Frank Solich thought he had seen everything possible when it came to college football.
Then 2020 happened.
Ohio begins the 2020 season, 10 weeks into the schedule, with a 7 p.m. kickoff at Central Michigan on Wednesday night. It’s the first outing in a six-game sprint as the Mid-American Conference tries to squeeze in a season under challenging circumstances.
Win or lose or COVID-induced cancellation, the 2020 season will be marked by the pandemic. Spring football was wiped out, after just two practices for the Bobcats, when the coronavirus landed. Since that time, Solich and his program have fully embraced the mask-wearing, socially-distanced protocols espoused by the CDC and the state government.
The Bobcat players wear their mask when they practice, when the lift, when they workout, when they’re in car.
The program has been largely free of positive tests since a brief shutdown in July. It didn’t matter when the MAC put the season on ice in August, but six weeks later the season came back when it was clear that the college football world was gong to play the games no matter what.
Ohio stepped up its virus protocols. The Bobcat still often meet electronically. The locker room isn’t used much these days with players getting dressed for practice in various parts around Peden Stadium. You want a shower? if you’re a Bobcats, you have to go home to do it.
“We wanted a season,” said fifth-year linebacker Jared Dorsa. “We’ve set up our own bubble, we’re doing whatever we need to do to try to make this happen.”
Solich, of course, is the backdrop to all of it. COVID-19’s proclivities for hitting older people harder is well documented at this point. Solich, at 76, is the oldest FBS head coach in the country.
His bonafides are well-established. He’s the MAC’s all-time leader in coaching victories. He’s rebuilt the Ohio program, clawing and scratching for every scrap and upgrade from the cash-strapped program along the way. His life work is coaching, and he’s done it well.
But with the state of things in 2020, why is he coaching this season? In January, he finalized a two-year extension with OU that would have had him leading the program through the 2021 season. That had no bearing on this spring and summer however.
Surely Solich had to have someone in his life asking him to not coach in 2020?
“Besides my family?” Solich said.
The coach admitted that those closest to him, who know him as a person and not just a coach, expressed their concerns about his job in this virus-soaked season. Solich heard them, and understood. And those concerned understood why Solich couldn’t turn away, especially because of the circumstances in 2020.
“I still want to help people, still help our kids,” Solich said. “I just jump out of bed in the morning (thinking about coaching).
“I don’t know what I’d be doing if not this,” he added. “I think they understand why I’m coaching.”
That faith in the job and the belief he could still get the Bobcats on the field this fall was tested this summer. Former OU offensive line coach Keven Lightner — who Solich calls a “very close, long-time friend” — barely survived his own battle with COVID-19. And Lightner is far younger, and still looks a fair bit like the hulking offensive lineman he was as a player at Nebraska.
“It does shake you a little bit,” Solich said. “But it also just reinforces that you have to be so diligent with this thing.
“We’re doing everything we can to make this work,” he said. “It can be taken away at any time. It can happen to your team, it happen to you.”
So, Solich is wearing a mask. He’s staring into phones for media sessions and team/staff meetings. He’s doing all kind of things he never envisioned just a year ago.
And the Bobcats, who desperately wanted a season, they’re on board. Most are aware of Solich’s age and the potential danger that presents if the virus creeps its way inside the program.
Wear a mask in practice? No problem. Shower at home? Sure. Get dressed under the Peden bleachers? Bring it on. Get four tests a week? Let’s get it done.
“What I’m asking of these guys is what I’m asking of myself,” Solich said. “And they’ve been with it 100 percent of the time.”
Solich’s force of will has helped Ohio get the point where it can begin a season. Cases are on the rise nationwide. Head coaches and players are becoming infected on a daily basis. Games are being postponed and cancelled.
Can Ohio really get through the season, and win enough games to get that first MAC title for the program since 1968?
The Bobcats are in it to win it.
“We will not allow it to be transmitted on our time. I’ll wear a mask in a game if I have to,” said senior defensive end Austin Conrad.
“We’re going to control what we control,” he added. “If something bad happens, let’s make sure it’s not because of us.”
It’s year No. 16 for Solich in Athens. Despite the world’s screaming, Solich prowling the sidelines was never in doubt.