Had a long conversation late last week with Mike Roth, the Gonzaga athletic director, about the unsettled state of affairs in college athletics.
And while he never addressed it specifically, I find myself wondering if not just one, but two legitimate shots at a Gonzaga men’s national championship could be scuttled by the coronavirus.
Already, one went by the wayside in March with the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA basketball tournament. As we speak, the particulars of the 2020-21 season are no better than murky. As Roth says, in reference to the confused overall picture for college athletics in ’20-21, “My crystal ball looks like a bowling ball. I have no idea what’s going to happen next.”
It has to be a wailing siren to college administrators that the outlook for a vaccine to combat COVID-19 may be 12-18 months away. Could that mean basketball games without fans? Could it even mean – if the virus is persistent and testing continues hit-and-miss, or if there’s a dreaded “second wave” – no games?
In ways more subtle, the ’20-21 season is already being affected. In normal times, spring is when coaches can work individually with players. Think the Zags would want to have time right now with “Baby Shaq,” 6-10, 260-pound Oumar Ballo? That’s not happening, although GU’s foreign athletes have stayed in Spokane.
The much-anticipated Zag freshman class – Jalen Suggs, Julian Strawther, Dominick Harris -- would be due in town sometime in the summer for the usual academic/athletic acclimation. Obviously, that arrival time could be impacted.
To the good – for Gonzaga fans – I’d guess that fence-sitting players who might have opted for the NBA draft would be more apt to return to school because the player-evaluation process is so muddled. Just spitballing here, but if you’re known to be a first-round pick, you probably didn’t change your plans. But if you counted on workouts by pro teams as a way to raise your stock, that’s not happening.
Mostly, Roth can only paint possible scenarios. It’s the world we live in.
From his home, he talks “multiple times a week” to other athletic directors. Some head up football-playing schools, and, Roth says, “Those poor people are panicking.”
There is great determination to shoehorn in a football season because the sport drives the bus financially. Basketball makes money – a lot at GU – but apparently, only when we know more about football can we be assured of basketball’s landing spot on the ’20-21 schedule. A possibility is a delayed football season, one that might put football and basketball on roughly parallel tracks.
“If college football wants to push back a couple of months, what does that do to basketball?” Roth asks. “All of a sudden, all the ESPN basketball games are going to be out the window. What about the (November) tournaments, the big ones, the ones the Gonzagas of the world play in? They’re all TV-related. If TV has a football game instead, what does that do to the tournament?”
Most of those tournaments – Maui, Orlando, the Bahamas – where Gonzaga goes are mid-week affairs that ESPN theoretically could accommodate. But a lot of others have Thanksgiving-weekend dates that might conflict with football games.
Comprehensive coronavirus testing, and confidence in it, figures to dictate. If time is tight, might college hoops consider a truncated schedule of, say, 22 games, with teams opting out of many of their early non-league games – activating the “force majeure” provision common to contracts?
“That hasn’t popped up in any of the conversations I’ve heard with basketball,” Roth said. “But it has with other sports. West Coast schools are already hearing from schools on the East Coast, saying, ‘We’re not coming,’ because it costs too much money. But I haven’t heard that with basketball. The difference is, there’s not going to be any revenue with those other sports.”
On two scenarios, Roth seems convinced: Students must be back on campus before athletic competition can restart. And when they are back, he doesn’t foresee a provision that would discourage fans in large gatherings.
“I personally wouldn’t see that,” he said. “If you’ve got kids living in dorms and in food service (dining halls), how can you say they can do that, but you can’t have fans in the building?”
Absent a vaccine, so much will hinge on progress in testing. And the guidance of the coalition of West Coast states headed by governors Gavin Newsom, Kate Brown and Jay Inslee.
“I’m guessing our group (the governors coalition) is going to be pretty conservative (in veering back toward normalcy),” Roth said. “That’s just a guess. Now that they can in some ways lean on each other, I could see where they just say, ‘We don’t want to get over our skis’ – especially our guy (Inslee). We (in Washington) were at ground zero. If there’s another outbreak, it’s not going to look good.”
Roth is only one of many GU officials who will be riveted to university-wide consequences of the virus. He broaches the idea that even if the student body is allowed back in the fall, some may be reluctant to return. On the other hand, if students aren’t back on campus, “that’s a significant part of the university budget,” he says, referring to room and board.
Gonzaga will honor the NCAA-mandated rule allowing senior spring-sports athletes eligibility in 2021. But some early returns on a GU survey of those affected are intriguing. A lot of kids, especially those who aren’t getting significant scholarship aid, are ready to get on with their lives.
“So far, we’ve had very few definites: ‘Yes, I’m coming back,’ ‘’ Roth says. “More maybes. But actually more no’s than yesses.”
Some of what you’re reading may sound alarmist. But Roth says GU president Thayne McCulloh made reference recently to a school, unnamed, and at a level unknown, that has already decided not to have campus classes in the ’20-21 school year.
There’s obvious momentum now toward “reopening” commerce. The results of that push no doubt will affect what happens in the fall. But what happens if, in September, the football player at Ohio State or the basketball player at Santa Clara tests positive? What sort of ripple might that create?
As for the Zags and a quest for a 2021 national title, here’s the good news: There will be considerable push for an NCAA tournament; it was the first really big event to be extinguished in March, and it’s a serious money-maker for NCAA schools. The insurance-fueled payout to member conferences was about 30 percent of normal.
And you can argue that even as Gonzaga’s routine is affected, so will be every other school’s chasing a championship banner. It’s just that when you appear poised to make the mother of all runs, you’d prefer not to deal with disruption. You’d rather have as much time as possible on the odometer with a freshman point guard like Jalen Suggs.
But that’s for normal times. Garden-variety, pedestrian, ho-hum normal. Looks pretty good right now.