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Postponing Army game was ‘right and responsible thing to do,’ BYU coach says

Majority of the ‘small number’ of BYU football players who have the coronavirus are asymptomatic, coach Kalani Sitake told reporters Monday, two days after Sept. 19 game at Army was shelved.

BYU football head coach Kalani Sitake looks on during practice during fall camp.
Jaren Wilkey, BYU

PROVO — Alerting Army that a “small number” of people within BYU’s football program had tested positive for COVID-19 and eventually pushing for the postponement of this Saturday’s scheduled game in West Point, New York, was the right and responsible thing to do, Cougars coach Kalani Sitake and captains James Empey and Troy Warner said Monday.

School officials made the postponement announcement two days ago, in conjunction with Army officials, because not only did a small number of the members of BYU’s traveling party for the Navy game on Sept. 7 test positive, they had been in contact with dozens of others affiliated with the team, Sitake said in a video teleconference.

“I feel fully confident that we as a football program, and a sports medicine department and a school, have done all the right things leading up to this point, including making a decision to postpone the game,” Sitake said. “What complicates it the most in our position is the travel. Had this been a home game, I think things would have been a little bit different. There are less (government) entities and people and groups involved.”

Monday’s other big news was that the Cougars have added Louisiana Tech from Conference USA to their schedule. They will host the Bulldogs on Friday, Oct. 2 at LaVell Edwards Stadium, and are back to having seven remaining games on their 2020 schedule — six at home.

But the postponement dominated the discussion on Zoom, with Sitake saying BYU players have not been reckless or irresponsible in trying to avoid the virus. He said the situation becomes more complicated because “the majority” of BYU’s positive tests have been asymptomatic, “which, when you are looking through it and trying to find out how many people this could infect, the mindful and responsible thing to do would be to postpone this game, get an early jump on it.”

Short of creating a bubble as the NBA has done in Orlando, the fifth-year coach sees little else the school and football program can do that they say hasn’t already been done to prevent the spread.

“I don’t think there is any chance you could look at recklessness or anything being an issue here,” he said. “In fact, doing the responsible thing is to be a good partner to Army, knowing that we can get ahead of this and get this under control right now, especially looking at the different variables that are involved with it. We want to make sure we get this right before risking other programs in other places.”

Sitake and the aforementioned players all said they “have faith” the Army game will be rescheduled, and Sitake already has a date in mind although he cautioned that all scheduling is athletic director Tom Holmoe’s department.

“I looked ahead and it doesn’t seem too hard to me,” Sitake said. “We want to play them. Army is a really good team, and they are doing some great things right now, too. And I don’t think anyone else is 2-0. We would love to play that game. We have an opening on Nov. 28 and Dec. 5, so do they. … I will let Tom deal with that, though.”

Army’s athletic director, Mike Buddie, drew the ire of some BYU fans Sunday when he posted on Twitter that the Black Knights are looking for an opponent to fill BYU’s spot on Saturday, an opponent that is “like-minded” and “disciplined.” Was he insinuating that BYU was neither?

Sitake wouldn’t get drawn into that fray, but he stressed several times in a 20-minute interview that his players, assistant coaches and support staff did all they could do to keep from getting infected.

Was there a chance that Army could come to Provo, which isn’t subject to the same type of visiting traveler regulations that the state of New York has imposed?

“I am sure that when you are talking about our administration and their administration, they did everything they could to accommodate it and try to make it work,” Sitake said. “Everybody wants to play the game. It is not like, ‘OK, there is no game and that’s it.’ Everyone is trying to find different ways to be creative and have the game go on. So I have a lot of confidence in Army, that they want to play this game, and then I know they feel like we want to play as well. There is still a chance it could continue and hopefully we get that game scheduled soon.”

Warner, the senior defensive back whose brother, Fred Warner of the San Francisco 49ers, was on the NFL’s COVID-19 reserve list earlier this fall, said as far as he knows no BYU football players attended the dance parties and pop-up clubs around Provo that caused school administrators to publicly call for students to be more careful, wear face coverings and avoid large gatherings.

“When this (pandemic) all happened, and in preparation for the season, the coaches and staff and training staff made it very evident that us as players had to do a good job of being aware of our surroundings. That includes not going to those types of activities and parties or whatever you may call it,” Warner said. “I think each guy on this team is very aware that they need to do their part in staying safe, being aware of their surroundings and doing the right things so that they don’t put our season in jeopardy.”

Empey said part of the team’s culture is built on trust and accountability, and fingers won’t be pointed because the virus is so mysterious and new that they are all going through a learning curve, just like everyone else throughout the country.

When the game was postponed, “everyone was kinda bummed because we want to play that game and we feel like we were on our way to having some pretty good preparation,” Empey said. “But after that initial bummer of hearing about it, everybody was grateful that we still get to play football and we started looking forward to the next game and looking forward to what we need to do to get back to playing football.”

In a safe and responsible way.