Simon Fraser's Rigell Manages First Season Unlike Any Other
MIke Rigell is spending much of his first season as Simon Fraser head coach making sure his players stay healthy mentally and physically through the COVID-19 pandemic.
MIke Rigell is spending much of his first season as Simon Fraser head coach making sure his players stay healthy mentally and physically through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020
by Blake Timm, Assistant Commissioner For Communications

BURNABY, B.C. – On March 12, Mike Rigell was announced as the interim head football coach at Simon Fraser University.

That same day, the collegiate sports world announced that it was shutting down.

“We had practice on that Thursday, then practice on a Saturday and the next week we did exit interviews and got everyone out of here,” Rigell said of the sudden change of plans. “Everyone was in a panic and wanted to get home.”

Taking over a program, even with the familiarity of two years on the staff, is a challenge in the most normal of times. The additional unknowns of a worldwide pandemic made Rigell’s transition tougher than he would have ever expected.

Rigell was tapped as interim head coach in March, succeeding Thomas Ford after his departure for the University of Washington after two years as the SFU offensive coordinator, receivers coach and special teams coach. In addition to transitioning to his leadership style, Rigell spent much of the summer doing what he could to keep his players engaged within the unknown.

“It’s been a good challenge and it hasn’t been too overwhelming,” Rigell said. “It would be overwhelming if we were playing a season right now. I would be losing my mind. It helps that we have been able to hire some experienced coaches that have helped the transition go smoother.”

While Rigell and his players would rather be focused on the nuances of the playbook and being ready for the next opponent, he knows that even with practices underway, the game is still taking a backseat to life.

“As opposed to being coaches, we have been more like mental health counselors,” Rigell said. “We’re doing our best to be a support system for them, letting them know that they always have somebody to lean on.”

For a university with over 27,000 students, the Simon Fraser campus is unusually quiet this fall thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the vast majority of the university’s classes being delivered online, just about the only sounds of normalcy are coming from Terry Fox Field. In addition to the hum of machinery constructing the field’s new permanent grandstand is the sound of football players running through offseason practice.

While Simon Fraser’s roster of 85 students is on campus, practices are limited to 50 people on the field at any one time, including coaches. The 50 are further broken up into cohorts of eight, providing for social distancing while going through drills.

When the team starts more full team-style practices later this week, those will be split into two separate practices to keep below the 50-person threshold.

The workouts look more like offseason conditioning than fall practice. The first weeks have been spent in the weight room, working on agility and conditioning. It wasn’t until this last Saturday that the team put helmets on for the first time.

In the era of COVID, Rigell and his staff have emphasized that the opportunity to go to practice, in small groups without any contact, is a privilege in itself. Many student-athletes, and many college students for that matter, don’t have that opportunity. The majority of Simon Fraser’s students are still home and many student-athletes, north and south of the border, are still not on the playing field.

“They understand that this is a privilege. There’s a lot of students still sitting at home,” Rigell said. “We’re the only team in Canada that’s going to be wearing pads. That is a privilege in itself. You’re in a privileged situation to be able to do what you want without losing a year of eligibility.”

The fact that players are even on campus is a blessing that wasn’t assured but is something that Rigell hopes will galvanize the team when it takes the field. The fact that they aren’t playing right now gives the newcomers a chance to bond with teammates like never before.

“Our players are getting a chance to meet each other and know each other,” Rigell said. “A lot of the kids that we recruited after I took over as head coach were junior college transfers. They didn’t have a chance to come and see the campus. Their first time seeing the campus is when they got here for the fall.”

With the knowledge that the football program is among the few students on the Simon Fraser campus, there is an understanding that they set the example on and off the field.

“Since we’re visible on campus, we have to make sure we are doing things the right way,” Rigell said. “We’re making sure that we are wearing masks to and from where we are going. We’re making sure that we are washing our hands and doing all of the extra things that we are asking the guys to do. It can seem monotonous but I think they understand that we care about their safety and just talking about football.”

Rigell is quick to credit Simon Fraser’s administration for providing the tools and direction to make a return to practice possible. That includes plenty of masks, the addition of a mental health counselor on the athletics staff and a return to play plan that is over 80 pages long.

For Simon Fraser’s approximately 40 players from the United States, it meant arriving early to Canada and spending two weeks in hotels under government-mandated quarantine. While sitting in a hotel room for 14 days is not part of anyone’s plan, it provided a chance for Rigell to communicate a lesson important to both football and life.

“We’ve talked about all of these sudden changes and about the things that we can control. How does that control our attitude? How does that control how we go about our day?” Rigell said. “We could be mad about things but we could also be in a situation where we are not practicing either. You have to take the good with the bad.”

Rigell has watched the restart of college football in some regions in the United States and seen many games postponed or canceled due to COVID-19 outbreaks. While nobody wanted to see the GNAC season suspended, he acknowledges that the decision is a blessing in a number of ways.

“As teams have started playing, a lot of people are catching COVID,” Rigell said. “When you talk about our situation and resources, it would have been immeasurable in terms of the things we would have to do. I don’t want to say it has been a positive but it has been a blessing in that we as a staff can get better familiar with each other and the team.”

Not playing on the field, however, will allow Rigell and his Simon Fraser staff to focus on the most important thing: the players.

“Football is secondary right now,” Rigell said, “but we are still able to engage with our guys in meetings and hear what is on their minds. Our main thing is making sure that if their mind is healthy and right then the body will follow.”

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