Skip to main content

'Whatever we can do, we'll do it the best in the league': Talking through a fall without football with Brown's James Perry

Brown University played its first football game in 1878, and the Bears have played at least one football game every year dating all the way back to 1890, a streak of 130 consecutive years.

Check that: Had. COVID-19 has done what World War II, World War I, and even the Spanish Flu have not.

To take it a step further, no Brown football player will touch a football in an official, team-sponsored capacity for the entire 2020 calendar year. The Bears never got on the field before the world shut down back in March, and they won't get back there until some as-yet-undetermined time in 2021.

Now more than two weeks removed from the Ivy League's landmark yet not-unexpected announcement, I caught up with Brown head coach James Perry in the first of a series asking coaches of teams who will not play in 2020 about how they're handling the news and just what the heck they plan to do this fall.

FootballScoop: What was your reaction when the news came down?
Perry: We had tried really hard for three months to find ways to play. We worked hard putting proposals together of things we thought we could possibly do to make it happen. The last couple weeks prior to the decision, it wasn't going well. At that point, we kind of recognized there wasn't going to be a path forward, which was disappointing for the kids, but it was reassuring (for them) to know we were working very hard to try to play.

FootballScoop: What do you mean when you say it wasn't going well?
Perry: Nationally. The numbers of the virus, the indicators that we were hoping to start looking really goo, weren't. So it didn't surprise me at that point.

FootballScoop: When was the last time a Brown football player touched a football in an official setting?
Perry: Oh, man. For our offseason, we did not get a practice. We had some winter workouts, but there was no football. Last fall we were all together, we finished the season playing Dartmouth the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Here we are in mid-July and we have not had a practice. We were lucky because I thought the winter workouts went well and I thought we were able to take a step forward as a program. But, yeah, it's crazy to think about that.

We will be able to practice with them in the fall, in September. That's not going to be a regular football practice, but at least we'll have the chance to get back together.

FootballScoop: What's your plan for filling your time this fall?
Perry: For us, fitness is everything. We see it as a real opportunity to continue what is always at the forefront of minds. How do we get healthier, how do we get more fit, how do we get faster. The dynamic that we're dealing with right now is difficult, but we've always placed an emphasis on nutrition and health and fitness. Those things are going to serve us really well as we simultaneously battle COVID. We'll be focused on our fitness levels and getting stronger this fall, as opposed to schematics. Where my energies and the staff's energies will be is, how can we think creatively about this phase, the fall phase, that we're going to experience as a product of fitness, health and strength.

FootballScoop: How are you going to keep your team's morale up without a game in sight?
Perry: To take that one step further, it's how many Zooms can you do? Our guys, they're real mature. I'm really proud of how they handled all this. I asked them to be conscientious about social media and not taking their frustrations out. The kids were terrific, they remained upbeat. I will say, for us, I look forward to just working out as a change up from Zooms and virtual meetings. We attempted to have our entire spring instillation done virtually and the kids were great with it. We've been doing virtual team meetings to stay engaged with these kids; that fatigue is real. The kids, they want to interact with us as coaches. Even thought it'll be different, I think we're going to capitalize on, the kids are hungry to get back in the weight room and get running, get back on campus, as opposed to living in this virtual world that we've lived in for four months.

FootballScoop: Are you going to have a full roster on campus this fall?
Perry: Brown's policy is that we did three semesters and that was an effort to de-densify the campus, so at no point will we have everyone on campus at any one of these three semesters. That is the Brown school policy. My football team reflects that perfectly. This fall, the freshmen will not be on campus. In the spring, the sophomores will not be on campus, and then in the third semester we'll have a mixture of freshmen and sophomores. In this fall, while I'll have my team and we'll have a chance to interact with each other, I will probably be looking at a little more than half of my team or 60 percent of my team.

FootballScoop: Are you confident that will change if you're able to play in the spring?
Perry: We all are hopeful that there's a change in the dynamic of what we're facing right now, in a way that the school will be inviting more kids back. That fits the Ivy League model, that the athletes are going to fit into the school. The school would make that decision to bring those students back, and then we would have to transition them back and get them ready to play.

While we are de-densified, there's going to be a portion of our team that is at home, and those kids are going to follow along -- whether it's our fitness and conditioning or the weight room aspect of our training -- in the ways that their local municipalities let them. The ones that are going doing at home will be trying to mirror what the kids on campus are doing. What I've been impressed by is, kids that are at home take it really seriously. They're attacking fitness and they're attacking health and they're doing a great job of staying on top of that. Our job is doing whatever we can, the best in the league. It's going to be very, very different than any fall we've ever had. What we do this fall is going to be different than what we do in the spring.

We can't control that, but we can just do it better than anybody else. That's our goal.

FootballScoop: How is your staff's morale holding up?
Perry: We're lucky to work at Brown. Our president is super supportive. Everybody knows we were working really hard to play this fall, and we'll be working really hard to play as soon as humanly possible. That's just the administration that we have. We all meet every day on Zoom and have a chance to develop recruiting strategies that work during this environment. Even though we have to recruit virtually right now, we keep saying we're going to do it for the rest of our coaching career. This is a better way to reach these kids than I've ever done before. I think we're finding ways to be better coaches during the fall, and I think our staff is doing a great job.

The one bummer, and I don't know if this is typical around the country, I have young kids, I have a number of staff members with young kids. The summer's always a great time to get together a little bit, have fun with each others' kids. Some of my kids' good buddies are other coaches' kids. We just have not had that dynamic this summer and it really bums me out. I miss those guys, but it's more than that -- I miss the wives and the kids. We just have not done any of that summer bonding we typically do, but soon enough. We'll stop the social distancing and I'll be able to see those little guys running around the office.

FootballScoop: I imagine it'll be easy enough to continue to recruit the 2021 guys you're already after. But how are you going to identify the 2022 and 2023 guys you want with no camp season and, possibly, no game film?
Perry: Film eval is the No. 1 football evaluation. Simultaneously, we're getting academic information on kids. They're still building their transcript, hopefully able to get us PDFs of their progress, which is a big piece of it. If things return to normal, I think next year's camp season is going to be heightened as an evaluation. That's just a simple reality of not having that underclassman film that they'd get this fall. For me, I have started to watch other ways that these kids are filming themselves, whether it's putting it on Twitter, YouTube and sending it around. You're hungry for any evaluation technique. I'm open-minded to how that might evolve in the coming months.

FootballScoop: Have you given any thought to what you'll do on Saturdays this fall?
Perry: Oh my goodness. I have given it a thought, and it makes my stomach turn every time I think about it. My brother works for the Houston Texans, he's the wide receiver coach down there. They're up and running, so I'm super jealous of him. I'll be probably a little more dialed in to the Texans than I've ever been before.

We were joking that I've never coached my kids in the fall, and I don't know if they'll even have the ability to do that, but some of those youth sports programs that they run on the weekend, maybe this will be the one time I can get involved in my 8-year-old's flag football.

It doesn't warm my heart thinking of a Saturday in the fall without a game to coach.

FootballScoop: Are you concerned at all that this will turn into a permanent cut for Brown football?
Perry: No, I'm not. Not at all. We've played football for almost 150 years at Brown, but we've played 130 consecutive years. When you play 130 years without interruption -- every year during World War I, every year during World War II, we were playing ball. We will be back the following fall and we all look forward to it. I've been part of that history a little bit as a player, assistant and head coach. I never would have thought I would be the one to break that 130-year streak, but I know when we get back we'll be ready to compete for a championship.