSAA, schools may choose to begin fall practice as early as July 27, though the first week has to be used for acclimation and cannot be used for full-contact practice in sports like football. The competitive season will start as scheduled Aug. 20.
If a school system decides student-athletes shouldn’t participate in a single game or for a season, Savarese said the program will not be penalized for doing so. While any forfeit will be counted as a loss during the season, games forfeited due to COVID-19 outbreaks or concerns would be reviewed by AHSAA at the end of the season to determine how they will affect a school’s overall record.
According to Savarese, AHSAA has intentionally left other critical decisions up to local school boards — including things like restrictions on fans and spectators and how many members of the team are able to travel to away games. He also said even if schools only resume online classes — something more than a dozen districts plan to do — there is no rule preventing virtual school students from playing sports.
While AHSAA’s “best practices” encompassed other fall sports like cross country and volleyball, football has been a primary concern and will see a few notable changes this year.
For starters, the players’ boxes on sidelines will be larger to allow more room for social distancing, timeouts will be longer, the ball will be cleaned more frequently, handshakes will be suspended and only one captain from each team will be allowed to participate in the pregame coin toss.
Officials, coaches and anyone else on the sidelines will also be encouraged — but not required — to wear a mask or face covering. A full list of AHSAA’s “best practices” is available at lagniappemobile.com.
The Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) is delaying the start of its fall semester until September and is only offering online instruction into November. So far, though, the state’s largest school district has not made a decision about whether its 12 high schools will play fall sports.
“We now have the AHSAA report and are assessing it. We are continuing our summer workouts without pads and tackling. Each school has a plan in place for sanitizing equipment and for maintaining social distancing among the players and coaches. We will continue that as we continue to assess Mobile County’s coronavirus numbers and AHSAA’s recommendations,” an MCPSS statement read.
If MCPSS schools were to forgo fall athletics entirely, it would have an impact on a number of other schools in the district’s region and area as well. In football particularly, many MCPSS high schools typically play teams across the bay and in Mobile’s private and parochial school systems.
A spokesperson for the system told Lagniappe this week administrators and coaches would be releasing more information after having a chance to review the new AHSAA best practices. The system has already postponed middle school sports indefinitely — a decision that has drawn mixed responses.
One football coach at an MCPSS middle school, who asked not to be identified, said the decision will have an impact on player development, though he understands the reasons behind it. He said his school had already made plans to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 during the upcoming season, but acknowledged some parents still had concerns about player safety and transportation to and from practice.
“We will feel the results of this decision next year. Football is a developmental sport, and missing a year of football will hurt the game of football in the years to come,” he said. “I do understand the logic behind the decision, though. The health of our kids and coaches needed to be considered at this time.”
The coach did say his staff has agreed to help freshman transition into varsity football after being asked by coaches at a high school in the same feeder pattern. He didn’t say how they would do that.
Across the bay, school officials in Baldwin County are reviewing the new rules and recommendations as well. However, Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Eddie Tyler — a former football coach himself — has already made it clear schools in his district fully intend to participate in fall sports at all levels.
“I’m hoping college football will follow, so I have something to do on Saturdays,” he said. “I’m excited about volleyball, cross country, football, cheerleading and band. There’s no better feeling than being on a practice field in August and you’re sweating and then in the distance you hear the band playing.”
Tyler said decisions about team travel, band programs and cheerleaders will be left up to each school. In the meantime, football practice at Baldwin County high schools started earlier this week.
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