How DePaul, NIU women's basketball coaches and athletes are coping

  • Northern Illinois University's women's basketball coach Lisa Carlsen doing an e-meeting with her staff.

    Northern Illinois University's women's basketball coach Lisa Carlsen doing an e-meeting with her staff. Courtesy of Lisa Carlsen

 
 
Updated 3/27/2020 6:13 PM

The backgammon board is sizzling.

Rarely has it been used so often and so many days in a row.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

DePaul women's basketball coach Doug Bruno doesn't typically have enough time away from basketball season and recruiting to binge on backgammon, one of his favorite board games.

But the COVID-19 pandemic, and the stay-at-home state mandate, has changed a lot about our normal routines.

"Patty and I love to play backgammon. We are big fans," Bruno said of his beloved wife, with whom he shares six sons and 10 grandchildren. "We don't usually make enough family time as coaches. But Patty and I are playing a lot of backgammon right now. (Chuckling) I don't think we've spent this much time together since our honeymoon."

Running a high-level college sports program has been completely turned on its head during this crazy time, too.

Bruno has learned more about Skype and Zoom and other forms of electronic communicating in the last week or two than he ever thought he would need. He communicates with his staff, his players and his recruits regularly from his living room.

"Coaching is a face-to-face job," Bruno said. "It's tough to do virtually."

Northern Illinois women's basketball coach Lisa Carlsen is up against the same challenges. She conducts regular staff meetings and conversations with recruits, who normally could be visiting campus in person in March, via online video chats, and she is doing her best to stay in touch with her players, who won't be back to campus at all for the rest of the semester.

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While DePaul is waiting to make further decisions on the school year after the "Stay at Home" mandate by the state of Illinois ends April 7, Northern Illinois has already canceled the rest of the school year and is doing remote e-learning.

"It's really hard not to have the kids here at all," Carlsen said. "The spring is a time when we can spend significant time with the kids reviewing the season and preparing for next season and strengthening relationships.

"It's also a heavy time of one-on-one instruction and personal development. We really like working with the kids in the spring. We're going to miss that one-on-one instruction."

So how do college athletes, who are used to state-of-the-art weight rooms, unlimited gym access, professional trainers and made-to-order individualized fitness and skills programs going to keep improving their bodies and their games from home?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It's back to basics. Basic basics.

And that might be a foreign concept to some in that age group.

"Some of our players have weights in their homes, and some do not," Bruno said. "We have to proceed as if no one does, so there's a lot of working out with your own body weight. We won two World Wars with pushups and situps, so I think we will be OK.

"With the basketball part of it, there's a lot we can do, but it will be a challenge. It will be different for players today. Athletes in this day in age have been raised on paid programming. They've had their trainers and their AAU coaches always helping them. They've had pretty much constant access to gyms. They're not able to have that right now."

So, it's like "Hoosiers" now. It's out in the driveway or the backyard shooting hoops by yourself, in solitude. Over and over and over again until the sun goes down. And maybe even then, you still keep going.

"And for those who don't have hoops at home, it's dribbling up and down the sidewalks by yourself, doing ball-handling drills while sitting on your porch," Bruno said. "There have been many players through the years who got their skills through outdoor courts, through doing what you could with only a ball at home.

"A lot of really great basketball players were developed long before travel ball and trainers. All you really need is a dream to be great, a ball and a space of about 6 feet."

Carlsen says her players are not just dreaming, but clamoring to do anything they can.

"At this point, they are yearning for anything to do," Carlsen said. "They are receptive, they want to do what they can. They want to work and get out of the house. But if two months from now, we're still doing this same thing, who knows what everyone's enthusiasm will be."

And that's where Bruno and Carlsen believe their challenge is the most significant: keeping their players engaged and excited and optimistic during a time of such gloominess, change and uncertainty.

Bruno's first challenge during this pandemic was to console his players about not being able to play in the NCAA tournament, which was canceled. The Blue Demons had already qualified by winning the Big East tournament.

"We already had to deal with the emotion of that," Bruno said. "When something like that is taken from athletes, it is devastating. It's hard to get your head around it. And not knowing how long this will go on or what will happen in the future, is also tough, but that is a coach's job: to teach proper perspective and the bigger picture of taking a step back to keep ourselves safe and healthy. This needs to get fixed, this is more important than sports.

"This is as big a teaching moment as any of us coaches have ever had."

• Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

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