NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A former Middle Tennessee State University football coach is blowing the whistle on how he says his team tackled the COVID crisis.
It was a crisis that pitted coach against coach - and forced the team to end its season early.
Tony Franklin's story raises serious questions about whether college football did enough to keep players safe.
"At a time when our country needed leadership the most, we failed. College football coaches failed miserably," Franklin said in an exclusive interview with NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
With a coaching career stretching more than four decades, Franklin made a name for himself as an offensive coordinator. He was the coach credited with mentoring Jared Goff, who would go onto the NFL.
Coaching for the last five years at Middle Tennessee State, Franklin says he watched as COVID-19 ran headfirst into college football’s tough-as-nails attitude.
"It's a sport of toughness, of macho-ism of, you know, we'll fight through this, we'll be tough," Franklin said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "You were concerned that the macho attitude would get someone killed?"
"Yeah," he answered. "I still am."
As the pandemic began, Franklin quickly took to social media to urge players to wear masks and follow the science.
#MaskForMankind Coaches, Players, Fans #DoYourJob! Be A Hero. Stay Home, but if you must go out #MaskForMankind! Take This challenge @CoachHand @JaredGoff16 @YogiRoth @BarackObama @BruceFeldmanCFB @HatchAttack1 retweet and tag!!! pic.twitter.com/SijVPmIlZj— tony franklin (@coachtf) April 6, 2020
Middle Tennessee’s head coach, Rick Stockstill, wasn't as sure.
"I thought it'd be a couple-, three-week deal and we'd get back to normal, but obviously that didn't happen," Stockstill later admitted on his radio show.
Behind the scenes of the Conference USA team, a battle was brewing between him and his offensive coordinator.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Stockstill, "In hindsight, did you not take the virus as seriously as you should?
"I took it serious."
"Did you wear masks?"
But, in June, three months into the pandemic, Middle Tennessee posted video of its coaches visiting the homes of boosters.
Even indoors, Stockstill was not wearing a face covering.
"You can see I had it on. I wore it there," Stockstill argued.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "It's around your neck."
"Which does no good."
"I know that."
"So why didn't you wear your mask when you were in their homes?"
"Probably should have."
Stockstill said he had cautioned his players against going to parties, that he had encouraged them to stay home and stay safe.
But when his son married a social media influencer in Florida in June, photos posted online showed the coach at a maskless reception.
The team’s back-up quarterback was there too.
"In that restaurant, you didn't have to wear your mask when you were eating," Stockstill argued.
The photos show attendees not only eating, but dancing as well.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "No one is wearing a mask. There's not even one around your neck."
"Yes, sir," Stockstill acknowledged.
"So does that suggest that you did not take the virus as seriously as you should?"
"No, sir. I tried to do the best I could."
Franklin claims Middle Tennessee's players observed their head coach's example when it came to masks.
"We had certain players that never wore one - ever," the offensive coordinator said.
Franklin said that, in the school’s poorly ventilated weight room, he would see large groups of players with hardly a mask in sight.
On July 8th, during a coaches meeting, the tension between the two men came to a head.
By all accounts, it got ugly.
"Just a disagreement," Stockstill described it.
NewsChannel 5 noted, "He said you approached him, up close, not wearing a mask."
At first, the head coach insisted that he would have never done such a thing, that he always wore his mask. But when pressed about whether he was accusing Franklin of lying, Stockstill backed off his initial denial.
"You know, I may have slipped up. I don't know," Stockstill said.
Franklin admitted that he was yelling -- "with my mask on."
"I made the point, 'Coach, you don't do it right yourself. Everybody knows that you don't. All the players know that you don't. They all see you.'"
Athletic director Chris Massaro, in a call recorded later that same day by Franklin, acknowledged that the head coach sometimes struggled with wearing his masks, suggesting that people needed to be reminded of "mask etiquette." (Listen to an excerpt below.)
About a week later, just as Franklin had warned, COVID hit the weight room.
Three strength coaches tested positive, then players began to follow.
"I knew it was going to happen," Franklin said. "I mean, common sense and science told you, you can't do what we were doing and it not happen.”
One mother texted him, concerned that her son was “still not the boy I know prior to COVID," adding "it’s going to be a slow process to re-integrate him.”
"That's when one of the players kept getting sick, kept getting sick, kept getting sick, but he tested negative, tested negative, tested negative," Franklin recalled.
