LARAMIE — The fading hope Wyoming’s football team has of actually having a spring may be the best example of the type of uncertainty surrounding major college athletics.
The Cowboys were originally scheduled to begin spring practice on Tuesday, but a nationwide coronavirus outbreak has changed almost everything in the sports world. More accurately, it’s stopped just about everything.
That includes professional sports, but Major League Baseball as well as the NBA and NHL have only postponed their seasons for now. Collegiate competition is over for good this spring in an effort to control the spread of the COVID-19 disease, which, as of Thursday, had produced more than 10,000 confirmed cases in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Last week, the NCAA canceled the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments — annually one of the nation’s most anticipated sporting events. The Ivy League made the decision to cancel all of its spring sports competitions, and many other conferences, including the Mountain West, followed suit.
The MW, of which UW is a member, left the decision of continuing practices up to each of its member schools based on the conditions at each institution. A UW athletic department spokesman told the Star-Tribune late last week the football team was still hoping to hold spring practice at some point and that more information would be shared as it became available.
On Monday — just a day after the CDC made a nationwide recommendation to avoid public gatherings of 50 people or more for the next eight weeks — the MW announced that all team-organized activity was suspended until at least March 29. By Wednesday, UW had announced it was postponing spring football indefinitely.
“Your guess is as good as mine if spring ball occurs at all,” UW athletic director Tom Burman said. “If you think forward, it is possible there is no traditional spring ball. There could be some sort of extended fall practice sessions that occur for schools that didn’t get spring ball in. It’s a moving target.”
It’s just one of the effects the unprecedented measures taken to limit the spread of the virus has had on college athletics not only at Wyoming but Division I schools across the country. And there are still questions that need answers.
With the MW men’s and women’s basketball tournaments being completed by the time most conferences canceled their tournaments last week, UW’s basketball teams finished their seasons. But the NCAA’s cancellation of winter and spring championships cut short the season for UW’s wrestling team, which still had the Division I national championships left in Minneapolis. The same goes for UW’s swimming and diving team, which was competing in the CSCAA National Invitation Championship in Cleveland when the event was canceled after one day.
Travel is a concern when it comes to the spread of an infectious disease. As of Wednesday, Burman said only one athletic department employee had been tested for the virus, which came back negative. Burman added he didn’t know of any student-athletes that have been tested, though he couldn’t say definitely it hasn’t happened.
Earlier this week, UW moved all classes online for the rest of the semester and is asking students not to return to campus following spring break, which was recently extended an extra week in an attempt to control the spread of the virus. UW begins spring break next week.
“We all know if you’re not very likely to have it, you’re probably not even going to get a test with the way it works right now because testing is so restricted,” Burman said. “I don’t know of any employees that are even in the queue for a test.”
Meanwhile, between the end of the MW basketball tournaments and all of the cancellations, Burman was busy searching for UW’s next men’s basketball coach after terminating Allen Edwards on March 9. Burman said he talked to at least seven candidates and eventually settled on the one he wanted all along, Northern Colorado’s Jeff Linder, but even that process was interrupted by the threat of COVID-19.
“It made everybody a bit nervous,” Burman said. “I would call a candidate and say, ‘Hey, I’m interested in chatting with you. Would you have an interest in meeting in a certain location?’ And there was very little interest in that until they knew how serious I was. … It had an impact. There’s no doubt.”
For Linder, it’s impacting his ability to dive into the lifeblood of his new program: recruiting. The men’s basketball program didn’t sign any recruits during November’s early signing period, so the Cowboys currently have three scholarships available — a number that could increase should any current players decide to transfer.
But in an effort to further stop the spread of the virus, the NCAA has banned all on- and off-campus recruiting until at least April 15, which coincides with the first day of the spring signing period. Until then — and likely for a period of time after — Linder will only be able to communicate with prospective players over the phone.
He’s counting on his background to help. A Colorado native, Linder spent the past four years recruiting his home state for Northern Colorado and has previous experience in the MW having spent six seasons on Leon Rice’s staff at Boise State.
“I think first we have to figure out where our roster is at. Then from there, it just comes back to the relationships I’ve built and the coaches have built,” said Linder, who’s also had stints as an assistant at Colorado, Emporia State, Midland College, Weber State and San Francisco. “Before there were really cell phones, the internet and all this social media, you had to get on the phone, you had to work and you had to be able to sell the school. So nothing is really going to change. You can’t just stop recruiting because somebody else is out there doing it as well. You’ve just got to find different ways to do it.
“You’ve got to be able to get on the phone, sell yourself and sell the program and then get guys to go online. When guys go online, they have the ability to see what the University of Wyoming has to offer. I have a feeling we’ll be able to find some good players here late.”
‘So many unknowns’
Another unknown is what action the NCAA takes regarding the eligibility of student-athletes who had at least part of their seasons cut short because of the cancellations. The NCAA’s Division I Council Coordination Committee has agreed to grant another year of eligibility to players who won’t get to compete in spring sports but announced details of that eligibility relief would be finalized at a later time.
Spring sports at UW include golf, track and field and women’s tennis, but might that relief be extended to student-athletes in winter sports who didn’t get to finish their seasons? Will it only be granted to seniors who had their final year of collegiate competition taken away or will the whole team get an extra year? Will the NCAA waive scholarship restrictions? And if so, who will foot the bill for those extra scholarships?
“We’re in unique times in our history,” Burman said.
Speaking of money, the cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournament — the primary revenue stream for college sports’ governing body — could end up costing schools millions.
The NCAA, which topped $1 billion in revenue for the first time in 2017, was scheduled to make $827 million alone from its media rights deal with CBS and Turner for the current fiscal year. According to USA Today, $600 million of that is supposed to be distributed to Division I schools and conferences this spring.
UW receives roughly a $1.7-million cut of the tournament’s TV revenue annually, Burman said. Athletic directors and administrators at other Division I schools have been told the NCAA has anywhere from $250 million to $275 million in business-interruption insurance connected to the tournament, according to USA Today’s report. But if the association isn’t able to get all of that money or borrow enough funds to make up the difference, it’s likely that UW will receive a smaller payout than usual, which could negatively affect the athletic department’s budget.
Burman said all of those funds are put toward the budget, which is roughly $40 million. That means a typical amount of TV revenue from the tournament makes up roughly 4.2 percent of UW’s annual operating budget.
“I would say our world right now, there are so many unknowns,” Burman said. “The only known is the world is changing. For how long? That’s really the question.”
As for the here and now, the only decision left for UW to make this spring is whether to have organized football practices. At this point, April would be the earliest the Cowboys could get on the field.
If it lingers beyond that, the idea of canceling it all together and petitioning the NCAA for an extended fall camp could pick up steam. Air Force was the only team in the MW that finished spring practice before things were brought to a halt.
Would the NCAA allow more practices before teams officially open fall camp the first week of August? And would it grant them to all teams or just the ones that weren’t able to finish or even start spring ball?
Burman said he and other MW athletic directors have broached the subject with one another, but he added there are a lot of hoops to jump through before that kind of talk can go from chatter to reality.
“That doesn’t mean it would happen,” Burman said. “It’s going to have to happen with some legislative changes within the NCAA, which they’re going to have to do all kinds of things differently next fall to put this back together. They’re going to have to adjust the way we work.”
Like everybody else, Burman doesn’t have many definite answers to the multitude of questions that exist in this new, bizarre world of sports — or lack thereof.
“Yes, there’s been discussions, but it hasn’t gone anywhere at this point,” Burman said. “Not in a good way or a bad way. It’s just we’re waiting to see.”
Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.
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