RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- As cases of coronavirus continued to climb across the nation over the summer, University of Wisconsin-River Falls football coach Matt Walker could see the writing on the wall. But that didn’t make last week’s announcement by the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Association that it was canceling the 2020 football season any easier to take.
“I think that we all, unfortunately, felt that it was trending that way. But still to hear it officially be announced is a kick to the gut,” Walker said. “We were holding out hope, waiting and hoping that some way we would get this season in. But there’s just too many unknowns.”
In addition to football, the WIAC announced July 27 that it was canceling cross-country, women’s soccer and volleyball, while women’s tennis and women's golf will move to the spring semester. This will be the first calendar year without WIAC football since 1945, when a conference season wasn’t held due to World War II.
Walker said he spent most of last week following the announcement calling each one of his 100 players on the phone.
“You feel for the kids and it’s devastating,” he said. “To have conversations with guys on the phone in tears; it’s hard to put words to it. You become so close to these guys and they give you everything, and then to not be able to have a season for them is hard.”
Walker said the impact of the lost season stretches far beyond the football field. While the players will all be granted an extra year of eligibility, he said that may not be practical for many.
“That’s the first conversation,” he said. “Can we make it work academically? You have a couple fifth year seniors that it’s just going to be super hard for. You have a few other traditional fourth year seniors that just haven’t planned for it, so academically it doesn’t make sense. So that’s the conversation I’m having with every kid right now. Does it make sense academically? Does it make sense for your family? Are you willing to do it?”
And then there’s the incoming freshmen. Walker called this recruiting class the best he’s had in his ten years at UWRF, and he said he worries for those guys.
“They have nothing to grab onto as far as what they think college football is supposed to be like,” he noted. “And now you’re bringing them into this super weird scenario where none of us know how to handle it right. So it’s a little scary and we’re all nervous, but we’ll figure it out.”
In its announcement, the WIAC did leave open the possibility for schools to establish practice opportunities this fall within the COVID-19 limitations stipulated by the NCAA, but Walker isn’t even sure what that would look like.
“You’ve got the NCAA making their recommendations, you’ve got league decisions, you’ve got individual university decisions, and within that each county is different,” he said. “About the time you answer one question you’ve got 10 more. And it’s no one’s fault. You get frustrated about not being able to plan much, but I get that the information keeps changing and this is new for everybody. So we’re trying to be patient and hoping for some kind of practice in the fall, but don’t know what that’s going to look like yet.”
The Falcons are coming off a 2019 season that saw them finish 2-8 overall. But Walker described this year’s team as hungry after leading the league in total offense last year with an average of 441 yards per game.
“We were disappointed with last year’s results because we had a great team,” he said. “And that big win at the end of the year against Platteville (31-24) was a nice nudge into the offseason to kind of get going. So we were hungry and positive and we were looking forward to getting back on the field.”
The WIAC is one of 22 NCAA Division III football conferences that have either postponed or canceled college football for the 2020 season, and Walker said it will test each individual program’s culture across the country. But he’s confident that UWRF has the culture to endure.
“Our guys are resilient and our kids are tough kids,” he said. “This is not going to be easy. You’re going to have some good leadership. You’re going to have some good culture. You’re going to have to have the ability to support each other. You’re going to find out about some programs out there and cultures out there. And that’s why we feel good. We haven’t had the win-loss results that we wanted but we’ve created something pretty cool, and we’ll get through it because of that.”
Last week’s statement released by the WIAC said determinations with regards to the winter sports season, including the start date and the manner in which competition will be conducted, will be determined at a later date.