How will Bret Bielema's positive COVID-19 test affect Iowa football's game against Illinois?
IOWA CITY — The COVID-19 pandemic severely altered the 2020 football season and entering 2021 the looming question was how much it would affect this season.
Iowa cornerback Riley Moss said Tuesday that it's been a relatively quiet year in terms of COVID disruptions. His feelings were two-fold: 1) Iowa's team hasn't faced any setbacks due to positive tests; and 2) nationally, there haven't been nearly as many cancellations, postponements or outbreaks as last year.
The Hawkeyes' initial reaction was empathy for Bielema, an Iowa football alum who last coached against the Hawkeyes in 2010.
"I feel bad for the guy; this would've been his first time back (in Iowa City since 2010)," Moss said. "I feel for him not being able to come back to Kinnick and hope he's doing well."
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz echoed those same remarks and confirmed that Iowa has a contingency plan in place if something similar were to happen on the Hawkeye staff.
"I think everybody has a plan, especially last year," Ferentz said. "You had to really check your blueprint a little bit because it was so prominent. So, yeah, there's always Plan A and Plan B. But in all seriousness, I think things (would) run really, pretty smoothly if I wasn't there. Everybody's got an assignment. Everybody's got their deal and everybody works together, too. I think things would flow pretty seamlessly and you just hope you don't have to experience that."
What is a head coach's role on Saturdays? Ferentz said in his case it's mostly encouraging players, and then if there's an obvious fix in scheme or technique or input on an important call/situation, he'll step in.
Not hearing your head coach's voice on game day is an adjustment but perhaps not a worst-case scenario.
"I think everyone would say their position coach," offensive lineman Kyler Schott said. "That's who we talk to every time we come off the filed, that'd probably be the hardest to get used to."
Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, they haven't been in that situation. COVID affected the Hawkeyes in several ways last year — the delayed start to the season, players missing games and the cancelled bowl game, to name a few. This summer, they had one of the lowest vaccination rates in the Big Ten before the number rose to above 90% in August-early September.
"A lot of our players are smart with what they do on and off the field," linebacker Jestin Jacobs said. "I just feel like each teammate is accountable to another and we never want to see anyone miss a game, especially for a reason like COVID."
Bielema's sudden removal from Saturday's game was another reminder to Iowa players about what can happen at any moment, and to continue to do the things that have kept them COVID-free.
"Probably just continues to serve as a reminder for all of us that this thing is not over yet," Ferentz said. I think all of us have to be mindful and as diligent as we possibly can because it hasn't gone way. Everybody just take the necessary precautions and be as smart as you can. There's still no guarantees, obviously.
"And I'm guessing his life is a little bit like our life — not much going on other than being in the building or being at home. So it's a real part of what we're still experiencing."
Ferentz and his players don't expect Bielema's absence to make a huge difference as far as Saturday's game goes. Their focus is internal and centered on getting victory No. 9 to give themselves a chance to potentially play for a Big Ten West title on Nov. 26 against Nebraska.
"We have to win this game, so that's our mindset," wide receiver Charlie Jones said. "We're not trying to worry about anything past that."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.