CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — The Illinois football team officially started the 2020 season on Thursday but it looked and felt a lot different than a normal start to fall camp. Coaches wore masks the entire workout, players had a thin shield in their helmet’s face mask. It’s all in an effort to contain COVID-19, along with several other preventative measures taken by the team, including now daily saliva testing.
There were no high fives or hugs, social distancing was enforced during stretching and warm-ups. It’s all part of the ‘new normal’ the team is trying to find, as it starts practice exactly four weeks from the season opener against No. 2 Ohio State on Sept. 3.
“We feel like Champaign is about as safe of a place as you could be right now being an athlete, a football player, really an athlete here at the University of Illinois,” Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said during a Zoom call with media after practice. “Our COVID protocol is about as good as you get and our doctors have done a super job. As far as knowing what’s going on with each one of our athletes, we’ll have about as good of a chance to know that before we get on the football field as anyone.”
“It only takes one guy to cancel this whole thing so we just have to make sure everyone is doing their job and working towards it cause it’s going to be a really special year,” Illinois senior offensive lineman Alex Palczewski said. “Just be smart. Don’t go out, don’t see the girl, just take care of business.”
“I’m happy we’re finally here and given everything that’s come up and all the different curve balls we’ve gotten so far, it’s a positive thing we’ve come this far,” Illinois senior Jake Hansen said, after announcing he will play middle linebacker this season for the Illini.
Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman watched practice from afar at Memorial Stadium on Thursday, calling it one of the “high points” of the last five months. Whitman has been busy, spending hundreds of hours on the phone and in Zoom meetings, trying to figure out how to play college sports in a worldwide pandemic. Whitman stressed nothing is off the table this fall, including canceling or postponing the season if he doesn’t think it’s safe to play, along with the other athletic directors, presidents and conference leaders.
“Things at one point in time I imagine we all would have considered unthinkable, have all of a sudden become the norm, right?” Whitman said on a near two-hour Zoom call with media. “We’re going to play a football game on September 3rd and we just found out August 5th, I mean we’ve got a volleyball team that’s going to start practice this weekend and they don’t know their schedule yet. These are things a year ago we would have thought unthinkable and now it’s just come to be expected.”
Whitman announced the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics lost an estimated $2-$4 million in FY2020 due to the coronavirus. Next fiscal year, it’s expected to be a $20 million loss, if not more. As a result, the DIA eliminated 15 positions and didn’t fill another 11 openings, with no plan to do so anytime soon. Whitman said the cuts should save the department about $2 million. The effects of the pandemic could last two to four years to return to ‘normal’ financial times, according to Whitman, who also added there’s no plan to cut any Illinois sports right now.
There will be an estimated 500-1,000 single game tickets available to the general public for Illinois football games this fall. Governor Pritzker has limited capacity to 20 percent, which comes out to 12,134 people at Memorial Stadium for games.
Also announced on Thursday, the Illinois State game canceled this year due to the Big Ten Conference only playing league games, will be rescheduled for the season opener in 2028.