"Eventually he went to his own physicians and they found out that he had had it."
On September 5th, Middle Tennessee kicked off its season against Army.
By this point, Conference USA had imposed requirements for COVID testing three times a week.
In public, Coach Stockstill and his team did all the right things.
But video of a locker room celebration, obtained through a public records request, tells a different story. Players engaged in a boisterous, maskless celebration of a victory at Florida International University.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Stockstill, "When you look at the video, do you see a team that takes COVID seriously?"
"Yes, sir," the head coach insisted.
"I had my mask on. The other coaches had their masks on."
We pressed, "But the players, coach. They are in each other's faces, shouting, singing. Is that really a team that takes COVID seriously?"
Stockstill simply stared back in response.
Finally, NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked "Do you have an answer?"
Stockstill answered curtly: "We were following protocols, sir."
In fact, while the NFL required players to wear masks in their locker rooms, Conference USA had no such rules.
The NCAA had left those decisions up to each conference.
"There was zero leadership from that organization," Franklin said. "It was basically the wild, wild West, every conference for themselves."
On November 18, Middle Tennessee State received a complaint from its custodial contractor about protocols not being observed around the university's Murphy Center by people of "all ages."
Facility managers backed up that complaint.
An email noted that one member of the facilities management team had "noticed multiple people who were not wearing masks."
Another had "observed the athletes walking around together, without a mask and not following social distancing guidelines either."
Three days later, locker room photos -- taken right after what would become Middle Tennessee’s last game -- showed most players not wearing masks.
The next day, someone tested positive for COVID, according to the athletic director.
Middle was forced to cancel its next game against Florida Atlantic University.
Massaro later texted his head coach.
"We need to ask our guys to be extremely careful this week -- no social activities. Our equipment, trainers, support staff (analysts etc.) need to do a better job with masks," Massaro insisted.
"It hurts too much to lose games and we need to double down on prevention."
Days later, with two games left, Middle Tennessee decided to end its football season.
"We tried to do the best we could," Stockstill said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Was your best good enough?"
"I can lay my head on the bed at night and know I did the best I could."
More than a third of Stockstill's team ended up testing positive for COVID.
As a result of Franklin's complaints, Middle Tennessee ordered an internal review that concluded, "Everything was not perfect but there was no evidence presented ... that Coach Stockstill willfully disregarded the COVID-19 protocols put in place."
The rest of Stockstill’s coaching staff had rallied around him.
Complaints by the custodian and facility managers were not included in the internal report.
Franklin was outraged.
"420-something-thousand Americans are dead -- and you want to play this game of 'I'm following the code of silence of my profession, I'm not going to rat on our coach.'"
The offensive coordinator decided to call it quits.
These days, he's on a crusade, with at least a few months to go before everyone can be vaccinated, with even more infectious strains now hitting the country.
"Everybody thinks college football season's over it's going to be safe now," Franklin said.
"Hell, no. This is the worst time for college football, because they're going back indoors. They're going into the locker rooms, they're going into the weight room again.
"For the next four to six months, my goal is to do something to save lives, do my part, all over college football."
After the release of Middle Tennessee State's internal review, the university released the following statement from its president, Dr. Sidney McPhee:
“We have been relentless in our University’s actions and efforts to combat COVID-19 and keep safe our students, faculty and staff. Our senior administrators and I have worked tirelessly and proactively since the onset of this pandemic to operate our University in a manner that protects our community. We closely follow all guidance from the NCAA and Conference USA regarding our athletics protocols, as well as our state and local public health officials. And we have made significant investments in protective equipment, new technology and other operational enhancements to protect our campus.
“I ordered this review, conducted apart from Athletics by our Human Resources chief, immediately upon hearing Coach Tony Franklin’s concerns about Blue Raiders Football’s compliance in regarding to COVID-19 protocols. We take concerns of this nature seriously, as illustrated by the thoroughness of this review and the urgency by which it was ordered and produced.
“In addition to my twice-weekly sessions of the University’s Executive Leadership Team, which coordinates our overall campus response, I convened and continue to meet weekly with a team comprising of our Athletics leadership; our University’s medical director; our team physician; and Student Affairs officials. This team, which I chair, develops Athletics safety policies and monitors our progress on mitigation efforts geared to protect our student athletes.
“I am pleased that the review acknowledges that we have devoted considerable time and effort into planning and executing a strategy that considers the health and safety of our entire University community, including our student athletes.”
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