Brown, UNC continue to adjust, stay informed on COVID

While the school is at the center of a national conversation about in‑person learning during the pandemic, the Tar Heels are still working toward playing football this fall

Sophomore defensive lineman Tomari Fox and the Tar Heels continue to practice in preparation for the start of the 2020 season while also keeping an eye on the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy UNC)

When North Carolina announced on Monday that all its fall classes will now be held remotely rather than in a classroom setting because of a COVID-19 outbreak on campus, it was generally perceived to be the final straw for college football being played in 2020.

But Tar Heels coach Mack Brown believes it will have the opposite effect.

“Most of our guys were online anyway, so (the) announcement doesn’t change much for us,” the Hall of Fame coach said during a virtual news conference Tuesday.

“They’re already used to this because they had it in the spring and they had it both semesters of summer school. So for our guys, sadly, this is more the norm than it would have been going into the classrooms.”

UNC’s switch to online-only instruction came just hours after its student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, ran a scathing editorial topped with a provocative headline taking school administrators to task for the lack of foresight in their coronavirus response.

Over the past week since students began returning to the Chapel Hill campus, the positivity rate in testing rose from 2.8% to 13.6%.

Brown acknowledged the seriousness of those numbers but added his belief that his players are less susceptible to the virus than the general student population because of the supervision they’re getting from coaches, medical personnel and their team leaders.

He said the team remains in good spirits even though there’s still no guarantee their scheduled 2020 opener against Syracuse on Sept. 12 will be played.

“I feel like this was our best practice because they were upbeat, they had fun,” Brown said of Tuesday’s workout. “I think they see that there’s a great chance that we’re going to play. And even (Monday), with not going to classrooms, that helps us create a better seal around our program and a better bubble. The NBA’s model is working. They’ve had very few distractions. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

In addition to isolating the players as much as possible, Brown said that he and his staff are also determined to be as transparent as possible with them as it pertains to the ongoing pandemic and its effect on their ability to play.

“We’ve tried to communicate with COVID, the state of college football and everything that comes up,” he said. “Every article that’s written, positive or with concerns about the season, we bring it right to the players and read every one of them to them.”

The lines of communication don’t stop with members of his team.

Monday night, Brown arranged a Zoom conference with the players’ parents to update them about the situation on campus and precautions being taken within the program while allowing them to ask questions and express their concerns.

Among those on the hour-long call were a team doctor, a member of the training staff, director of wellness Dwight Hollier, and administrators Rick Steinbacher and Corey Holliday.

“We felt like it was really healthy just to have all the parents on who had any questions, or if they didn’t just to listen,” Brown said. “I got on at the beginning, welcomed the parents and told them what we were going to do. Then I got off because I didn’t want a parent to be uncomfortable asking a sensitive question that might make them feel I didn’t want their son to play.

“I asked the people that were hosting the Zoom meeting, ‘How’d it go and is there anything I need to answer for anybody?’ And they said no, it went great.”

As well as things are going, both with keeping parents informed and preparing the team to play, Brown is well aware that things can and already have changed dramatically from day-to-day because of the nature of the pandemic.

As a result, he said that he and his staff are preparing players to be more versatile so that they’re able to fill in at multiple positions in case of injury or positive tests during the season.

It’s a situation unlike anything Brown — or anyone else, for that matter — has ever encountered.

“I really feel like, in this time of COVID, we all really have to adjust to each other,” Brown said. “We need to give everybody the benefit of the doubt right now and just try to get through this.

“This is not normal. I don’t think you’ll ever see a fall like this one again. Let’s just make sure everybody comes out better on the other side.”