Lehigh Football: In Fall Like No Other, Head Coach Tom Gilmore And Staff Use Time To “Fuel The Desire To Play”

For Lehigh football and their fans, Thursday marked a strange day in the strangest of years. Thursday, August 31st was the day that Lehigh was set to travel to Villanova in their opening game of the fall 2020 college football season.

For months, fans, players, and Lehigh football head coach Tom Gilmore knew that this game wasn’t going to happen on this day. But Gilmore is trying to make the best of a difficult situation.

“I think it sunk in quite a while ago,” he told me. “It was disappointing at the time of the announcement, and it is disappointing now as we see other college football teams take the field to compete.  These were decisions that were not under our control, but we trust that all of the people that were involved in coming to the conclusion that we could not safely compete at this time, did so with the safety and health of our student-athletes as their top priority.  There are still too many unanswered questions and concerns to fully proceed this fall in good conscience.”

Gilmore sees it as just another form of adversity to push through so that whenever Patriot League football will resume, he, the staff, and the players will be ready.

“We have no other choice but to fight through this in order to improve and get tougher, rather than dwell on our disappointment,” he continued. “This has and will continue to test our discipline with the virus looming in our environment, but his is also an opportunity to find new ways to improve physically, mentally and emotionally.  We have been pushing through the challenges to find the best ways to accomplish our work and to investigate ways to improve now and in the future.”

Productivity During Lockdown

Once Lehigh’s campus was shut down in March and the student body shifted to remote learining, a week before spring practice was to begin, unlike some FBS schools, Lehigh did not have their athletes come back to campus for voluntary workouts. As a result, the coaching staff hadn’t been able to interact with the players in person for months – only remotely, through position group Zoom meetings and the like.

No official practices have begun for any sport at Lehigh – including football – and athletic director Joe Sterrett doesn’t expect them to start until September 7th, though some voluntary athlete-only workouts are happening.

Lehigh’s official policy on the fall is that only freshman are living on campus. Most upperclassmen, if they are near campus at all, are in off-campus living situations.

Interestingly, Lehigh has athletics on two campuses – Packer campus, which is close to Lehigh’s classrooms and dorms, and Goodman campus, which is where most athletics facilities are (and Murray Goodman Stadium). Depending on their student situation (hybrid or fully remote), they might be allowed to work out at Goodman campus (which more lends itself to social distancing) but not be allowed on main campus where most classrooms are on Packer campus.

In conjunction with “HawkWatch” – Lehigh’s COVID-19 tracking app – they will need to pass self-assessments and temperature checks before being able to use the Goodman facilities in any case. Instructional videos are available detailing the new protocols to keep them safe.

“Our plan is to have only-voluntary activity with the same required medical clearance elements that any student would have on campus going to class,” Sterrett said.  “They have to fill out their HawkWatch and get their temperature checked before they would do anything.”

Gilmore and the team haven’t been sitting idly by waiting for Lehigh, the Patriot League, the NCAA or even federal, state, and local governments to get their acts together – they’ve been busy in the meantime.

“Our strength staff has had to be creative in developing multiple workouts for our team based on their accessibility to facilities and equipment [over the summer],” he told me.  “Our players have found ways to work around obstacles and still work on improving themselves physically.  We have been evolving our system, tweaking our schemes, and researching new drills to improve our techniques when we get back on the field.”   

Without a common area to work out and uncertainty about the season, the group hasn’t spent most of the time as a team that they would have usually done this time of year.

“After two weeks of learning how to operate under the new Covid-19 protocols on and around campus, we will phase in lifting and conditioning type activities through September,” Gilmore said. “We will also get some meeting time with the players as well.  The hope is that, if we do things right and stay healthy, we will then get the opportunity to do more football specific activities like walk-throughs and eventually even get to actually practice at some point in October.  The NCAA has set some preliminary guidelines for football to start the semester.  The hope and belief is that those will be modified once we see how we are handling the virus nationally with students back on college campuses. I like and believe in the plans we have made; now we have to see if we can implement them successfully, within the department and overall as a university.”

News Of A Spring Season

One big hurdle has been the lack of certainty of a spring season. Despite the fact that the Patriot League had suspended fall competition in July, there was not a lot of clarity on what a spring season might look like – whether there would be an FCS playoff, when the games might take place, and whether out-of-conference games might be available.

This week, the Football Championship committee recommended that a 16 team playoff bracket take place after a regular season that would conclude on April 17th, 2021. Yesterday, Heather Dinich of ESPN reported that an eight game spring football season, concluding April 17th, would be the recommendation, but the question of an FCS playoff bracket was not answered formally.

Even this little bit of guidance, however, has been critical. The Patriot League and the league’s head football coaches have been in discussions with the league office on what a spring football season might look like.

“After evaluating the situation in August, I was hoping for a nine game season and a three to four week playoff system,” Gilmore said. “With some indications from the NCAA that the playoffs would be four weeks starting the weekend of April 23, that would mean that one game would have to come off the regular season.  It sounds like we are going to settle for an eight game season, followed by a 16 team playoff to follow.”

There were another critical issue that came to pass over the summer as well. A 2020 “blanket waiver” was approved by the NCAA, so every athlete in every sport that plays this year will get an extra year of eligibility whether or not they play.

Gilmore said that the effects for Lehigh and the Patriot League are complex.

“On the surface, the extra year of eligibility gives our student-athletes more flexibility to manage their college careers in these very complex times,” he said, “but it is still unclear how the NCAA will deal with roster sizes and scholarship totals in the next five years with so many commitments already in place for next year.  It is also still unclear how the Patriot League and the individual institutions will manage these variables.  This could add significant expenses and other hardships on institutions, as well as affect recruiting for the next four years.  The implementation of these decisions will be complex but I look forward to working through all of these issues to ensure the fairest outcomes for our current student-athletes as well as opportunities for future prospects.”

Courtesy The Brown and White

“Not Taking Things For Granted”

Overall, Gilmore is looking forward to just getting back to some sense of normalcy.

“I look forward to spending some quality time with players and getting some productive work done to get ready for when we do play again,” Gilmore said.  “It will be very different with all of the restrictions and protocols in place but it is certainly better than nothing at all.”

They’ve kept themselves busy, but “not having the opportunity to do the things we normally do for football has left a void,” he said.

“Most of the players and staff have used that void to fuel their desire to get back to what we normally would be doing and I suspect that a more focused and motivated group will take the field with a purpose when the time comes!  I don’t think anyone will take things for granted any more.”