A branch of the Singler football coaching tree finally made it onto the field.
And Mitch Singler did so in one of the game’s most hallowed venues.
Singler took his perch in the press box and helped facilitate Duke’s offense when it opened the season last Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium under the watchful eyes of Touchdown Jesus.
The locale and top-10 opposition was daunting enough. Playing a game in the COVID-19 era, with a relative smattering of fans on-site but untold thousands taking heed, added to the unusual nature.
“It was actually kind of crazy to have coaches text me like, oh, man, you guys are already going out and playing a game,” said Singler, whose father, Bill, and brother, Jack, are also in the coaching ranks but have been idle because of the virus. “It hits you, dang, you realize the pandemic we’re in and the situation we’re in and that you’re so lucky to play.”
Bill Singler is the longtime head coach at South Medford High, and his youngest son, Jack, is an aide with the Panthers after returning from Central Washington University, where he was a graduate assistant.
Mitch Singler, 29, is in his third year at Duke, in Durham, North Carolina. His title is football analyst/offense, and he assists with running backs.
A South Medford alumnus, he lettered three years at wide receiver at Oregon State before graduating in 2014. He served as a quality control coach with the Beavers for two seasons, then headed to Duke to broaden his coaching experience.
Against the Fighting Irish, the Blue Devils acquitted themselves well but weren’t able to pull off an upset in South Bend, Indiana, losing 27-13. Notre Dame climbed three spots to No. 7 in The Associated Press Top 25 Poll this week.
Duke started the game in dominant fashion, outgaining Notre Dame 151-13 in the first period, and was within 17-13 entering the fourth quarter.
The Irish, however, took over in the latter stages to salt away the victory.
“Our kids fought hard, to be honest with you, from start to finish,” said Singler. “They played their butts off, man, and it was really good to see our kids just have that fight.”
Conditioning may have played a role as the Irish pulled away, he said, a possible effect of coronavirus workout limitations dating to March.
“Our kids played good, we just didn’t execute some plays in the second half,” said Singler. “They took advantage of those. When it comes down to it, you’ve just got to score in the red zone, and we didn’t make the most of our opportunities.”
In the press box, Singler had a bird’s-eye view of the proceedings, something new for him.
In previous years, he’s been on the sidelines, signaling in plays or noting formations and relaying tendencies to head coach David Cutcliffe — who also is the offensive coordinator.
Singler’s role doesn’t allow direct coaching of players. Rather, he delves into analytics around the sets the Blue Devils use, the down and distance, how the opposing defense reacts and what adjustments can be made.
They are the same duties he has during practice, when he’ll also monitor the flow of each session and help Cutcliffe and other coaches stay on script.
During the game Saturday, he was flanked by quarterback and tight end coaches who had similar assignments.
The action on the field wasn’t the only thing Singler noticed on this unique day.
There were slightly more than 10,000 fans, mostly students, in the 77,622-seat stadium, and for the most part, they practiced social distancing.
Seeing so few spectators “was weird,” said Singler.
Atlantic Coast Conference logos were on the field, signifying the first time in 132 years historically independent Notre Dame played a conference game. It joined the ACC for this season out of desperation when other conferences elected not to play this fall and canceled games against the Irish.
Regardless of the COVID-19 ramifications, said Singler, it was still Notre Dame.
“Everyone knows the tradition of Notre Dame football,” he said. “You know that place is special. It was surreal just to walk in that stadium and know that you’re in history there.”
“It just crushes you because we can’t have fans there,” Singler added, “but you’re still playing for the love of the game. That took over. Honestly, you just put that football down and the whistle blows and then at the end of the day, you don’t really need fans.”
The pandemic had already significantly altered the build-up to the season, which continues Saturday with a home game against Boston College.
Spring practice was canceled after only three sessions. A dozen walk-throughs were permitted when athletes were phased into a return to campus in mid-July. Fall camp began for the Blue Devils Aug. 7.
Athletes had to self-quarantine at home for two weeks before going to Duke and continued the practice for three days upon arrival.
Weight lifting and other conditioning was spread out over six groups to abide by distancing measures, and players followed other precautions throughout.
“It definitely was a challenge, especially being away from your guys for about a third of the year,” said Singler. “You don’t get that face-to-face contact, you don’t have that interaction, and they’re not getting the training they need.
“Our guys were awesome in how they handled the situation. They took pride in everything they did in terms of the protocols put in place by the university, all that sort of stuff. They felt ready and eager to get on the field to start playing the game they came to Duke for.”
There was one other issue that socked Singler’s consciousness as the opener approached: His home region was devastated by wildfires that began the Tuesday prior.
His parents texted him saying they might have to evacuate and asked if there was anything in the house they should save for him.
“I was like, holy crap, this is actually for real,” said Mitch.
The first thing that came to mind wasn’t a thing; it was them. He told his parents to take care of themselves and be safe.
Ultimately, the Medford Singlers did not have to evacuate.
“You’d rather care for your parents and family,” said Mitch. “Stuff is stuff.”
In the same vein, he’s caring for himself. Singler doesn’t know what the future holds. He’s happy at Duke and cherishes working for a head coach the magnitude of Cutcliffe, who has guided the program since 2008.
But coaching is often a vagabond existence.
“You never know what tomorrow might bring, so I just always am where my feet are,” said Singler. “I’m just so happy to be here at Duke. It’s a special place. Duke football is home right now.”