LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Part of the lure of the college football "bowl experience" is the lead-up. Teams get to town a week or so before the game. Players get to do a few things around town, fun events like bowling or wing-eating contests with their bowl opponents, special trips, shopping sprees, parades, pep rallies.
In 2020 and in the midst of a pandemic, all of that is gone. In preparation for its TaxSlayer Gator Bowl appearance against North Carolina State on Friday, the University of Kentucky football team is basically in the midst of a regular game week, and the bowl on Saturday will be a regular road game.
Kentucky will depart for Jacksonville, Fla., on Thursday, stay at the Marriott Sawgrass outside Jacksonville, have a dinner together the night before the game, then play at noon Saturday before departing.
Usually, visiting bowl teams in Jacksonville would tour the Naval Station Mayport and get to board a naval vessel there. They'd also take part in pep rallies at Jacksonville Landing, and a good many other activities, including visits to local children's hospitals.
The novel coronavirus has changed all that, making games less "experiences" than regular business trips.
"It's not the normal experience," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. "It's an away game, so for them it's a grind, it's work."
Because of that, some programs chose not to play in bowl games. Stoops left the decision up to his players, who took a vote and decided to play on. Going in, Stoops wasn't sure how that vote would turn out, but he was happy to see the players choose to play on.
"Without a doubt I was pleased because, listen, I think for the program, for coaches, for all of us, it's easy to want to do those things to talk about many years later saying, 'Hey look at this stretch we had and look at the run that we had,'" Stoops said. "But I would not do that at the expense of our players' mental health. I absolutely was not going to influence them to do this and to play this game because I know I'm the one standing in front of them every day, and believe me, when you're standing there talking in front of about 130, 140 people every day and you look them in the eye, you have a pretty good feel for what they're feeling. It was a challenge and they were spent and so I was pleased with the result of the vote."
To help with some of that, Stoops let the players go home for the holidays to recharge a bit. And he's trying to insert some fun activities into this week to make up for the team missing out on the regular bowl experience. It's not unlike the battle they've faced all season -- taking an unprecedented set of circumstances and trying to keep the fun in what everyone is doing despite challenges none of the players has ever faced.
Playing in a bowl, too, means more COVID-19 testing, and even more precautions. Kentucky players were tested upon getting back in town Sunday -- without a positive result as of Monday morning. And they'll be tested again midweek before departing for the game.
Amid all that, Stoops says he'll try to keep things fun.
"They know I'm going to try to take care of them and make this an extremely positive experience for them in any way I can," Stoops said. "We're going to have a good practice today and then we're going to go as a team and have a really nice dinner at Malone's and try to spend some time together and take care of the contact tracing and really spread out but sit and try to enjoy each other's company. I guess that's the word I keep on coming back to, I'm glad we're going and I think it's the right decision. I think mainly I feel that way because that's how they feel and I feel the joy that they have right now getting out there playing the game again that they love. . . . We've had a good experience so far and you know I'm happy for them and now it's time, let's go win the game. Any time we get in this position that competitive nature comes out of you. You want them to enjoy themselves but we want to get better, we want to improve and we want to win."
That much, at least, has not changed, in a year when everything is different.
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