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‘Take a challenge to a championship’: USF’s Jeff Scott and an unprecedented test

TAMPA, Fla. — In the days after the coronavirus outbreak in the United States shut down sports as we know them, South Florida football coach Jeff Scott found himself running an unlikely errand smack dab in the middle of what should have been spring football practice.

Scott pulled into his local Best Buy in the Tampa area for a webcam, an item he never considered essential until that moment. It turns out, he was not alone. Scott quickly learned the webcams were sold out and on back order. He checked Walmart next and had better luck; he snapped up one of the last remaining cams.

This is the new reality coaches, players, support staff and everyone associated with athletics is trying to grapple with, now that campuses are off-limits, practices and games have been canceled and everyone has dispersed to their homes across the country. You need webcams for virtual meetings; you need virtual meetings to connect with your team and keep planning with assistants; you need planning to keep everyone engaged and focused on the time when sports resume.

Scott figured this spring would be new and different for everyone, but not like this.

On March 10, Scott stood on the fields behind the USF athletics complex for his first practice as the new head coach after a long, successful tenure as a Clemson assistant. He officially arrived in Tampa for good in January, after Clemson lost to LSU in the national title game, and spent his first few months making himself as visible as possible. He met with his players and staff, held court with past donors, courted new donors, rode in a car in the famous Gasparilla parade and tended to the business of football, as well.

By the time his first Tuesday practice rolled around, Scott felt good about his plan to remake the Bulls, who struggled to a 4-8 mark a season ago. With a whistle around his neck and a green T-shirt featuring the new motto “United Start 2 Finish,” Scott huddled his players up shortly after 9 a.m. and told them, ‘You only get one chance at your first day. Have fun. Make it count!’

The threat that the coronavirus posed across the world hung in the air, and Scott knew drastic measures might affect the calendar, perhaps pushing scheduled practices back a few weeks. He had no idea that Tuesday would be the one and only practice he got with his new team.

As it turns out, it was one of the last spring football practices across the entire country.

“This is my first spring as a head coach, and we’re going through something we’ve never experienced before,” Scott said during a recent interview, conducted with the virtual software he uses to connect with his players and staff.

His webcam is set up on his desktop computer in his office at home. Behind him, blurred in the distance but still visible, he has footballs stacked inside a display case.

Indeed, this is all new for everyone, but most especially first-year head coaches who always point to their first 15 spring practices as crucial not just for setting the tone and building relationships but also for talent evaluation.

Scott watched zero game tape on his players before walking onto the practice field on that first day, and he made a point to tell them so. With an open quarterback competition and questions across the board, Scott wanted his players to forget about what they had done in the past and focus on the here and now.

Throughout the practice, he spent the majority of his time watching the quarterback and receiver drills, which comes as no surprise considering Scott played receiver and coached receivers at Clemson, in addition to being co-offensive coordinator. He jotted down notes before moving on to the next field to watch another unit. As the cool morning turned into a warm, sunny day, Scott blew his whistle to signal the end of the two-hour practice. As he got his players together, Scott thought about the possibility this might be their only practice for a while. He pointed out what he did not like about the practice — too much cussing, too many loafs and a sideline demeanor that was far too unorganized. He praised them for their effort and asked them to go back and watch the practice tape, take notes and be ready for position meetings.

“That’s taking ownership. That’s being uncommon,” he said, borrowing a phrase that Dabo Swinney made popular at Clemson.

Then, Scott used another Clemson line: “Best is the Standard.”

USF had one more practice scheduled for Thursday, then the Bulls would be off one week for spring break. Scott asked how many players were going out of the country. A few raised their hands. Scott told them to be smart about spring break, and that if they left, they might face the prospect of a 14-day quarantine once they returned to the United States. He reminded his players to use good hygiene and wash their hands. Before heading back inside, Scott told them all, “Let’s start building this thing one day at a time.”

Two hours after USF practice ended, reports started surfacing that the Ivy League had canceled not just its conference basketball tournaments but all spring sports — including spring football practice.

Scott was upstairs, watching practice tape.

Two days later, USF could have gone through its second practice. But after the NBA shut down its season the previous night, Scott consulted with athletic director Michael Kelly.

“I knew that was such a big deal, and I knew where we were headed, so I didn’t want to get our second practice in with the distraction knowing what was coming,” Scott said.

Scott held a team meeting instead, and let his players know the tentative plan. He assumed they would come back from spring break on March 23 and have two weeks off before resuming practice.

“There is a chance this continues to worsen, and we might not be back until the summer. This might be last time we see each other,” he also told them bluntly.

He was right. While they were on break, conferences started to cancel all spring sports and practices, and universities transitioned to online learning. USF students will not be allowed back on campus until mid-May, at the earliest.

That sent Scott and coaches across the country into a different mode: planning without practice or any in-person interaction with players and coaches, all while becoming technology experts.

As a first-year coach, Scott wanted to make sure he approached the situation as deliberately as possible. He called other head coaches, including Swinney, to get an idea about what to do. He also had to take tutorials on the platform they are using to connect virtually, Microsoft Teams.

Beyond preaching safety, patience and understanding during this global pandemic, Scott wanted to figure out the right message for his players.

“How can we make the best of a challenging situation?” Scott said. “So we put a motto to what we’re doing the next eight weeks: Take a challenge to a championship. That’s been the message to our players and our staff. How we respond to this big challenge in front of us, how our attitude is, how we execute our plan is going to determine if we’re able to gain an advantage over other teams and other programs that aren’t as organized or coordinated in their efforts.”

Scott holds weekly virtual team meetings. Three days a week, players have position-group meetings. There are also weekly offensive- or defensive-team meetings. USF strength and conditioning coaches set up a private Instagram channel for workouts players can do from home. In addition, players are required to spend at least two hours daily on academics and must log their hours. Academic support is available to them, as well. Beyond the virtual meetings, position groups have their own group text chats with which they stay in touch, as well.

“With the group chats and being able to communicate with all our teammates, we can see each other and hear each other on the phone, you get that connection,” said offensive lineman Donovan Jennings, who is back home in the Tampa, Florida, area. “We still get the jokes and everyone laughing, staying upbeat. The virtual connection has been good, and it helps us out.”

Scott has been impressed by his new team’s response.

“Our guys have a really good attitude about it,” Scott said. “We laid out a very specific plan. It’s our coaches’ and players’ job to know the plan, believe in the plan and execute the plan.”

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