'It's a nightmare': Juco football coaches tasked with navigating pandemic despite limited resources

'It's a nightmare': Juco football coaches tasked with navigating pandemic despite limited resources

From the The latest updates from the Nebraska football recruiting trail series
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Tim Schaffner is holed up on a family ranch so far out in the West Texas scrub that he has to drive into town to make a phone call.

Tom Minnick got stuck at his Yuma, Arizona, home by accident, traveling there for what started as a spring break trip and then finding himself unable to get back to the Great Plains.

Scott Strohmeier, the coach at Iowa Western in Council Bluffs, is considerably more local. He can even head into the office for a couple of hours per day, though he does much of his work from home these days.

All three men, though, are wondering some version of the same questions: What is going to happen to the junior college football programs they oversee? How are the players, now scattered across the country and with access to considerably fewer resources than many at the Division I level, going to come through the coronavirus pandemic?

“It’s a nightmare,” said Schaffner, the sixth-year head coach at Butler (Kansas) Community College.

“It’s trying times right now,” said Minnick, head coach at fellow Jayhawk League member Garden City (Kansas) Community College.

The conversation relates to Nebraska football for a couple of reasons. First, these three head coaches have combined to send five players — receiver Jaron Woodyard and running back Greg Bell from Arizona Western (Minnick’s previous school), defensive lineman Jordon Riley from Garden City, linebacker Will Honas from Butler and kicker Chase Contrerez from Iowa Western — to the Huskers, in addition to running back Dedrick Mills, who played at GCCC under its previous coaching staff. Also hailing from the Jayhawk League: defensive lineman Keem Green and outside linebacker Niko Cooper. It’s been an important channel for player acquisition for the Huskers.

The second part of the conversation is that NU has three incoming juco players — Cooper, wide receiver Omar Manning and defensive lineman Pheldarius Pyane — trying to graduate this spring so they can qualify to start at NU. Even under normal circumstances, projected spring graduates can be in a sticky spot, as coaches must worry about the players who will actually be playing for them during spring ball, which means there aren’t always a lot of eyes on the guys trying to finish up their associate’s degrees. Throw in a global pandemic, and that gets even tougher. 

“In the best of situations, online classes are difficult and we don’t really let our guys take them,” said Schaffner, who has three now-former players trying to graduate in May to get to Division-I schools. “Hopefully for those three guys, their motivation is ‘I’m not going to be at my next place if this isn’t taken care of.’ But just imagine all the distractions that comes with that.

“We make a big push to get them out in December because that spring semester, in the best of situations, can be difficult for these guys. But I’m trying to be in contact with those guys almost as much as our players.”

Overall, though, if you think the going is slow trying to form a plan to bring back professional leagues and high-level college sports, where billions of dollars and millions of fans are paying attention, imagine how far away answers feel in the small Jayhawk League towns of Kansas. These coaches don’t know what the NJCAA and NCAA will decide about academic eligibility. Some players have essentially no film and were counting on spring ball to get recruited by other schools. Others are trying to stay on track to graduate in December but don’t know if they can take online summer classes or summer classes at all.

More critically, the Kansas campuses are completely closed, meaning every player is back home. Each coach said many of his players come from rural and poor communities and some can’t get all of their remote schoolwork done even if they wanted to.

“I think those are the kids that are going to suffer more than anybody,” Minnick said. "You’ve got to take into account that some of these kids come from places where they don’t have an internet connection, they don’t have computers. It’s tough to handle that situation. I think the NJCAA and probably the NCAA is going to have to look at how hard it is for some of these kids to get on the internet to do their classes when they’re back home.”

“I’ve got kids trying to type a paper from their iPhone,” said Strohmeier, who has his assistant coaches serving as de facto academic advisers for their position groups. “In high school, they’re canceling ACT and SAT testing and right now (a kid is) a a non-qualifier and they need the test score but now they can’t take it. Is the NCAA going to grant them some waiver? Are they going to do that for a junior college kid who maybe doesn’t graduate, are they going to grant a waiver because he was on course and now he’s not? I don’t know.”

All three coaches think at least some juco football programs — if not entire schools — will fold due to financial hardships the pandemic is putting on university systems big and small around the country.

“I think that’s going to happen,” Minnick said. “I don’t want it to be that way, but I think it will be.”

“One hundred percent,” Strohmeier said.

They don’t know when they’ll be back in action — Schaffner said he hopes maybe July 1 — or how many of their players will be there and eligible to play or what the governing bodies might do to help or hinder their cause. They want to be ready to roll quickly but, like for many others, football feels a long way away.

“It’s going to be a tough situation for all schools, because we’re all going through the same stuff, especially at the junior college level,” Minnick said.

Relive the best moments in the history of Nebraska football's annual Spring Game

Contact the writer at pgabriel@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.

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