WHITEWATER — Sure, spring football practices are padless, but University of Wisconsin-Whitewater head coach Kevin Bullis will never be accused of diminishing their value.
A typical season has 15 practices in April.
This is certainly not a typical season as the Warhawks are breaking in interim defensive coordinator Jace Rindahl and are dealing with the likelihood that they won’t have those practices during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers issued a “Safer at Home” order that prohibits nonessential travel or gathering until April 24.
But that hasn’t stopped Bullis and his coaching staff from providing a quality learning environment.
“We’ve been using a web app called ZOOM,” said Rindahl, a former UW-Whitewater all-American and Cambridge High School athlete. “It’s been phenomenal. We’ve been able to do our meetings through it. As a defensive staff, we went through our install for Day 1 through Day 15 to work together and make sure we’re prepared for every day we get. Of course, it doesn’t look like we’re going to have those practices, but we’re still getting read as if we will.”
Rindahl has worked on the UW-Whitewater coaching staff since 2015, when he was the run defense coordinator and linebackers coach under defensive coordinator Rob Erickson. Erickson took a position as an assistant coach in February at Division I South Dakota State.
On the interim basis, Rindahl is working toward making sure he is as well-acquainted with the secondary as he is with the front seven.
“That’s been a little bit different to have to learn more on the back seven,” Rindahl said. “It’s just a challenge and a new opportunity to grow as a coach. I’m very excited for the opportunity and definitely think I’m ready.”
Part of getting ready is making sure the coaching staff is on the same page and “speaking the same language” as Rindahl put it. During the pandemic, that means making sure everyone is functioning in a remote environment, which offensive coordinator Peter Jennings lamented.
“Your coaching staff is an extension of your family,” Jennings said. “We all come from different backgrounds, but we all have such a united set of goals and these guys all become so tight-knit.
When you’re used to seeing (offensive line coach) Brent Allen, Jace Rindahl and (tight ends coach) Tim Shields on a regular basis, you start to miss them when you don’t see them except for through a computer screen.
“After you put together a Stagg Bowl run — you play 15 games, a bye week, preseason and recruiting and working together to get ready for spring practice spent in close confines — you don’t think you need more time together. But 10 days into the social-distancing initiative and I’m like, ‘Golly, I could use some time with Coach Bull or some of the other guys.’
“You spend so much time together, the staff feels like we’re all brothers.”
Jennings, who is married with 6- and 7-year-old children, pointed out that making sure the children are adequately accounted for while he and his wife each work remotely during the day has been an added challenge.
“I really feel for the people who don’t have the great support system that I have,” Jennings said. “They’re at the age where they can read to get themselves started on homework, but they need help learning and working on things. Finding that balance to make sure they have enough of our attention while we get our own work done has been added piece.”
Rindahl expressed confidence all the coaches are handling the technology gracefully.
In other industries, it might be more difficult for some employees to go from office work to making office work effective remotely. But modern coaching staffs have been using cloud-based apps to store and access film for more than a decade.
“I think we’re handling it well. The ZOOM app is very user friendly,” Rindahl said. “Like most technology, it’s muscle memory. I honestly think this is going to be a blessing for us to be better communicators, teachers and to be more organized. I think this is going to make us a better staff and most of all better teachers. I really think there’s a lot of good that will come from this. We’re not just surviving, we’re thriving.”
And part of thriving in the age of coronavirus is taking advantage of the extra time.
“Within our staff, we started little microclinics. I spent a 10-minute session with our coaching staff,” Jennings said. “Things that our coaching staff has seen me do and has worked with, but they don’t necessarily know why I do it that way.
“It’s stuff that you always think people know, but there are little things that we can teach each other. We’ve really been revisiting teaching techniques, coaching techniques and scheduling.
“We have a laundry list of things that we want to visit before May so that we can be better coaches and teachers. We don’t have a set of practices, which comes with practice plans, practice, practice film, install, all of that.
“All that is gone, so now it’s how can we better disseminate information to our players. That’s how we can get better.”