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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Marion County football coach Dale Pruitt gives a play to the offense during drills this past Tuesday. TSSAA football coaches are growing anxious as key dates approach ahead of the season but they remain unsure if the schedule will be altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the clock continues to count down toward significant dates for the start of high school football, the frustration of not having a plan for the upcoming season is beginning to boil over for coaches across Tennessee.

The season is scheduled to kick off in less than one month, but with no clear direction having been announced by either the TSSAA or Gov. Bill Lee, that plan is now in question. Coaches statewide are no longer patiently awaiting word on how to prepare, instead taking to social media to vent or lashing out in emails sent to decision makers.

"I coached for three years in the state of Alabama and knew I was coaching for my job every Friday, because if you don't win you're going to get fired," East Hamilton veteran coach Grant Reynolds said. "But I'm serious when I say that dealing with this is a lot more stressful than that.

"The stress level comes from just not knowing what we're going to be allowed to do when we're already so close to the start of every team getting ready for the season."

The coming week marks the heat acclimation period for Tennessee football, which means teams must practice in helmets for five days to prepare for the following week, when they are scheduled to be allowed to begin conducting contact practices in full pads.

However, because the state remains under Gov. Lee's state of emergency order, which was extended in late June to remain in effect through Aug. 29 as the coronavirus pandemic continues, high school football and girls' soccer teams won't be allowed to conduct practices with contact between players.

On July 8, the TSSAA's Board of Control delayed a vote to choose between four proposals, all of which would push the start of football season back to Sept. 18 and decrease the number of playoff games. At that time, board members said the vote was delayed in hopes of having Gov. Lee exempt the TSSAA from his emergency order — just as he did for in-state college and professional teams — which would allow prep athletes to resume the original practice and game schedule.

But that exemption still has not come, and now both football and girls' soccer are in limbo.

"I don't care what they decide — start on time, have a delay of a few weeks, whatever, just make a decision so we know how to plan," Meigs County coach Jason Fitzgerald said.

Added former Sequatchie County and current Upperman coach Adam Caine: "The amount of stress I'm feeling over this can't be healthy. I really am struggling, because you reach a point where you just don't know what to tell your kids when they keep asking about when we're going to have a season.

"I think at first everybody was against pushing the season back, but now, as much as we want to start on time, it would be better to have a definite plan just to know when we're starting and we can work around whenever they let us play."

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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Marion County football assistant coach Randy Kirkpatrick takes player Brody Leonard's temperature at the start of practice this past Tuesday evening.

The Board of Control will meet in executive session Monday, which means a meeting with the TSSAA's legal team that isn't open to the public because it falls under attorney-client privilege. The board also has a meeting Wednesday to discuss reclassification, but as of now there is nothing on the agenda to discuss or vote on a plan for football season.

Asked if he expects to have a decision on a plan for football season by the week of July 27, when teams are scheduled to begin practicing in pads, TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress replied simply, "Not necessarily."

"The board needs to get advice from the legal team because they have several questions," Childress added. "Right now we're just continuing to ask for patience from all our coaches."

Compounding the frustration is the fact that other nearby states have made announcements detailing their schedules for football's return — whether that be in Mississippi, where the start of the season will be delayed by two weeks, or in Alabama and Georgia, where the main state associations vowed that practice and games will continue as originally scheduled. Tennessee remains the only Southern state that has not given its nearly 350 schools a plan for when contact practices and its season will begin, though the Georgia High School Association Board of Trustees is set to meet Monday afternoon to discuss whether fall sports will be allowed to start as scheduled.

The difference between those states that have announced plans and Tennessee, though, is that Tennessee is still under an extended state of emergency order from its governor.

Understanding that the state's high school governing body cannot act against the governor's orders, the frustration from Tennessee coaches, school administrators and fans that was originally targeted at the TSSAA has begun to shift to the governor's office as they have become desperate for guidance.

"I understand that if we're not given the governor's exemption, then we'll probably have to fall back on one of the proposals the board has," Brainerd coach Tyrus Ward said. "That's fine. We just need to know if we're supposed to be practicing and preparing for the season's original start time or if the timeline is getting pushed back.

"Coaches have a lot of kids and parents who are looking to us for answers, but right now we're still trying to get some of those same answers ourselves."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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