MOSCOW, Idaho – The variables of planning to operate a college athletics program in a pandemic are maddening.
“You might have to pretest every kid before you go into competition, and what do you do if one kid tests positive?” Idaho athletic director Terry Gawlik said.
What if schools in the Big Sky Conference have a low enough incidence of COVID-19 to feel sufficiently confident to begin fall sports seasons, but other NCAA schools on, say, the East Coast do not?
If you want to play football, do you have to test not only players but coaches, trainers, stadium workers? The band?
“You could drive yourself crazy,” Gawlik said.
This is where she and UI President Scott Green are headed. A change in public health conditions or direction from the Idaho Board of Education or Gov. Brad Little could alter present thinking, Green said.
Barring that, UI is proceeding with plans to open in the fall and to offer sports. At this point, all sports.
Idaho is a land-grant research institution with a residential campus and a Division I athletics program.
This is the university Green wants to see survive the coronavirus era.
“We need students, and we need state funding. Those are our primary levers,” Green said of what it will take for Idaho to emerge intact.
“Athletics are an important part of the university. I’m an incredible football fan. I love sports. You lose part of your soul if you can’t offer those things.
“Having said that, they are sports. We have to run an athletic department that makes sense.”
Idaho has not laid off any athletics personnel yet, Gawlik said.
“But we would look at whether we need to fill any positions that do come open,” she said.
Administrators have asked coaches to forecast the impact of various percentage budget cuts on their programs, based on scenarios of reduced or nonexistent ticket income from football.
Big Sky Conference officials are also considering how member schools could save money with changes in travel policies and conference tournaments, Gawlik said.
Although Idaho, like other schools, saw its sports year end part way through the conference basketball tournament, and the university closed the campus and went to online classes in March, not every anchor to a normal existence has been swept away by the coronavirus pandemic.
Applications for the fall semester are up 10% and acceptances up 8%, Green said, but potential students are prolonging decisions to attend.
Season ticket renewals for football seem to be proceeding on pace, Gawlik said. The deadline is Friday, and that should give Idaho a good idea of how much revenue it will have. Ticket sales from all sports in 2018 – the last normal year – were $644,233.
The university continues to raise money for its new basketball arena and still expects it to be open by fall of 2021, even though one of the contractors has slowed work recently, Green said. Annual fundraising is also ongoing.
“Fundraising has slowed down. The market has had an impact on that,” Green said.
But Green said donors have told him they intend to honor their pledges to the university when the market rebounds.
No athletics personnel have been forced to take salary reductions.
“We are looking at that as a response to possible reductions in state funding,” Green said.
The university went through an austerity exercise this fiscal year when it trimmed $10 million, eliminating 150 positions to voluntary separations and early retirements in the process.
It also put in place plans to cut another $8 million in response to an expected 2% decrease in state funding.
“That would have eliminated our deficit,” Green said. “Our campus has done what we were asked to do.”
Now UI may face additional reductions in state funding stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, Green said.
Even before the crisis, Gawlik said she wanted to change language in coaches’ contracts, and that process is ongoing with UI’s legal department. The contract of new men’s basketball coach Zac Claus, which was to be negotiated at the conclusion of the 2019-20 season, has been caught up in the widespread contracts reviews, Gawlik said.
Cutting sports is not on the table.
“I hope we never have to go there,” Gawlik said.
The campus, like nearly every institution in the country, is unnaturally quiet these days, but Green points to hopeful indicators things could be different in September.
There are only four verified COVID-19 cases in Latah County and Idaho has the ability to isolate students who become sick.
“We know we can respond quickly to an outbreak,” Green said. “If we have to close the campus again, we know we can do that again.”
Gawlik points to a collaborative effort among athletics and other university officials across the country to plan on making their way through the pandemic.
“It’s really helpful to get people thinking outside the box,” she said.
“We’re trying not to have unintended consequences. We are trying to think everything through.”
All of it is in service to a goal of returning UI to a facsimile of its former self.
“We definitely need our enrollment to be preserved,” Green said. “We are a destination campus.”