PHILADELPHIA — It won’t be a conventional college sports season — assuming it starts. There will be fewer games, less travel. Maybe conference-only play, starting later. No overnight trips for some teams. No flights for some used to taking them.
Or, it will start but not finish.
Or, it won’t start.
My thoughts? Nope. I checked in with college coaches, because they need to be the most tuned in to all COVID-19 issues since they have a vested interest. Two questions for them: Will their team (a) play a game? And (b) finish the season?
I asked 32 current coaches, got 29 responses, mostly via texts. Got 19 saying yes, there will be a game, 13 saying the season may start late. Six coaches say no season at all. Four are unsure, which is way different from not having an opinion. (I said I’d identify the responders only by their level of competition.)
“Quote me on this if you want — I don’t know if my kid will attend a day of second grade,” said Johns Hopkins men’s basketball coach Josh Loeffler, himself a Swarthmore College graduate.
Since Johns Hopkins was one of the first schools to hold basketball games without fans, days before sports fully shut down, and is a university renowned for its science curriculum, listening to the Hopkins coach even when he’s expressing uncertainty makes sense.
In asking these questions, I went to a lot of basketball coaches, who have teams typically playing in both the fall and spring semesters.
Interestingly, most of the Division I coaches thought their teams would have a season, even if it starts late, maybe in January, maybe only with conference games.
Division II and III coaches, many with fewer resources at their disposal, were more skeptical about getting games in.
As for finishing a season, there was a slight drop from those who believed a season would start, with 15 coaches saying yes, eight saying no, six saying they weren’t sure. All the coaches who responded answered the questions, but quite a few provided their own asterisks.
A Division II coach: I believe we will start, because enrollment in many cases means survival. I do not believe we will finish seasons. Our players may test positive, other teams will have positive tests. Kids will opt out for safety. Parents will question if schools are doing enough.
Another Division II coach: I hope we play, but I doubt it. And if we start playing and there is no vaccine, then I don’t think we will finish the season.
A third Division II coach: I believe the breaking point will depend on how many students are hospitalized with severe symptoms. Hopefully, this number is extremely low.
A Division I coach: I think we will play and can finish. If we choose to start at the right time …
Seeing how the NBA works out indoors, and how big-time college football gets through the summer workout months, will be a huge factor, a number of these coaches said.
Watching how football schools deal with positive COVID-19 cases right now has their attention. For instance, how the University of Houston initially said it wouldn’t test athletes returning to campus for voluntary workouts, but canceled the workouts after six symptomatic student-athletes tested positive. Temple tested athletes before they began going in for voluntary workouts Monday.
These coaches know the decision-making process really isn’t in their hands. There is no one governing body that will call all the shots.
Many noticed how Bowdoin College, a Division III school in Maine, already has announced there will be no fall sports. In a statement announcing the decision, Bowdoin said it hopes for the “opportunity for the winter, spring, and possibly fall varsity athletes to participate and compete in some form after Jan. 1.”
The Patriot League, Division I, announced no plane travel this fall and “with rare exceptions, regular-season competition will exclude overnight travel.” This is a little more geographically feasible for a league that stretches from Boston to Washington but hasn’t expanded its footprint farther out.
Starting games with conference play in January was a common Division I hoops thought, a discussion point within that sport. “Deep in my bones feel as though league games only,” said one Division I veteran.
Another Division I coach: What is wrong with prudence … January start date. May Madness. The money still flows in same calendar year.
Another Division I coach: If we play only league games, it will be a win. I think we are in for a long, bumpy unorthodox season with no fans.
A Division I assistant: I think we will play, but it’s on the heels of the success of the NBA season. Without that, I am not sure.
Drew Kelly, basketball coach at Harcum College, a junior college in Bryn Mawr, said that as a coach, “I have no choice but to believe we will play and we will finish the season.”
But Kelly also is athletics director at Harcum.
“As an AD, I’m highly concerned about so many things,” said Kelly, saying to feel free to quote him by name. “From health and safety to finances.”
Kelly said he is optimistic that the worst of COVID-19 is behind us, “that medical science will come through, and that as athletic administrators and coaches, we can mitigate the risk and find a way to play. At the small-college level, we don’t have to worry about large crowds in the stands and the lost revenue from tickets sales, so in some ways there are less obstacles for the small schools to return to play than their larger Division I counterparts.”
This coach wasn’t overly optimistic about starting the fall season.
A Division II fall-sport coach sees it differently: I think we will not play. I don’t think our level is equipped to handle the setbacks. So, as soon as we have one, likely in camp, the immediate reaction will be to shut us down.
However, this same coach added, “I think if we play we will finish.”
In the meantime, the clock keeps ticking.
A Division I fall-sport coach: We are still waiting to get an update on returning to campus, period. Start of season and playing a game seems way off right now.
While you might think spring-sport coaches would be more optimistic, they also realize that everything that happens between now and then will affect them.
A Division III spring-sport coach: I am not very optimistic for a spring season, and if we do have one, I see it being very limited. If we develop a vaccine by year’s end, then I would switch to being a little more hopeful.
What happens, one Division III coach asked, when half a team tests positive, and they play a game before they knew they had it?
“How do you social distance?” this coach asked. “How do you guarantee they meet cleaning (standards)?”
This coach, real pessimistic about playing, also added, “I want to play so badly. (We have a really nice recruiting class lol.)”