UofL allowing athletes to return to campus in phases

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- The NCAA Division I Council voted Wednesday not to extend its moratorium on sports, which was set to expire May 31, and the University of Louisville athletics department was ready to hit the ground running.


College coaches and athletes have been in a holding pattern all spring. It's been 2 1/2 months since UofL suspended all athletics activities due to the coronavirus pandemic, but UofL vice president/director of athletics Vince Tyra said Thursday that school administrators and health officials have been planning for a broad, multi-phased return to campus for weeks.


In its session on Wednesday, the NCAA council approved voluntary events in football and men's and women’s basketball, starting on June 1. UofL's athletes will report to campus on May 27, be quarantined and undergo testing for 14 days, then begin voluntary activities on June 8.


Phase one of Louisville's plan allows for 30 football players and 15 players each for men's and women's basketball to return to campus next week. If all goes well, more players will be able to return during the next phase.


A second phase will bring 30 more football players and 60 athletes from Olympic sports back to campus on June 10, with workouts to begin on June 22. The third phase would be the return of the rest of the football team on July 6, with workouts beginning July 18. All athletes would be back to campus by late July or August.


"Our thought was, let's not bite off more than we can chew," Tyra said during a teleconference Thursday afternoon. "Let's make sure we're in line with our facilities, deep cleaning, CDC guidelines and make sure we've got everything lined up for them to return. Our strength and conditioning staff, sports medicine group, the trainers, nutrition and mental health because this has certainly been a stressful time, particularly for our student athletes. Think about a safe environment from the cleanliness standpoint, as well as education, because the key to this is making sure they adhere and we as a staff adhere to the rules."


Three UofL facilities will be open during phase one -- the Schnellenberger Football Complex, Trager Center indoor football practice building and the Planet Fitness Kueber Center where men's and women's basketball programs are headquartered. Coaches will be able to return to their offices, but won't be allowed to be present during the voluntary workouts.


Tyra said every possible precaution is being taken with the student-athletes to create a safe environment and prevent the spread of the virus.


"We'll certainly be practicing physical distancing, spreading them out properly in the locker  room and the weight room as much as possible," he said. "We'll be preaching and practicing personal hygiene to the full extent; they will shower at their housing, keep their own personal water bottles, towels, those type of things. Everyone needs to be taking care of each other and create a culture of good habits."


The NCAA's move to allow student-athletes back on campus is certain to raise hopes that the college football season won't be cancelled or postponed, but Tyra said it's too early to jump to that conclusion. UofL's opener is scheduled for Sept. 5 against NC State in Cardinal Stadium.


"As this thing plays out longer-term I know the obvious question is what this means for football," he said. "And I don't know that it means anything for when we start, when they'll be able to practice. I just know this is the start of thinking about having them back in a good routine and a good environment where they can get physically and mentally in shape."


However, Tyra said later in the teleconference in answer to a question that he and his staff are preparing for the football season to start on time, although he thinks two or three ACC schools may choose not to open on schedule.


"I think my sense from talking to other ADs in the conference is that there will be a season," Tyra said. "So our view is that we've set deadlines to make sure we're well-prepared. If it's going to start on time we've got to have full practice ready towards the end of July.


"Could I see a season starting with not every conference member ready when they say go? It could happen. From everything I hear, people are committed to go and want to have as much uniformity as possible. But if it's not unanimous, then I don't see the tail wagging the dog. I think the dog will play on."


 Tyra said he hasn't spent much time thinking about what a football season would look like with regard to the number of fans allowed into the stadium.


"Some preliminary discussion," he said. "To be honest, we have focused a lot of our energy right here. I didn't feel it was worth trying to combine those two agendas at the risk of  people getting distracted and making errors with this plan. I want to focus on keeping everybody safe right now. And we've got time. I know it's a pressing topic to some, but not to me today. We haven't even heard when we're going to start. And those changes are easier to make on the fly than what we are talking about here."

Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at 0926.russ.brown@gmail.com.

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