UNI Panthers

Season uncertain, UNI football coach Mark Farley just happy to be back with players

Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley gestures to a player coming off the field during the fourth quarter of a game last
Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley gestures to a player coming off the field during the fourth quarter of a game last season at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — There still are more questions than answers when it comes to COVID-19 and the college football season, but the fate of the 2020 Missouri Valley Football Conference season is expected to be announced early next week, per an email from league commissioner Patty Viverito that went out Thursday.

The FCS’ CAA, MEAC, SWAC, Patriot League and Ivy League already have canceled their conference seasons. Meanwhile, Division I programs began the NCAA’s one-off “preseason” Monday, allowing coaches eight hours of contact per week with players for two weeks to weight train, condition and study film. Teams will move on to football activities this coming Monday.

Despite all the uncertainty that persists, Northern Iowa football coach Mark Farley is happy to be coaching his team in-person again and is doing so with the approach that there will be football this fall.

“Ultimately, the best thing about (preseason starting) was getting back with (the players) on a daily basis,” Farley said. “Seeing them. Talking to them. Kind of what we do every day of the week, we finally got back to doing it again. The last time we did it was March. The best part was just being together.”

As Farley and his staff enjoy being back in contact with their players, he’s also cognizant of the realities of what playing this fall will require, which is why he’s made a point to normalize mask-wearing.

“Right now, what we’re doing at UNI, I treat the mask like a helmet,” Farley said. “You’ve got to wear your helmet at practice. You’ve got to wear your mask at practice. Is it going to get hot? Yeah, so does your helmet. I’m walking around right now saying ‘get your helmet on,’ and they’ve got to pull that mask up. I don’t say mask, I say helmet. It’s kind of like the seat belt. I didn’t want to wear my seat belt when that law came in, but over the course of time, it’s the first thing you put on now when you get in the car.”

While Farley and the Panthers are doing their best to create a safe environment, other hurdles have already presented themselves after the Big Ten canceled its non-conference games. The cancellation removed UNI’s game at Iowa on Sept. 5, and losing that game also meant its athletics department will not get a needed $650,000 check from the Hawkeyes for coming to play the FBS counterpart.

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Plenty of speculation followed with how the Panthers could replace the Iowa game. Fans wondered aloud on social media whether Iowa State could be an option, but the Cyclones already have an FCS opponent on their schedule in South Dakota on Sept. 5. So, short of ISU postponing its game against the Coyotes, it’s difficult to see a match.

A couple things are working in UNI’s favor, though, when it comes to finding a new Week 1 opponent. The NCAA Division I Council announced last week that FBS teams could count two FCS games, rather than the typical one, toward bowl eligibility this season. Also, the fact that many FBS teams have lost conference games because of the aforementioned FCS cancellations, have improved the likelihood of finding a new FBS opponent.

A conference-only MVFC season has been discussed, Farley said, as has moving the season to spring. For now, they’re hunting for a high-quality Week 1 game.

“Instead of looking at the downside of (losing Iowa), we went immediately and started looking to replace that football game,” Farley said. “That’s still in the makings right now. We’ll see what comes of it.”

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