A week from today, football season will kick off in Pine Bluff.
While that's far from the norm, so were the past 11 months that college sports have endured, as coaches and athletic directors have scrambled to identify preventative measures against coronavirus for their student-athletes and themselves.
The nearly yearlong health pandemic led to the postponement of football from the fall to late winter in the Football Championship Subdivision. While staying safe from covid-19 is an ongoing priority, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Golden Lions have been faced with another obstacle in the form of snow -- and lots of it.
The weather had kept the Lions from practicing for a week, but after a series of virtual meetings, they got together Friday for a walk-through in Hazzard Gym at the ROTC building.
"We like where we are physically, so now we're just trying to stay mentally sharp," first-year head coach Doc Gamble said. "I think we've done enough to get back at it."
When asked if the team survived the week of snow, Gamble said: "We're still surviving. We were in a good rhythm. We got 13 practices in. The weather has definitely stunted some things right now. But it's been in parallel how it's been from last February to now. You just have to control what you can control, but Mother Nature has put us in constant adjustment."
The Cincinnati native took over the team in the interim following the resignation of Cedric Thomas last February and had the interim tag removed two months later. From the onset of the pandemic on March 11, UAPB endured season cancellations and delays across its entire department.
Chris Peterson cited a lack of interaction with coaches and student-athletes due to the pandemic in announcing his retirement Monday after 13 months on the job. Former Lions quarterback Chris Robinson has been elevated from assistant to interim athletic director.
"I've been around the guys long enough to pick up what they like to do," Gamble said of Peterson and Robinson. "It's not like someone else is coming in from the outside. Both of those guys are passionate about UAPB. With Chris [Robinson] back and his history with UAPB, it's going to help propel us. I know he's in an interim role, but he's going to apply for it and I hope he gets it. Sometimes you hit a home run with what you have right in your house. Chris has been that home run for us and our athletic department. He's all for us."
Next Saturday's home game will be the first contest for UAPB since November 2019 when it defeated Texas Southern -- the Lions' next opponent. Kickoff is scheduled for noon, but fans are not permitted at Simmons Bank Field as a precaution against covid-19. (Tailgating is not allowed, either.)
"We got the bulk of what we wanted to put in," Gamble said. "That's the good part of it, but a few other minor details, we want to put in. The positive part about it is guys are buying in. They were still able to lift weights a little bit and have meetings and do things like that."
The Lions have been practicing for the six-game schedule since Jan. 29 and brought in three new assistant coaches, Larry Warner (running backs), Joshua Jones (safeties) and Bill Nickell (offensive line).
"They pick up things fast," Gamble said. "The kids have taken to them, really. The coaches listen to the players and the players listen to the coaches, so it's been a win-win."