Ray Tanner has faced some major challenges since being named athletics director in 2013, but none compare to dealing with a global pandemic.
“This is not in the playbook,” Tanner said during a video conference with the media Friday. “When you become athletics director or coach or anybody on this campus, you just do not anticipate what we have gone through.”
The South Carolina campus has been closed and all athletic activities canceled or postponed since mid-March. The SEC announced Friday that football players and other athletes could resume voluntary in-person, on-campus workouts on June 8. South Carolina then announced health and safety protocols for its athletes to return to campus and resume workouts.
As part of university President Bob Caslen's coronavirus task force, Tanner has helped analyze and investigate the best ways to keep student-athletes safe and healthy when they return. The athletic department will use the latest medical technology and protocols for testing and monitoring students and to evaluate how to respond if an athlete tests positive.
“I have been so impressed with the diligence and expertise of our scientist and epidemiologists and all the work that has gone into the development of a protocol to return to campus,” Tanner said. “It hasn’t been a decision of we’re just coming back. We are trying to throw the scientific evidence in front of us to give us an opportunity.
“But it’s a daunting task. It’s like playing a game. You want to win and we are trying to win with what we are going to do in this protocol, bringing our young people back, as we do for the summer to train and when we return in the fall with our students as well. We want to have the mitigation in place to make it a very successful situation here at our university.”
Tanner reiterated that the university is preparing to play football this fall, possibly with a limited crowd at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“In our department, we have heard from many people who want us to play football this fall. I think most of our players want to be in the same position,” he said. “We have a lot of things to work through before we get there, but we are preparing and planning for a full season. However, we will always have a priority for the health and safety and well-being of all of our student-athletes, coaches and staff.”
Under the protocols released Friday, players can resume workouts and weight-room training on June 8 but must first undergo COVID-19 testing and be cleared. They also will undergo anti-body testing to see if they have had the virus. That means players will be arriving on campus soon to begin testing. Other athletes, including men’s and women’s basketball players, are also cleared to resume workouts on June 8 but Tanner said he believes most of them will wait until later this summer.
Any athletes who test positive will be isolated from the rest of the team and go through contact tracing and daily monitoring until they are cleared to return. Each athlete will have their temperature taken and will be checked for symptoms daily when they arrive at the football operations facility and more testing will administered if needed.
Tanner said the athletic department has not yet determined thresholds for how many players would have to test positive before a whole position group or the entire team must be isolated or quarantined.
“We are very hopeful and prayerful that that will never become an issue with our protocol,” he said. “… We will continue to monitor our athletes on a daily basis and we are very hopeful and optimistic that we will not get into that situation.”
Players will be placed in clusters of four when they return. They will be tested in clusters and be isolated in clusters if one of them tests positive. They will remain in those clusters during initial workouts with the weight room and training facilities being cleaned and disinfected after each workout.
Each cluster includes players from multiple positions to prevent entire position groups from being quarantined.
“It’s not done by position, not done by side of the ball, it’s done by who they live with, who they’re going to be around,” head coach will Muschamp said. “Clusters of four will enter the building together, we’ll take their temperature and ask them if they felt any symptoms change, breathing issues or anything like that. We’ll take them straight to the weight room, they’ll get their workout in and they’ll be able to run.”
The new Long Football Operations Facility features a 20,000-square-foot weight room that will accommodate more than one cluster at a time with social distancing.
“We’re going to be able to get 25 or 28 guys in there at a time, so we’ll have four or five groups throughout the day,” Muschamp said.
Players will not be able to use locker rooms or showers when they return and must leave the football operations center immediately after their workouts. Team and position meetings will continue to be held virtually until the team is cleared to resume organized group workouts.
Tanner believes the extensive plan will protect players as they return to campus and begin preparations for the 2020 season.
“I think we have a tremendous protocol in place as we begin our conditioning and weight lifting,” Tanner said. “It will be certainly more concerning as we get deeper into summer and start fall practice and we start with more people in groups. Hopefully by then, all the results are positive and everybody is in a good place and your worries are less.”
Tanner said he did not know when the NCAA would clear teams to resume regular team activities and practice. Like most coaches, he hopes they will be given additional practice time to make up for spring practice being canceled.
Tanner said athletes are not required to return and they will not lose their scholarship if they choose not to compete because of the coronavirus.
“There could be a young man or young woman who is not quite comfortable at this stage coming back, and it would be their decision. Coaches are not going to put any pressure on them to come back,” he said.
Aside from football, Tanner said it will be up to individual coaches to determine when their teams will resume offseason workouts and preseason preparations. He said every coach has shared concerns about following proper protocols.
“They have a lot of questions themselves but they are very concerned about what we are going through with this coronavirus and we have shared the protocols, they have given us their protocols, and they are anxious to see their student-athletes again,” he said. “It hasn’t been a focus of a competitive position where we have got to get our players back and we have to get back to work, we don’t want anyone to get an advantage. It has not been that at all. It’s been more about the health, safety and welfare of getting everybody back together, if possible.
“The coaches understand. They want us to get it right. It’s like getting ready for competition and we are doing our prep work. They have been very helpful and engaging in trying to get it right.”