Paul Tortorella has seen a lot in his 36 years as a football coach. But he’s never experienced anything even close to this.
Due to the coronavirus concerns that have taken over the American way of life the last few weeks, Tortorella has found himself away from the football field.
Officials at Indiana University of Pennsylvania made the decision last week to cancel all face-to-face instruction the rest of the semester and make all classes online. What that's meant for football is that Tortorella’s Crimson Hawks have all gone to their hometowns to take their classes online, and the month-long spring drills IUP normally would be going through have been canceled.
“This is a first for me,” Tortorella said Wednesday, 48 hours before spring drills were supposed to start. “The most important thing we’re losing is those 12 to 15 practices on the field, but everybody else is losing that, too.”
The Crimson Hawks, who are coming off a 10-2 season that included their third trip to the NCAA Division II playoffs in the past four years, will instead match their academic work by doing their football work online. IUP’s assistant coaches have been making daily connections to their players through phone calls, texts, Facetime calls or Zoom meetings.
The biggest emphasis the coaches are making is to keep the players on top of their class work, which can be tricky considering the players are scattered all over the state and region.
“We’re just trying to stay afloat academically,” Tortorella said. “There’s not a whole lot of X’s and O’s that we need to get done. We’re communicating daily in regard to academics and training, but there’s only so much they can do with football unless they have a weight room at their house.”
One part of this that concerns Tortorella is the players who are on the border between academic good standing and being declared ineligible for the fall. He said that if IUP should adopt a pass-fail grading policy rather than a letter-grade system, the NCAA may have to take a look at its own rules.
“If they go pass-fail, for the guys who have to improve their GPA, that doesn’t help them at all,” he said. “We’ve got four or five guys who have to improve their GPA a little bit, and they need to get grades in order to do that. Hopefully the NCAA takes that into account. It’s the same with high school seniors. If they go to pass-fail, it can affect some guys who need to get a certain GPA in high school to be eligible in college.”
While the players are focusing on academics, Tortorella and his staff have also gone back to school, in a sense. He and his staff, Luke Barker (running backs/tight ends), Mike Box (wide receivers), Mike Campolo (offensive line), Tate Gregory (offensive coordinator), Anthony Leonard (defensive line), John Pettina (volunteer defensive backs), Jim Smith (defensive coordinator) and Mitch Snyder (strength and conditioning) have each taken one of IUP’s 10 opponents and are breaking down every game that team played last year, on both sides of the ball.
Tortorella said it’s a good exercise to keep the veteran coaching staff looking at things from all angles. Each coach breaks down not only the opponents’ side of the football that pertains to their unit, but also the other side that could help them learn a thing or two.
“We’re looking at it from all sides,” Tortorella said, “instead of just our own side of the ball.”
The Crimson Hawks added a new face to the coaching staff last week, although it’s someone quite familiar with the program. Nick Dubowski, who played at IUP from 2013 to 2016, has returned as the team’s new linebackers coach. Dubowski spent last season coaching at Division I-FCS Cornell after two seasons as a graduate assistant at Mercyhurst.
With Dubowski coaching linebackers, Smith will move to coaching defensive backs, replacing Jake Nulph, who left IUP over the winter to become the head coach at Edinboro.
“It should be a good transition,” Tortorella said. “Nick played the position in our defense. He knows the defense really well, and he’ll have a couple older guys to coach, which is good.”
Prior to having spring drills canceled, the Crimson Hawks were scheduled to report for fall camp in mid-August. Tortorella said that will likely change because preseason drills likely will begin three or four days earlier.
“The situation we run into is finances,” Tortorella said. “We’d like to bring them back earlier, but now we’ll probably bring them back three or four days earlier than we had planned. In these times, the fortunate thing is we don’t play a first game. It affects other teams more. That will still give us three or four weeks of practice before our first game.”
IUP will not play a non-conference game in the first week of the season, so its first game isn’t until Sept. 12, at Kutztown. The first home game will be Sept. 26, against Mercyhurst.
Until fall camp starts in August, the Crimson Hawks will be adjusting to the new normal, which means getting better online instead of on the field.
“If this was 15 to 20 years ago, it would be a total shutdown,” Tortorella said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s eventually going to end, but we just got to be ready for when it does.”