Yurachek faces daunting questions in returning Hogs to playing fields

Hunter Yurachek (right) speaks during a press event alongside Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017.

Photo: Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer

Let’s just assume for the moment that the plan Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek laid out in a virtual meeting with the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees goes exactly as planned.

Yes, it’s probably haphazard to assume anything in the coronavirus culture that we currently reside. It seems the news changes and the rules are rewritten nearly every day out of necessity.

What we seem certain of today can drastically change tomorrow. It’s absolutely the most fluid time of any of our lives. Everything isn’t exactly upside-down, but for certain very many of the rules have changed, and the more we struggle against the current, the harder it is for us to adjust.

I never would have thought that my favorite TV program would come on at 1:30 p.m. each afternoon and the star would be the governor of our state Asa Hutchinson.

While I generally have a cynical view of both sides of the political aisle, I have to credit Hutchinson for being a calming and even refreshing presence during his near daily news conferences rather than a source of chaos that we witness elsewhere.

He doesn’t lecture to us like some governors do, nor does he feel compelled to fuss and fight with the media as our President seems to live to do.

Say what you will about his politics and programs, Hutchinson does provide a calming presence for the state with his demeanor.

I also have to admit that I also enjoy watching sign language interpreter Eddie Schmeckenbecher do his thing.

I know very little sign language, but you can see Schmeckenbecher’s passion in every move he makes as well as in the sartorial splendor of his now famous tie collection.

But, I digress.

The Plan

In a world that is off-kilter for all of us, it’s good to know there are plans for the return of college football and other sports this fall. Just knowing the structure of Yurachek’s best-case scenario, which I again assume is similar to the ones the other SEC athletic directors is working with, provides a bit of comfort to me an others who are starving for the return of college athletics.

The structure that Yurachek explained on Monday is essentially that Arkansas’ weight room and training facilities will reopen June 1. Arkansas’ fall sports teams will begin some type of organized preseason walk-through meetings in mid July with their coaching staffs, and preseason practices for football will begin Aug. 5 with an eye toward kicking off the season Sept. 5 against Nevada.

From the cheap seats, that plan seems to be a really good one.

Certainly, time has been lost that can never be made up. Today’s student-athletes aren’t used to working out on their own without hands-on guidance from strength and conditioning staff members.

Going from mid March to June without structured workouts overseen by master motivators that are strength and training coaches will make a difference in some if not all the athletes that return to campus for voluntary workouts in June.

It’s a lot easier to train with teammates who keep you honest and with coaches who not only chew you out if you slack but also cheer you on when you do well and give you an emotional boost when you need a lift.

Some of the student-athletes won’t miss a beat from that three and a half-month break, but others will. However, the return to the weight room in June will give the student-athletes a good six weeks of time to rebuild themselves before the walk-throughs begin in mid July and a full two months of to train before practice begins Aug. 5.

The programs that are able to make the most out of the two-month period from June 1 to Aug. 1 will have an advantage over the teams that don’t whenever games do begin to be played this fall.

We don’t know exactly how many Razorbacks have remained in Fayetteville since on-campus classes were shuttered in mid March, but you can bet the Hogs who plan to play much this fall will be back in the area by June 1 for voluntary weight training.

If this best-case scenario that Yurachek outlined does come to pass, the players should be back in shape for the start of practice on Aug. 5, even the big guys. It’s not exactly ideal. The loss of spring practice is meaningful, particularly for a new staff like Arkansas’.

But this plan does give first-year coach Sam Pittman and his staff a fighting chance, especially with the eight hours of virtual meeting time the coaches have with the players that I’m assuming will continue in June and early July.

Obviously, how the re-opening of business and society in Arkansas and other SEC states goes over the next month or so could force minor or drastic adjustments to this plan.

If cases increase greatly or skyrocket as we attempt to get back to work, all bets are off not only on restarting training of student-athletes but also whether games we be able to play at all. Safety for the players and staff remains key, as it should be. If some measure of safety can’t be accomplished for them, there won’t be games this fall.

However, let’s remain hopeful until we are given a reason not to be.

Yurachek and other athletic directors face many other challenges during these times, some I’m sure I can’t even imagine.

As a fan, I wonder will fans be allowed in the stadium? Yurachek has said it would be hard to convince him it would be safe for student-athletes to play, if fans can’t be in the stands. That sounds reasonable.

However, all the guidelines for re-opening sports venues point to them working under reduced occupancy at least for the near future.

We know Reynolds Razorbacks Stadium has been a tough sellout for all but the most anticipated games since it was double-decked back in 2001. Honestly, there haven’t been a lot of hard sellouts since the East side was double-decked in 1985.

What’s going to be really interesting to learn is which 25,000 fans will get seats if capacity for the stadium is reduced by a third, and which 25,000 fans will actually want to be a part of the crowd until there is a vaccine available?

I, like a lot of folks over the age of 50, have underlying conditions that make it more dangerous for me to be out among the herd than your average 30- to 40-year-old fan.

The UA already has most season-ticket donor pledges for the year in hand or on a payment plan. Of course, this is all just speculation, but if you aren’t among the 25,000 who actually get seats, will the donation be refunded?

Certainly some donors who are left out of that ticketed 25,000 might want the UA to keep the money for the good of the program, but others who have to scrape and save to make their donation might not be as willing to let go of that money if they aren’t actually going to be allowed to attend the game.

There’s probably 100 other questions like those above that can’t be answered at the moment, but no doubt Yurachek and his senior staff are working toward coming up with those answers.

As stated earlier, we live in a very fluid and uncertain world at the moment that forces daily adjustments, and there is no handbook for running an athletic department during a pandemic.

It’s all uncharted waters with low visibility and no way to forecast how large the next wave is going to be. It an unenviable task for Yurachek and all others that are attempting to return college athletics back to the fans.