'A tough year': Pandemic gives MSU, UM coaches new perspective on profession

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Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
·8 min read
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Apr. 8—Michigan State softball coach Jacquie Joseph has been in this profession for more than three decades. Like coaches across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge on multiple levels, from managing their personal lives and families to keeping their players and staff safe and engaged all while trying to provide a college athletics experience.

So much of the focus the past year has been on the college athletes and how they've dealt with COVID testing, quarantines and pauses so they can play their sports. But the coaches have never dealt with the something so unexpected that has uprooted the day-to-day for people across the globe, and juggling it all has been a challenge.

"I feel like I'm in my first year," said Joseph, who is in her 28th season at MSU. "It's situation after situation after situation of uncharted territory, so it's kind of all new again. I'm certainly grateful for the perspective that I think a lot of younger coaches are suffering from a lack of dealing with all this."

It has been just more than a year since Michigan, Michigan State and colleges across the country canceled spring sports and on-campus activities because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The basketball teams didn't have an opportunity to play in the canceled 2020 NCAA Tournament, while baseball and softball teams saw their seasons end abruptly not long after they had begun.

"It's been as challenging of a time as I can remember in coaching," said Carol Hutchins, who is in her 37th year coaching softball at Michigan.

About a month ago, Michigan basketball player Michelle Sidor stood before her teammates and coaches on court at the circle before practice on a Sunrise Saturday.

Sunrise Saturday comes a day after Funny Friday, two days after Wisdom Wednesday. During the season, coach Kim Barnes Arico has a theme day before each practice, and on Sunrise Saturday, the player or assistant coach selected is asked to share something positive about a player who has been doing well.

Barnes Arico thought Sidor would share a story about a freshman. Sidor took her moment before practice to praise Barnes Arico for being a stabilizing force for the team during the year of uncertainty that included an athletic department-wide two-week shutdown, which caused the Wolverines to miss six games. She described how Barnes Arico maintained their calm.

"'Well, through this pandemic I want to spotlight coach,'" Barnes Arico said, sharing Sidor's words. "And I almost fell off my seat, because I've been doing this a long time, and no one has ever spotlighted me. But she said what's helped them remain positive and moving forward is that."

Through all the pivoting and twists, Barnes Arico, a mother of three, said she and her staff made an extra effort to stay positive and keep the spirits up on the team, which reached its first Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. One day, for instance, the players showed up and instead of basketball, they played Wiffle ball to lighten the mood.

Michigan State's Suzy Merchant, whose Spartans also played in the NCAA Tournament, reflects on the past year and like most coaches, she is on the go constantly as the mother of two sons and as a basketball coach. Hitting the pause button doesn't seem realistic for most coaches.

She was about to make a recruiting visit when Michigan State issued a travel ban last March.

"Thinking back to that moment standing in the hallway of 'Do we go? Do we not go?' and then being told we couldn't leave to where we are now, I think you have a little gratitude and appreciation for how quickly life can change," Merchant said. "And I would say when I look back on it — and maybe this is a little more personal, I don't know how other people feel — but I think we were kind of as a society sometimes getting a little out of control with having to go, go, go, and we weren't really present in the moments we were living. I am one who would definitely put myself in that category.

"It really gave us the time off that we needed to recognize what's important in life. I love this game and I love my job, but that isn't really who I am. And I think at this level sometimes you can lose perspective in that. It was a really good opportunity to check yourself as a human being and certainly look around and build better relationships, even with my family and my boys, your parents. It just gives you a different perspective. Looking back at the year, I love the fact we get to play, I love the fact we've been able to invest in our own team, but I also think it's given us all a perspective that maybe this society was in need of."

With the baseball season canceled, Michigan coach Erik Bakich used the time to read and, after conversations with a number of coaching colleagues, last May unveiled "The New Baseball Model," a bold plan to reshape college baseball. He also has three kids under 11.

He coached his 8-year-old son's team and learned some things along the way.

"(It) wasn't very good. We were 4-3," Bakich said, laughing. "I couldn't get this one kid to stop climbing the backstop chain-link fence, but I did learn some new coaching techniques. I realized I need to speak in simpler terms to get through to the 8-year-olds. That's actually helped me as a coach to speak in pictures, because the same principle works for 18-year-olds as it did the 8-year-old."

Like others navigating the pandemic, he tried to stay busy while getting on Zoom calls with his players and listening about their garage baseball workouts.

"It's been a tough year for humanity," Bakich said. "The frustrating thing for me is, not to get into politics, but just to see how different states, different communities, different areas depending where you live handle the policies and the protocols different than others. Not to get on some soap box here but this should be about science and medicine, not about red or blue state.

"So that's been frustrating for everyone in the athletics world or even if you're a parent of an athlete. And if you live 60 minutes over here you can go eat at Chick-fil-A in Toledo or Ohio's fully open but across the border you can't. It's like, what's going on, right? So that's been frustrating because you throw your hands up at times and you just go, 'What is it? What are we supposed to do? We're following the protocols but how come people in all these places can do it?'"

Bakich read a lot but singled out "Never Split the Difference," by Chris Voss, an FBI hostage negotiator on how to negotiate. He called it the "best book of quarantine."

For Joseph, this past year has been about throwing out the rule book. Literally.

"It's been a lot, that's all I can tell you," she said last week. "I've tried to tell our people in my bubble to just give yourself a lot of grace, don't do anything crazy. This is not the time to be a stickler for all this stuff, because these kids, it's all just so up in the air. I have a manual of team standard operating procedures. I've never even opened it or discussed it this year with this group. Ever. Not one time. Not a single thing has applied. No rules apply. Not a single rule have I discussed."

There have been burdens for the coaches, like being encouraged not to spend a dollar they don't have to absolutely spend.

"But oh, and by the way, give them a great experience. And oh, by the way, don't be last, you're paid to win," Joseph said. "It's a lot of conflicting things. In a normal year, we would spend an enormous amount of time connecting the kids, team building. Whether they're camping in your backyard or you took them on a formal retreat or you visited Arlington Cemetery when you went to Maryland, whatever it is, you did stuff to connect your kids.

"This year, all we've done is told them to stay away from each other. It's been challenging."

From this experience, the coaches have learned lessons on how to do their jobs perhaps a little differently. Bakich will use simpler terms. Barnes Arico will possibly throw more curveballs to practice, like Wiffle ball. Merchant will slow down a bit and soak in the moment with her players.

Hutchins has seen her players embrace their opportunity to practice and play softball. The Wolverines are coming off a COVID-related pause that forced them to cancel their first homestand, a four-game series against Michigan State. Two games have been rescheduled with the Spartans.

She spent nearly six hours on the field practicing with small groups earlier this week before coming out of quarantine on Wednesday.

"It's a challenge beyond challenges," Hutchins said Tuesday. "I've always said, we're not going through anything worse than most people because we get to play. We try to keep that perspective."

The players have embraced what their coach has said — understanding that enduring difficult conditions can only make them stronger. Hutchins made clear to her players that while it hasn't been ideal losing their season last year and not having fans this year, this is all just a small part of a much bigger picture.

"Everybody's going through the pandemic, I've said it all along, not just the student-athletes," Hutchins said. "The whole world's going through it."

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis