ZUNews will be talking to new football head coach Rudy Carlton weekly to see how he is adjusting to his new role with the Cougars.

The Rudy Carlton story is embodied through Cougar football.

A graduate of the class of 2006. A quarterback who wore the brick and black with pride and placed his name in the program’s record books. An offensive coordinator for 10 years under the winningest head coach in program history in Victor Santa Cruz. And as of February, head coach; a position he has often described as his “dream job.”

Yet, when athletic director Gary Pine announced the shift towards the Rudy Carlton era eight months ago, no one could have possibly expected it to begin during the birth of a global pandemic.

“It has made the simplest tasks complex,” Carlton stated.

Even when disregarding the possibility of a season not taking place, getting this team reunited has been difficult enough.

APU has released extensive plans towards creating a safe environment for all athletic programs to return to both conditioning and practicing for competition. Ultimately, that plan has required all teams to separate rosters to groups no bigger than eight. For a sport with a roster of fewer than 30 athletes, it has been, while not a comfortable adjustment, a feasible assimilation. Football, on the other hand, has made the transition almost nonviable.

“The Covid protocol has been incredibly challenging, especially when you consider the fact that we have a roster of 112 guys being split up into groups of eight,” Carlton said. “We have had to spread everything out pretty thin. The school has done a magnificent job in terms of maximizing the resources we have for every other sport as well. We’ve just had to find a rhythm, that’s been the key.”

It has led to some incredibly long days for this coaching staff. The team has been forced to separate their workouts between days and time frames. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are strength and conditioning days in which they have to separate the varying groups between morning workouts, afternoon workouts and evening workouts. Tuesdays and Thursdays are dedicated to field work, which Carlton has explained is easier to separate based on the spacing of the field alone. With all this, daily Zoom meetings that incorporate film dissection remains a constant.

There is no need for explanation when attempting to understand the challenges that lie in a schedule such as this. It has been a trail that has required this coaching staff to retain a level of adaptability. Yet, it has been a trial that has been well worth the effort according to Carlton. 

“It was critical to get our guys back in the weight room and on the field for the psychological component of it,” said Carlton. “The game is about being together and being a part of a brotherhood. So for their sanity, along with my sanity, getting back in the swing of things has been good.”

There may be no time more important to be reliant on a brotherhood than right now. All demographics have been challenged with the pandemic along with a fight for social justice that has seemed to shape the way our society has grown to understand the impact and relevance of privilege throughout our country’s blueprint.

Even amongst a football locker room, these conversations are often had. And while the sport is used as a catalyst to escape the hardships brought from these realities, the hearts of the players are continuing to heal and adjust to these new challenges. Coach Carlton, someone who explained the difficulties that erupted from the past few months in his own life, and the rest of his coaching staff have been intentional towards supporting their guys through a support system that encourages both empathy and accommodativeness.

“I’m a 36-year-old with a wife, a kid and a mortgage, you know?,” Carlton said. “I have all these support systems around me. But I and the rest of the staff understand that our guys are going back to different home environments where that support is hard to come by. There’s been so many factors that have played out over these last few months that have been so challenging, and we’ve been intentional about supporting out guys from a distance.”

This sort of approach represents the way Carlton identifies football: relationships before the game.

“We were created to be a community and to build relationships, and there is something powerful in that. This couldn’t be more true for football, and it is part of the reason why I feel people, including our team, love this game so much. So for us, right now, we don’t even need to throw a football or have pads on. We just want to be with each other and build those relationships,” he stated.

For a circumstance such as this, the sport must take a backseat. While film sessions are continuing to be implemented, making them specific towards opponents and gameplans is an impossible feat since there is no schedule released. Right now for the Cougars, it is about setting the culture, and Carlton is doing this by placing a primary focus on the base schemes that construct both the team’s offense and defense.

“If you’re ready and prepared then you’ll never be caught off guard whenever it is announced that we will be playing again,” Carlton mentioned. “That’s been the mindset since we came back.”

Carlton noted, however, that he realizes his staff is not alone in this transition of the unknown. All coaches in all athletics from all collegiate levels of play are dealing with the same hardships. And as the old cliche goes, there is no rule book on how to handle these new experiences. All one can do is surround themselves with a strong support system that influences them to do their best work, and Rudy certainly has this.

“There’s been two sides of the coin,” Carlton joked about when discussing his experience with the pandemic.

He and his wife, Cayln, had their first daughter, Everly, in March. Being home for that transition ended up being a positive for Carlton and his family. Yet, it was also intimidating to become a dad in this pandemic-driven environment. Add this with finally being rewarded your dream job and the foundation of it being taken away suddenly; it has been a drastic shift of livelihood for the Cougars’ newest coach in which he is just trying to hold on tight for the ride.

Nevertheless, his family has supported him, along with his coaching staff, throughout all of it. He has been given new life challenges, which in return has brought out the support that he has needed to not lose sight of all the opportunity that he has been given this year. And with that, his faith has been the cornerstone, giving him the strength to answer these opportunities with not only elation and effort but with an open mind and heart.

“I’ve been here forever and I’m living my dream, and for everything to play out this way so early it’s just been like ‘Woah,'” Carlton said while he looked away smiling. “But at the end of the day, I know God is faithful. And I know he’s in control. We’re just gonna have to take it a day at a time.”