University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's basketball coach Katie Burrows doesn't normally embrace a warm and fuzzy coaching style. Much as she was during her days as an outstanding Mocs player, Burrows is typically filled with fire and feistiness, hard to please and never satisfied.
Yet when COVID-19 not only quarantined her for 10 days before the start of the season, but also knocked out eight of her players for a time, Burrows elected to dial her energy and enthusiasm back a bit for the opener against Alabama-Birmingham.
"By the time we'd cleared all our COVID issues, we only had about three days to get ready for UAB," she recalled on Monday. "There was no way we weren't going to be a little rusty. We still had to get our legs under us. I tried to keep (her coaching) a little tempered."
And how long did that kinder, gentler Burrows last?
"About three or four games," she laughed. "After that I said, 'This gig is up.'"
Let the record show that after a 1-3 start, UTC will enter its two-game road trip to face Southern Conference foe Wofford on both Thursday and Saturday having improved its overall record to 9-7 and conference mark to 4-3 following last Saturday's victory at league leader Mercer.
"It's definitely been weird, especially on the road," Burrows said of attempting to play a season through the stops and starts and uncertainties of the coronavirus. "You can't get together to watch film or television in a hotel unless it's in a big room where you can all spread out. We're not allowing fans at our games but some schools are. Mercer had fans at both games last week, especially on Saturday. And that probably gives those schools an advantage.
"That's one thing about cardboard cutouts. They don't make any noise."
Burrows heard a lot of noise before she contracted COVID about how awful it could be. She was one of the lucky ones.
"I never had a single symptom," she said. "But I'm not in a high-risk group. Still, I had a few players who really struggled with it. One was so sick she was in fear over what could happen to her. She's fine now, but it was scary."
That uncertainty has caused her to stay away from players much more than she used to and to always wear a mask, even in practice.
"We can hardly breathe in them when we're coaching," she said. "But you have to do it."
She's also had to pay closer attention to her team's mental and emotional state.
"This has been hard on them," said Burrows, who's now in her third season as head coach of the Mocs. "I know people will say, 'Oh, it's just sports.' But this gives them a sense of normalcy. They've played basketball all their lives. So I try to be more in tune to how they're feeling, what they're thinking, just checking on them more. Sometimes you can just see it in their faces. They can't see their friends or family as much as usual. This is tough on everyone."
Like most professionals in the athletic community, she has seen personal advantages to not being able to hit the road for recruiting.
"I got to spend so much more time with my family this past offseason than normal," Burrows said. "I got to see my kids interact in ways I never had before, which was pretty cool. I certainly think we've grown closer as a family. But as this has gone on, I miss my friends. I miss human interaction. Even in church you can't sit close together."
There are also the added responsibilities that come with having young daughters who must often stay at home these days due to online learning restrictions. Jordan (6) just went back to school at Lookout Valley Elementary on Monday. Grace, soon to turn five, is in day care when it's open.
"(Husband) Nick has a full-time job, so he can't stay home with them," Burrows said. "We're lucky that our parents can help, but they can't be there every day. It gets hectic."
We're all dealing with things we never planned to deal with before the world ground to a halt last March. And Burrows has found one silver lining in wearing a mask during games.
"If I say a word I shouldn't, you probably can't hear it," she said. "The mask muffles it."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.