The Ivy League was the first conference to scuttle its basketball postseason when the pandemic broke out during March Madness a year and a half ago. It was the first Division I conference to suspend fall sports in July 2020.
Now the schools are getting back on the field the same way they left: cautiously.
All eight Ivies are requiring that their football teams be vaccinated for COVID-19 — just like the rest of the students on campus. Ivy League executive director Robin Harris said this month that the goal had been reached with “very limited medical or religious” exceptions.
“While COVID-19 is very much a part of our lives, we believe in the campus policies,” she said. “This allows us to plan for a regular football season.”
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Although the alliance of eight prestigious private schools in the Northeast has always been more about academics than athletics, the Ivy League decision to cancel its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments before anyone else on March 10, 2020, was a turning point in the response to the pandemic. Other college and professional leagues soon followed amid a worldwide sports shutdown.
In the almost 18 months since, the Ivies have remained idle with the exception of scattered individuals or teams competing in some one-off, nonconference events, including the NCAA rowing championships. That ended when all eight women’s soccer teams opened their seasons on Aug. 27, with Harvard playing Fairfield in the Crimson’s first intercollegiate sporting event since March 8, 2020.
“You don’t always appreciate how much you miss something until it’s taken from you,” Harvard football coach Tim Murphy said.
Since then, players were able to do different things to stay in shape, depending on restrictions in their home states or countries. And because of the varied local restrictions, players returned this fall in a wide rage of fitness levels.
“I think we did the best job we possibly could have, and it’s going to show this season,” Brown running back Allen Smith said. “It’s been a long time coming, so we could not be more excited to get back to Brown football.”
Brown did have spring football practice, but Columbia had few students — and thus, players — on campus last fall, and mostly seniors in the spring; Harvard had some freshman last fall and a small contingent in the spring.
Murphy said his team will have just eight padded practices in almost two years between its 50-43, double-overtime loss to Yale in The Game and its 2021 opener Sept. 18 at Georgetown.
“We’ve all had different on-campus footprints,” he said. “It does leave a lot of question marks.”
As they return, players will face new protocols to combat the spread of the delta variant.
In addition to the vaccine requirement, Dartmouth players will wear masks indoors, with improved air filtration and circulation; some meetings on the Hanover, New Hampshire, campus will be held outdoors. Cambridge has a city-wide indoor mask mandate that goes into effect on Sept. 3.
“Harvard’s done a remarkable job, making sure that students — and the student athletes, therefore — are healthy and well,” Murphy said. “I know that our medical folks have done a phenomenal job, and whatever they tell us to do, we’re 100% going to do it.”
Penn coach Ray Priore said he reached out to coaches who played or practiced in the spring — including his brother, Chuck, who is the head coach at Stony Brook. Chip Kelly at UCLA also passed along a little advice for ramping things up after the long layoff: “Less is more.”
“You grab some of those tidbits and wisdoms: How many reps do you really need; do more with walkthroughs. The key thing is how we maximize our time with our players,” Priore said. “We’ve been in the Zoom world for a long time.”
Princeton coach Bob Surace noted that his team now includes five different classes — itself a big change — and two of them he’s never met. Dartmouth's Buddy Teevens also said he was anxious to actually see his players in person.
“I don’t completely know what these guys look like,” he said. “The guy that says he’s 6-5, 280, he could be 5-11 just wearing a big coat.”