No changes to the slate have been made yet, so the athletic department at James Madison is revving up for another football season.
“Our plan right now is to play a full schedule as originally set,” Dukes’ athletic director Jeff Bourne told the Daily News-Record on Friday.
Of course, the backdrop to this coming campaign will be unlike any other as Bourne and his staff in Harrisonburg as well as medical personnel and athletic departments across the country try to navigate it safely while the country deals with the coronavirus pandemic.
Bourne said he and his colleagues at JMU have been extremely busy over the past few months, steadily readying for the school’s athletes to return to campus. No JMU athletic team has held workouts, practices or competed in a game since college sports were put on hiatus in March.
According to Bourne and Dukes’ assistant athletic director for communications Kevin Warner, JMU football players will begin voluntary activity on July 6 and that the team’s training camp is on track to begin Aug. 7. JMU opens its season on Sept. 5 at home with a Colonial Athletic Association contest against Delaware.
The Dukes won the league outright and reached the FCS national championship game for the third time in the last four years in 2019.
Bourne said the men’s and women’s basketball teams will follow football with a report date of July 20. The other fall-sport athletes are expected to arrive again later this summer.
“Football is a very large sport program and it’ll be one we’re watching very closely,” Bourne said. “So hopefully it’ll give us a good idea and some experience about what to expect as we bring the others back.”
Once JMU has its athletes on campus, they will begin a “re-acclimation process” designed to keep players, coaches and the rest of the university safe.
“They will report to campus,” Bourne said, “they will go through a quarantine period, a testing period and then once it is deemed they are appropriate to begin physical activity as far as conditioning activity – what’s going to end up happening, especially with football, is you are going to see football broken into individual small groups and they will be conditioning within those small groups, or pods.”
Players will be grouped into pods of about 10, Warner said, and other precautions will also be in place.
“They’ve developed a plan to use different spaces and spread out,” Warner said. “They can rotate through so that at any given time there isn’t a group larger than 10 doing any workout activity.”
Bourne said until the general student population returns to campus, all football athletes — including those who otherwise have off-campus housing — are required to stay in two on-campus dormitories, Hoffman and Gifford Halls.
In those residence halls, players will stay in single rooms with two players sharing one bathroom. During previous football training camps, players have been housed with a roommate in dormitories and were set up with community bathrooms. And, Bourne said, to further minimize the chance of spreading the illness, athletes will not have access to locker rooms or showers in athletic facilities.
“They’ll all be staying as a group on campus so that we can monitor those housing arrangements pretty tightly,” Bourne said. “It also works to significantly reduce exposure to any outside chances of contraction of the virus. Every team that comes back early will be on campus. The same protocol will be in place for each team.”
JMU is also continuing to structure a plan to test players and athletic department employees for COVID-19.
“I would think early on we would administer a test and we would monitor student-athletes, staff, coaches on a daily basis going forward,” Bourne said. “With regard to future testing beyond the initial test period, I’m not sure exactly what that’s going to entail.”
In the event of a positive test, the player would be sent to one of two dormitories on campus designated for all COVID-19-positive students, not just athletes. Players in the same small workout groups as the positive-tested athlete would also be tested and monitored.
“We’re still in the process now of determining how we’re going to administer our testing,” Bourne said, “with the appropriate laboratories that’ll be available to take our volume of tests, because we all know it’s not just about the student-athletes, but it’s our great student body, community and everyone else. So you have to have availability of testing. We’re not in a large city or around any large medical facilities per say, so we’ll have to work through the nuances of that and make sure what we’re doing is in harmony with our university community and broader Harrisonburg-Rockingham County community.”
Bourne said as the football program and all fall sports get through the voluntary part of the preseason and into training camps, the department will begin creating protocols for regular-season games based on what the NCAA might require and the opposing schools could require.
How JMU Developed Its Plan
Bourne said JMU Athletics hasn’t had to hire any extra team doctors or trainers to prepare for the return of athletes to the school.
He said the current medical staff is equipped to handle it, and that he’s worked with a wide range of his staff to come up with the plans for a return. Bourne said Warner, Tom Kuster, the associate athletic director for integrated health and sports performance, as well as Dr. Cameron Straughn, the program’s physician, and Ty Phillips, the assistant athletic director for facilities, are key members of the department’s COVID-19 task force.
“When you think about this [virus], it’s not what you’re doing,” Bourne said, “but how you’re communicating it. What are you doing to communicate to parents? How are you handling student-athletes’ concerns if they come to you at the last minute or late at night? Our goal is all hands on deck with regard to how we’ve handled this and I think there are very, very few parts of athletics that are not touched by this.
“Even our equipment room and how we handle laundry and how we prepare the equipment is fundamentally touched by things we’re having to do, so it’s a department effort.”
Bourne said on top of all his staff members who have played a part in designing JMU’s plan for a return to sports, he’s also had weekly meetings with athletic directors in the CAA and bi-weekly meetings with athletic directors at other Division I schools across Virginia.
“It’s been continuous since March,” he said. “About best practices, how we’re handling it as a league and then again just to make sure we’re connected fully across the board.”