After six months filled with delays and frustration, UAlbany football coach Greg Gattuso was naturally thrilled Wednesday when the NCAA Division I Council provided some good news for Gattuso, the Great Danes and the rest of the Football Championship Subdivision.
The Division I Council voted Wednesday to approve a season model for schools like UAlbany that plan to play football in the spring, and provided a framework for a 16-team FCS playoff format to cap off an eight-game regular season.
“It was good news,” Gattuso said in a phone interview Friday. “We needed to hear some good news. We’re excited about this plan to play football again. It’s been so long since we played, so we’re really excited right now.”
Gattuso went on to describe Wednesday’s proposition as “light at the end of the tunnel.”
UAlbany opted in July to postpone all of its fall sports until the spring semester due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the Colonial Athletic Association — where the Great Danes are a football-only member — also made the move to push the season to the spring, along with the bulk of the nation’s FCS programs.
Wednesday’s framework put forward by the Division I Council, which must be approved by the Division I Board of Directors, which meets next week, provides for an eight-game regular season over a period of 13 weeks, with the final regular season game occurring no later than April 17. The 16-team FCS postseason — reduced from the traditional 24-team field — will run from April 18 through May 15.
Those FCS teams that are playing during the traditional fall season will be eligible for the spring championship tournament.
“We’ve been believing we’re going to play and there’s been a lot of talk, but this is a big step to play in the spring and to have a playoff,” Gattuso said. “It gives everybody some guidance. It gives some structure to it.”
The mood was high for the Great Danes after a 2019 season that saw the program go 9-5 and reach the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2011 on the back of a record-setting season from quarterback Jeff Undercuffler and a 1,300-yard rushing campaign from running back Karl Mofor.
But the pandemic wiped out UAlbany’s offseason program and forced the postponement of the fall season.
So, instead of being two games into the season and spending the week preparing for a trip Saturday to face UMass, Gattuso and the rest of his program have been forced to wait, watch and hope.
“So many people are making a lot of sacrifices during this time, and people have it a lot worse than a bunch of football players and coaches, but for us, in our world, it’s been very difficult,” he said. “We miss being with the kids, we miss coaching and we miss the competition. But, the health and safety of our players, our coaching staff and our staffing is very important to us. We’re being patient, obviously, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
The framework approved by the Division I Council allows for teams to conduct on-field practice beginning Monday and running through Dec. 31, essentially replacing the spring offseason session with “fall ball.”
That won’t be the case at UAlbany, at least immediately, as all athletic activities at the university are on an indefinite pause brought on by a spike in COVID-19 cases at the school with a cluster linked to the athletic program.
The wildly altered season has had wide-ranging implications.
“We’re going to have some kind of fall ball, and we’re excited about getting to that,” Gattuso said. “But, it’s affected recruiting, it’s affected all sorts of things behind the scenes. The extra year of eligibility [granted by the NCAA] is great for some guys, but it presents new challenges that we have to get our way through. There’s a lot of things going on, a lot of moving pieces, and everything can change within a week.”
Among the models being considered by the CAA for the spring season is splitting the 12-team league up into two six-team divisions, with those two groups playing each other exclusively during league play — leaving room for two non-conference games — with the two division champions meeting in the conference’s first-ever championship game.
Gattuso said he was encouraged by what he’s been hearing from the league, and will spend the fall watching the FBS action that’s already underway — and will soon see more teams join in, with the other news Wednesday that the Big 10 will start a delayed, eight-week season in October — as a road map for the spring.
“Seeing the Power 5 [FBS conferences] play is important,” he said. “How they’re handling things will certainly trickle down and help everybody when our time comes to play. We’re wishing them the best of luck. I’ve got some friends in the Big 10, I’m excited for them. We’re all in it together.”
One major hurdle has seemingly been cleared. There are more remaining, but in a year where nothing’s been ordinary, Gattuso is confident in his program’s continued ability to adapt.
“We’ve got to figure out how to have summer camp in January,” he said, “but outside of that I think we’ll make it work. We just want to get back on the football field and play.”