San Diego State running back Greg Bell (34) carries the ball as Utah State linebacker AJ Vongphachanh (98) defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/Pool Photo via AP)
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Nevada coach Jay Norvell remembers being overcome by heartbreak last season on senior night, when each honored player was introduced with nobody but teammates, opponents and game officials to hear their names.
“I think (that was) one of the most disappointing things from last year, having no family or fans in the stands,” Norvell said. “That was really hard. But I’m very grateful that we get this season, and that many of those kids can play this year and have another opportunity for their senior year.”
The return of fans and in-person meetings were an overwhelmingly hot topic Wednesday as Mountain West coaches kicked off the conference’s media days looking ahead to a more typical 2021 season after a pandemic-plagued 2020 campaign.
“I couldn’t be more fired up for this city, our school, stadium,” UNLV coach Marcus Arroyo said. “To have fans come in that stadium to see us, to have our guys come out to fans and their families — man we’re fired up.”
Norvell’s Wolf Pack was chosen to win the conference’s West Division, while perennial favorite Boise State was picked to win the Mountain Division for the eighth consecutive season.
Defending champion San Jose State was picked to finish second behind Nevada. The Spartans defeated Boise State in the conference championship last year after a tumultuous season during which they were displaced when their home county in California was locked down due to the pandemic.
They played a home game in Hawaii and two home contests in Las Vegas instead of San Jose and didn’t get to spend Christmas with their families.
Nonetheless, San Jose coach Brent Brennan said players were told the team with the most stringent discipline in light of the coronavirus would win the league championship.
His Spartans answered every challenge.
“I think COVID, that time was really bad for everybody,” Brennan said. “And I think the people that were impacted the worst were that high school- (and) college-aged kid. I have my own kids that struggled through that. I watched a bunch of guys on our team struggle through that. I think (mental health) is really challenging right now.”
Mental health issues were another big topic Wednesday among the coaches, who have found themselves playing counselor while dealing with players struggling with the mental fallout of the pandemic.
“The No. 1 thing about being a coach is you’re like a father,” Norvell said. “You’re like a father to your staff, you’re like a father to your players, and it was a very difficult year for our kids last year. We have a whole class of players that have never been to campus. They’ve never been to class on campus.”
Personal interaction is something the coaches said might have been undervalued prior to the pandemic and has been welcomed back with open arms.
San Diego State coach Brady Hoke said the biggest factor affecting the Aztecs’ development was time lost with his players. There was a period during which his players were sent home and asked to do training on their own to stay in shape and keep their conditioning on track.
“I’d rather actual meet than virtual meet,” Hoke said. “I think as much as you can be with them and they can be together, to me that’s everything. I think our leadership, our guys who are coming back, it’s kind of a really big senior class, they’ve done a really good job of leading and pushing guys. Half of that is being together, and that was real important.”
Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson said seven of the 12 football programs have reached at least an 88% vaccination threshold, while the league-wide cumulative threshold is at 73%. Thompson said the league won’t have mandatory vaccinations requirements, but if teams do not have the numbers to play due to COVID-19, the conference will not postpone or reschedule games and it will go down as a forfeit.