No football in the fall? Here are college sports' biggest worries in wake of coronavirus pandemic

Some are bored. Some are quarantined at their beach houses. Many are experiencing shotgun acclimation to using Zoom, the video-conferencing technology they’d never heard of on March 1.

These are strange times in college athletics, as administrators, coaches and players all adjust to the new normal as the coronavirus continues to spread around the country. “The reality is that everyone is in crisis management,” said a prominent college official.

That new normal includes distance learning, endless FaceTiming with recruits and worrying about how players are eating. A facilities project has turned from building a new weight room to an arena potentially being used for triage to treat victims.

“We’re in unknown territory,” West Virginia president Gordon Gee told Yahoo Sports. “I’ve been through wars and pestilence and stock crashes and 9/11. I’ve never been though a pandemic. I feel like a small boy walking on a picket fence — thrilled but in danger of being impaled.”

What’s at the forefront of the minds of folks around college athletics during these uncertain times? Yahoo Sports spoke to a dozen coaches and administrators this week about what they’re worried about.

Alabama coach Nick Saban looks on before a game against Mississippi State on Nov. 16, 2019. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Alabama coach Nick Saban looks on before a game against Mississippi State on Nov. 16, 2019. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Academics for recruits

One Power Five coach identified the tenuous eligibility of incoming recruits as the biggest issue that isn’t being publicized. Many programs have a half-dozen commitments who need improvements in core courses or bumps in SATs and ACTs in order to qualify for a scholarship. With schools out and fewer test dates available, there are few opportunities for extra help to get qualified.

“I’m just not sure what this means for [the kids at risk],” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. “I worry about the kids going to take a test. What about kids with [Individualized Education Program] who get accommodations when they take the test?”

A Power Five coach told Yahoo Sports that they have a junior college prospect signed whose school has closed and needs to distance learn from home. The player is from a rural Southern town and doesn’t have access to internet at his home and can’t go to a library or Starbucks now because of the virus.

Coaches are seeking guidance from the NCAA on how to handle these cases.

“That’s going to be a big moral decision for the NCAA and the eligibility center,” Washington State coach Nick Rolovich said. “They’ve appeared very open-minded in the wake of the pandemic, so I’m confident they’ll do the right thing.”

Yahoo Sports reached out to the NCAA, and spokesperson Stacey Osburn replied: “NCAA leadership and membership committees are identifying and working through the considerable implications related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including well-being and eligibility considerations for college-bound high school and current college athletes. We will share additional details as they become available.”

Academics for current players

The other issue front of mind with coaches is how their players are going to adapt to distance learning. Those at-risk academic students are going to struggle without the daily structure of class, tutors and team activities. No one is sure if there will be some type of eligibility cushion for atrisk players who fall below NCAA minimums.

Fickell said he’s told his coaches checking in on players via Zoom to focus on if they’re logged into their classes. “That’s a lot more important than us going over Cover 2,” he said.

Much about how current students’ grades are handled is still to be determined. One source described athletic directors as “worried to death” about athlete eligibility. A big concern is if online classes go to pass-fail, how will those marks be used to determine both GPAs and progress toward a degree? Will students who’ve had strong semesters to potentially boost their GPAs have to keep their prior GPAs if classes become pass-fail? This will be especially thorny because of the variance in operations – semesters vs. quarters – and grading at so many different schools.

“Everything else in society is getting bailed out by the government – airlines and hotels,” said a Power Five coach. “How’s coronavirus going to take opportunity away from a kid? How are you not going to bail out a kid? We’re talking about human beings.”

Financial impact

This notion sums up where college athletics is headed financially. “I don’t care if you’re Georgia or Texas, you’re going to be down in revenue.”

We’re entering a completely different financial paradigm in college athletics, as evidenced by a basketball coaching cycle that so far has seen zero coaches fired in the Power Six leagues.

First there’s lost NCAA tournament revenue, which is a much bigger deal for non-football schools. But the revenue piece that’s more significant is how the coronavirus will impact donations to schools. The next two months are the times coaches hop on private jets to woo donors. With the stock market down nearly 30 percent, much of that giving – and even the asking – is being put on hold.

Some schools also face a significant revenue loss from both housing services and dining, two of the areas where schools make much of their money annually. Refunds and credits are going to hurt bottom lines. The university financial crunch is going to trickle down to athletics, inherently. Look for sports to end up being cut, although not immediately as schools couldn’t handle the PR hit. One estimate is that some athletic departments will operate at about 20 percent less budget next year.

“The university will not be able to bail out the athletic programs because the university itself is under such constraints,” Gee said.

NCAA President Mark Emmert answers a question at a news conference Thursday, March 30, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)
NCAA President Mark Emmert answers a question at a news conference Thursday, March 30, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Fall without football

Could there be a year without football? Gee, the WVU president, shudders at the thought. “A world without college football in the fall?” he said. “It’s something we haven’t had the courage to contemplate.”

One Power Five athletic director told Yahoo Sports that he’d yet to begin modeling what that would look like. Another industry source said that some university presidents and athletic directors have just begun speaking those words out loud in the last 72 hours as a way to develop contingency plans.

“That would be catastrophic [financially] for athletic departments if they can’t play football this fall,” the source said. “It’s just literally been the last [few days], but those conversations are coming. Some schools are already modeling. A lot of it is a guessing game of none of us knowing.”

A quick lesson in college athletics economics for the uninitiated: The two biggest revenue streams in college sports are television contracts and the NCAA tournament. The NCAA tournament is run by the NCAA. It funds nearly 90 percent of the organization and the NCAA still distributes hundreds of millions to members. (The NCAA makes about $800 million annually and is insured for less than $300 million, according to reports.)

While the loss of the tournament is crippling financially for the NCAA and smaller leagues that sustain on the checks via their leagues for NCAA units, the loss of a football season would be exponentially worse for the landscape. Gee explains it this way: “Basketball at West Virginia will pay for itself,” he said. “Football pays for everything else.”

At the largest power-conference football schools, the revenue from the seven or eight home games totals nearly $100 million. The television contracts total billions annually, which would make playing in empty stadiums critical for the future if that’s the only option this fall. It’s understandable why athletic directors and presidents would shudder.

Safety first

Most athletic directors and coaches have conceded that there will be no formal sporting activity until the end of May — at the earliest. That means spring practices are gone. Schools like Coastal Carolina already held all 15. Schools from Washington State to Rutgers have had zero. Most are in the middle.

That leads to another concern among coaches and administrators – what kind of physical shape will players be in when they can play again? How will that impact them getting ready for the season? Some coaches are already buzzing about NFL OTA-style practices being available once social distancing ends.

“I’m very concerned about, physically, from a safety perspective, how do we get kids ready to play football,” said a Power Five athletic director. “This is going to be a long period of time. At virtually no time in their sports experience have [our athletes] had this much down time. From elementary school on. They can’t get in local health clubs. No one can get in our weight room. Your local high school is closed. What can you do in your house?

“For me, it’s all about getting the kids physically prepared. The ranges are going to be larger than we normally see.”

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