Miami coach Chuck Martin on return of MAC football: ‘We’re excited for this opportunity'

RedHawks are defending conference champs

Chuck Martin’s face lit up at the chance to finally answer a football question.

Halfway through a 30-minute Zoom news conference Saturday to discuss the Mid-American Conference’s decision to begin the football season in November, Martin fielded his first inquiry about the chance for his team to try to defend its 2019 title.

The MAC announced Friday its schools will be playing a six-game, conference-only schedule beginning Nov. 4 and concluding with a championship game on Dec. 18 or 19. The university presidents unanimously approved the decision based on the recommendation of the league’s medical advisory panel, and the schedule is expected to be released in the next week.

“I’ve been waiting for that question since March,” Martin said with a smile and thinking of his 17 returning starters from a young squad a year ago. “...We’ve got a great nucleus back, and we’re excited for this opportunity.”

The MAC on Aug. 8 became the first FBS conference to postpone the fall football season because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, and for a while it seemed as though Miami wouldn’t get a chance to defend the title this school year.

On Friday, the MAC changed course to become the third FBS conference in two days, along with the Pac-12 and Mountain West Conference, to announce it will play a fall football season after initially postponing. All 10 FBS conferences are now playing at some point this fall.

“It’s been a whirlwind since August,” Miami Director of Athletics David Sayler said Saturday. “... It’s just exciting for us to know that MACtion is going to be back on the field this November. I’m thankful to the presidents for allowing us to move forward and work toward this day and this effort that we’re going to undertake here to get this going, and I’m excited for our student-athletes to have the chance to compete. I trust in the coaches and all of us around the program that we’re going to keep these kids healthy and safe and do everything we can to ensure as good of a season and a chance to defend our MAC championship as we possibly can.”

Sayler said the narrative began to change when the NCAA started talking about basketball beginning around Thanksgiving, which meant full-contact practices would be taking place in October. Sayler questioned why football couldn’t play if that was possible.

But, the real turning point for Miami was the procurement of a machine that can handle the antigen rapid testing on campus. The conference will implement a COVID-19 testing program requiring four antigen tests per week with all positive tests needing confirmation with a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. Testing protocols will begin Oct. 5, and the league is hiring a company to handle the testing. Miami will use its own machine for other sports, Sayler said.

Miami has reported 1,437 positives among students since Aug. 17, according to data on the university’s COVID-19 dashboard last updated Thursday, and there are an estimated 263 active cases and 20 new cases reported Thursday. The school made national headlines because of student behavior in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly after a house party where the hosts had tested positive, but Sayler remains confident the university is managing the situation in a way that will make the November start date for football still possible.

“We’ve been very aggressive in our testing as an institution and very open in reporting our numbers, and those numbers have dropped significantly in the last week,” Sayler said. “So, we’re gonna continue to monitor that obviously and continue to look at that within the framework of what we’re doing here in athletics, but we’re gonna take every effort we can to continue to educate and do the right things, and I think just speaking specifically to student-athletes if they know they’re going to get tested four times a week I think that’s going to have a habit of changing behavior, no matter what just the thought of it, right? So my hope is that Miami will continue to see a decrease in cases and we’ll continue to have success in that going forward.”

Martin said the players deserve a chance to play, and he looks forward to getting back out there too. Even he got a pit in his stomach trying to watch college football games, knowing his team couldn’t be out there as well, so he just didn’t. He planned to watch some games Saturday.

The RedHawks are now doing some weight lifting and walk-through type workouts, Martin said, but the first full-padded practices won’t occur for another week or two as the players build back their base.

“Our players need this opportunity -- they need to get back to some level of normalcy,” Martin said. “We know this season won’t be normal by any stretch, but it will at least be a step in the right direction. I think for the league it was an awesome thing to get accomplished for us for a lot of different reasons and getting back on a normal schedule, finishing the fall season with everyone else and not being the outlier, I think that was very important. So we’re excited to get going, we got a lot of work to do in a short period of time.”

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