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Woelk: Pac-12 Decision Gives Buffs Renewed Sense Of Purpose

Sep 24, 2020

BOULDER — Finally, after months of ambiguity and uncertainty, months of having their emotions pulled one way and then another, the Colorado Buffaloes can concentrate on getting back to work and preparing for a season.

They know when they can begin practicing. They know when their seasons will begin. 

But maybe most importantly, their workouts once again will have a distinct purpose. The Buffs know that every time they step on the field or court from this point on, they will have a clearly defined goal ahead and every minute of preparation will be critical.

That's what college athletics should be.

Thursday's announcement by the Pac-12 that the league's football season will begin the weekend of Nov. 6-7 and men's and women's basketball will follow with a Nov. 25 opening date was no doubt a welcome relief to every coach and player. Adjustments will have to be made in light of Thursday's Boulder County Health Department announcement, but the bottom line is that the Buffs will have the opportunity to start preparing for a season in the very near future.

"More so than anytime in their athletic lives, having this concrete date is incredibly important," said CU women's coach JR Payne. "There's been so much uncertainty in their lives over the last six months, they needed to know this is happening and this is when it's happening … This announcement is a huge mental boost, and it's also kind of a kick in the pants in the sense that we all know, "Alright guys, we have to get ready.'"

For CU's basketball teams, the announcement by the Pac-12 simply reverses what many believed to be a hasty judgment made by the conference in August. That's when the league's CEOs decided to postpone all competition until at least Jan. 1. 

But now, with new rapid-result antigen testing available by the end of this month and increasingly improved protocols in place, the CEOs saw fit to change their decision and allow the league's hoops teams to tip off with the rest of the nation.

"Our guys are excited to play and having a firm date of Nov. 25 is helpful," said CU men's coach Tad Boyle. "We know when practice starts (Oct. 14) and we have plenty of time to get up and running. It's good news."

But for Karl Dorrell's football team, the news may be even a bigger relief. The Buffs have been enduring months of strength and conditioning and limited workouts, waiting for word — any word — on when they might actually play a game. They had a revised schedule in early August, then one week later, that schedule was tossed in favor of a nebulous spring plan.

They prepared to ramp up only to be forced to let up on the gas. 

Then came the mental anguish of watching other conferences around the nation kick off on Saturdays.

"When you start seeing football being played in other areas and conferences, you start to get that something in your belly that says, 'Man, we should be playing,'" Dorrell said. "You start to realize that if they're able to do it, we should be able to do it as well. I think over the last few weeks, as our players began watching football being played at the college level, it just rekindled that burning competitiveness that we all love at this time of year. This decision being made for us has really uplifted us."

It's not as if all the Buffs teams — including those programs that are still on hold until the spring — haven't been doing their best to stay prepared. They have been participating in strength and conditioning workouts, getting as much on-field activity as the NCAA will allow, and meeting with coaches and position groups.

But the stark reality is that practicing to get ready for more practice — and not knowing when an actual game might be played — is a difficult, draining task.

"Now there's purpose to our work," Dorrell said. "Before, you were getting stuff ready to possibly have spring practice in the fall and then having a spring season that we weren't sure what it would look like. Now that the season is in front of us, the purpose is much more apparent. The acuity level went from a wide frame to a narrow vision and focus almost overnight. It's been uplifting for us as coaches and players to know that we're playing."

There are, of course, plenty of questions yet to be answered. The coronavirus hasn't magically disappeared. Already, a half-dozen football games this fall have been postponed or canceled. Regular testing will be of the utmost importance, and players on every CU team will have an increased responsibility to do their best to avoid any unnecessary possible exposure.

Meanwhile, schedules must be finalized, protocols and testing procedures must be continuously refined, and the always-looming threat of an outbreak will be present.

Still, the presence of a defined start date on the immediate horizon will no doubt be a boost to CU's football and basketball programs. Their purpose has returned.

For basketball, their routine will actually closely resemble a "normal" year. The men and women can begin practice Oct 14, with 42 days to conduct a maximum of 30 practices before the season opener.

But the process for football will be far from "normal."

With a Nov. 6 or Nov. 7 opener, the Pac-12 release said teams "with the necessary public health approvals may commence practice immediately." In Boulder, of course, that will hinge upon the county's health orders issued Thursday. The schedule, to be release sometime in the next few days, will include seven conference-only games for every school.

"We're in decent shape," Dorrell said. "We're not in the best of shape like you would normally be, but we do have time between now and the opener to  really get our football shape to the best level it's been and be ready to play. I know the mindset of what's in front of us. Our players have accepted the challenge of getting ready and putting themselves out there to play. We have time to get ourselves in good football shape and start this season in a good way."

Indeed, the promise of a schedule on the horizon will no doubt serve as a little extra motivation for teams as they begin practices. For the football squads, it is at least a semblance of the routine their body clocks have developed through most of their lives.

Fall has always meant football. Now, that clock is ticking again.

"I'm extremely excited," Dorrell said. "I went from a couple weeks ago thinking that we wouldn't have any football in the fall to this; There was an emptiness, there was a void inside of me that couldn't be filled because of what I"ve been doing for such a long period of time every year. I know our players are feeling the same thing."

It also means goals that were shelved during the time of uncertainty can now be dusted off and return to front and center.

"We're excited as coaches and the players are excited because they feel we have enough talent to be successful and have a really good season," Dorrell said. "We feel we can put ourselves in the thick of this thing in a six-game, seven-game season to measure ourselves up and maybe we're right there in the end in the championship game. All of our goals and ambitions and aspirations are still out there in front of us. We do this for the competitiveness of measuring up every Saturday and that opportunity is back."

Yes, there will be questions still to be answered and hurdles to overcome. But Buffs AD Rick George made one thing very clear Thursday evening:
"When we get the green light, when the go button is pressed, we'll be ready to go."