If you wandered by Virginia football practice this fall, you might hear players screaming and chanting.
In addition to the typical support offered to their teammates, players on the bench were asked to bring increased energy to hype up their playing partners. In essence, they tried to simulate a potential 2020 game-day atmosphere during practice.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall calls this, an active and positive sideline, the “Fourth Side.”
In addition to offense, defense and special teams, Mendenhall wants players on the bench engaged and supportive throughout each game. The term is part of building a culture within a program that went 2-10 his first season with an abysmal opening performance against Richmond.
Over the years, the Fourth Side has grown to include fans in the stands.
The culture-building technique may play an important role this season, with UVa opening its season Saturday in front of a maximum crowd of 1,000 people due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“It would be remarkable and timely if that ended up being a competitive advantage for us this season,” Mendenhall said. “We have trained for it. It is emphasized, but it is a new team, and there are new players on that side. It’s a culture that’s unique to the program meaning that it’s been in place, but this year’s team has a new version and a new challenge to take on.”
With roughly 50,000 fewer fans than the Cavaliers might have drawn in for a typical season opener, the game atmosphere will feel different for the players and coaches.
Mendenhall says some of his coaching colleagues at other schools compared recent games to scrimmages. He also says more of the on-field dialogue is audible. He shared some concern in a recent media session about cursing and trash talk potentially being heard. He expects to keep tabs of how the first game goes before coaching the Fourth Side more next week.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported earlier this offseason that ACC teams are allowed to use artificial crowd noise to help simulate a traditional game-day experience.
Even with crowd noise or music being played, artificial sound isn’t the same as die-hard fans screaming with joy. That’s part of the reason Mendenhall believes the Fourth Side could prove critical this year.
Throughout camp, players have practiced being engaged on the sidelines.
“During fall camp, coach has really harped on everyone on the sidelines getting into whoever’s on the field and really cheering on our teammates,” senior defensive lineman Mandy Alonso said. “That’s what feeds our Fourth Side. We practice using our Fourth Side in practice, so I feel like we’re gonna be able to feed off each other.”
The experience isn’t just different for players, however, it’s also different for the fans who plan their fall Saturdays around trips to Scott Stadium to watch the Wahoos.
Natalie Fitzgerald, UVa’s former director of academic affairs for football, has had a member of her family attend home football games dating back to their first purchase of season tickets in 2005. The 15-year streak of home attendance comes to an end this Saturday.
It’s a bittersweet feeling for Fitzgerald, who retired from her role at UVa in the winter of 2019 after beginning in 2006. She’s looking forward to avoiding the occasional obnoxious fan, but she’s also planned tailgates with her family and the families of football players for years. She won’t see those families at tailgates or in the stands this weekend, even though some of them will be allowed into the stadium as part of the 1,000 fan maximum.
“You just cannot understand how heartbroken I am that I’m not gonna be in Scott, but Saturday is perfect for me because honestly it will be my husband and I only,” Fitzgerald said. “We will be on our couches in our living room. We’ve already got our tailgate menu planned out. We’re ready to go and it will be perfect for me because I won’t be around anybody else that is coaching from seat 10 or row 12 or thinks they can do a better job. I will just be able to watch the team play and bring home a win and tell my husband every now and then that he needs to be quiet.”
Despite the deep disappointment of not seeing her football family this fall, Fitzgerald is choosing to look at the positives. She understands that her staying home helps keep the football players safe, as a full stadium would pose a health risk to them and others in the community.
She desperately wants to see UVa play to showcase that the team is better than pundits give it credit for entering this fall. She hopes to see the Cavaliers compete again for the ACC title.
She also recognizes that watching from home to ensure proper safety is a sacrifice she and other fans are ready to make.
“You worry about the safety of the players, first and foremost,” Fitzgerald said. “Am I in a place where I’m missing college football? Absolutely. Am I struggling to find things to watch on the weekends? Absolutely, but at no time do I want to put anybody at risk to enjoy a college football game.”
Limited fan attendance is one of the major storylines for football games this fall. Even without passionate fans like Fitzgerald, though, games count in the standings.
There’s a championship on the line later this season.
Embracing the unusual circumstances is an important part of finding success this season.
“It’s definitely gonna be a strange feeling, but I feel like it’s probably gonna be kind of like our spring games where it’s usually just friends and family and a few fans,” Alonso said.
Accepting a lack of fans and focusing on internal support within the team could prove vital to the team’s ability to gain momentum and stay positive during games this fall.
In terms of competing without thousands of screaming fans at Scott Stadium, wide receiver Terrell Jana might be the most ready of any UVa player to suit up in front of small live audiences.
“I grew up playing football in Canada, so I’m used to having no fans at my games,” Jana said.
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