Tom Allen seems to be playing chess against the unknown.
Or at least the uncontrollable.
It is not a level playing field for the Indiana University football coach. As each week or month of the summer passes, Allen invents new strategies and creates new plans to play defense on the coronavirus.
Then maybe a couple of days later, a new wrinkle gets thrown at him and he must invent a Plan B, or Plan D, or even H, so his Hoosiers will be ready to start the football season — if there is a college football season.
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It would be easy for Allen to go a little bit crazy, but outwardly, he seems placid enough and maybe even optimistic enough.
"I’m optimistic about us starting our season on time," Allen said the other day.
Amidst a swarm of pessimists who grow gloomier all of the time, it can be pleasant to hear from an optimist who believes everything will work out fine.
Fine is relative term, however, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic with people dying by the hundreds of thousands from a tenacious disease. That’s the daily life standard.
Even regarding the football standard, not everything is happy-go-lucky since the Big Ten Conference announced its schools are canceling all nonconference games.
Three of Indiana’s first four games were scheduled against nonleague foes. Originally, the Hoosiers were to face Western Kentucky Sept. 12, Ball State Sept. 19 and Connecticut Sept. 26.
Besides the viewpoint that IU had pretty much scheduled three victories in taking on those teams, the steadily improving program loses out on home games and revenue.
As the schedule now stands, Indiana opens at Wisconsin Sept. 4 and does not have another game until Oct. 10 against Maryland. The Hoosiers could be back to hours of Zoom meetings in September.
Although the implication is that no one in the Big Ten can add, there are 14 schools in the league these days. Teams play unbalanced schedules, not facing every league opponent every season.
After trimming these schedules to eliminate nonleague foes, Allen said it is possible the Big Ten will increase the leftover schedule from nine games to 10 by adding another conference opponent.
"It would make sense if we did have a 10-game schedule," Allen said.
As Allen knows, little has made sense in American society over the last few months as deaths pile up from COVID-19.
Allen discussed an intriguing issue, a subject he might not face otherwise except for a rare epidemic of injuries. He said the coaching staff must assemble a comprehensive depth chart going at least three deep.
That is just in case the starter and the backup take ill. He called it "a whole new-look depth chart."
The Hoosiers’ spring practice consisted of long-distance outreach with the coaching staff employing technical means to stay in touch with players and provide conditioning workouts after students left campus.
Allen and his coaches stayed in communication with players through whatever means available, hoping the virus incidence would subside and lead to a smooth transition into fall football.
Players have returned to Bloomington, although this is a workout lull period. The buzz words and policies that have become commonplace, from social distancing to mask wearing, are as much part of IU lexicon as the playbook.
Names were not named, and overall, Allen said most of his guys worked diligently during their home hiatus, but not every single player acted with 100% preparation prudence.
You can fool some of the coaches some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the coaches all the time, and genuine levels of being in shape were revealed. Some guys, Allen admitted, ate too many potato chips and drank too much soda.
Those bad habits could be harmful in the clutch, but worse would be failure to social distance and protect against the virus.
"We don’t follow them home," Allen said. "We don’t hold their hands."
In these strangest of times, sports teams have seen their regular seasons called off, postponed, readjusted and workout plans disrupted, rescheduled and rearranged.
When sports return to action, often individuals and teams compete without fans in the stands. NASCAR has done this. Major League Baseball is scheduled to begin a 60-game regular season next week in comparative privacy. The NBA is competing in a so-called "bubble" world in Orlando.
"You have obstacles along the way," was Allen’s understatement. "Player safety is at the top of the priority list, no matter how badly we want to play. There are probably answers you wish you had. You can’t eliminate the risk completely. You’ve got to make some sacrifices. There are so many unknowns we have ahead of us."
What that says is that Allen may be an optimist, but he is also a realist.