With Fall Fast Approaching, Local Athletic Directors Face Unprecedented Challenges

Imagine you’re Brian Barrio, newly-minted athletic director at UMBC just this December, with all these plans for polishing the pedigree of the proud Retrievers on your desk.

“I told somebody the other day when people asked me what I wanted to accomplish in my first 100 days at UMBC, containing the virus was not one of the answers,” Barrio said. “But that’s where we are. It’s life. These things happen. We’re going to handle it.”

At Coppin State, fall sports athletes are due to report Aug. 6 — at least for now, according to Coppin athletic director Derek Carter. Volleyball practices wouldn’t start until Aug. 15, and there’s a game scheduled Aug. 29 with Fairleigh Dickinson.

“Everything is so fluid right now, talk to me next week and everything could be different,” Carter said.

Carter was referencing those decisions recently announced in regard to COVID-19 and college athletics. The Ivy League, usually a leading indicator of what will happen in collegiate athletics, shut down sports for the first semester at member schools. So did the Patriot League, which includes Loyola — though that decision didn’t apply to Army and Navy.

The Big Ten Conference, which includes Maryland, announced that its membership would play only conference contests in the fall. The Atlantic Coast Conference then announced fall sports, other than cash cow football, would be delayed until at least Sept. 1.

Barrio has 18 years under his belt as the former athletic director at Central Connecticut State and an administrator at Nevada, Pepperdine, Southern Cal, the Ivy League and the America East Conference. Barrio doesn’t have football at UMBC, but that doesn’t mean the stakes are less for the program’s 15 teams and nearly 400 student-athletes.

“It’s so much bigger than athletics,” Barrio said. “I think it’s a little clearer without the football question. All I’m thinking about every day is can we do this safely? Can we ensure the safety and health of our student-athletes and our campus community versus can we give these young men and women back this part of their life and their education that is so important to their mental and emotional health?”

Barrio has been impressed with the support system in place not only at UMBC, but within the entire University System of Maryland, which is coming up with the medical plan to safely return all students to Maryland colleges and universities, not just the athletes. The athletes, though, given the nature of preparing for competition before and as classes traditionally start, are likely the first groups back on campus and the template for all on how to proceed.

“We have a plan and we intend to put our student-athletes in the safest environment we can to have them report back to campus and to practice,” Carter said of Coppin’s plans. “They’ll be tested just prior to arrival, on arrival and then quarantined for three days waiting for those results. It’s a resocialization period before they can even consider beginning practice.”

Carter was scheduled for a series of literal conference calls recently with fellow Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference members, a lot about fall timetables and scheduling. Obviously, Morgan State, also a MEAC member but with football, will be on a similar schedule to ramp back up.

“I think between July 15 and Aug. 1, most institutions will set in stone their intentions,” Carter said.

Carter, who has been an athletic director at five different schools since 2001, liked the Big Ten’s idea of leaning on conference play, though it doesn’t affect Coppin as it would a football school. The Eagles don’t get a guarantee check like Towson expected from a now-scuttled Sept. 5 date at Maryland. Morgan State might lose a pay-out that same day at Appalachian State with the current direction schools are headed.

Playing just conference games “allows for the flexibility if something occurs, you have the ability to bounce back through rescheduling or allowing individuals more time to recover [should athletes become infected],” Carter said. “Never in my lifetime did I expect to be dealing with something like this in my role, but it involves everyone.”

Barrio understands.

“We are so far outside the box right now in terms of a normal year I wouldn’t rule out anything,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’re forced into a timetable because anything could be on the table. Could you start fall sports in October? You could. There’s a broad spectrum of options.”

That said, Barrio thought a decision should come by early August so students would have an idea “what their semester was going to look like.” At UMBC, a phased plan has already pushed student-athlete arrival back from early August to give everyone more time to see where the region is in terms of the virus and to make decisions.

“Over the course of the last 11-12 weeks as a conference, with the local schools and among our coaches we’ve talked about every possible contingency,” Barrio said. “So anything you’ve read in the paper about possible ideas or outside-the-box stuff, we’ve talked about.”

Barrio and Carter think whatever shape this season takes will result in more local rivalries and a more regional approach to scheduling in all sports. It makes too much sense health-wise right now, but also in cost containment and in less time away from class.

“I’m a big fan of college sports being more local and I would have pushed for this in any year,” Barrio said. “For me in Baltimore it would mean a lot for us to start our nonconference schedule against local opponents because it means more to people. COVID has just changed the urgency of this.”

UMBC is working with campus and local health authorities to get guidance on testing.

“Again, the university system has been so good on this, the advice and guidance so sharp and so detailed, I feel good about it,” Barrio said.

Carter said at Coppin the plan to play sports in the fall begins with an overall strategy to test the student-athletes for the virus.

“We’ve been able to find some resources through the city and volunteer agencies that will allow us to test our students when they return at very nominal costs, and in some cases at no cost,” Carter said. “It’s gets problematic when you get into the frequency of testing. Do you test before every competition? Do you just do screenings? All of that is still on the table and part of the conversation that includes should we even do this, play this fall? The more you peel this onion more obstacles are revealed.”

Barrio admitted the decision-making “calculus is different” at an FBS school where there are so many more considerations like big revenue, bigger gatherings, and now bigger risk. The personal investment of the athletes, though, is still the same and the heartbreaking part across college athletics, local and nationwide.

“I get a little bent out of shape at the characterization that this is just fun and games, kids playing with a ball,” Barrio said. “These are high-level athletes that put so much into their sport with the training and preparation. Honestly, when you take that away from them like we did in the spring, you set off almost a grieving process.

“I don’t mean to compare sports to life and death, but in terms of the psychological and emotional reaction, these men and women who got their seasons taken away in the spring, that was essentially grief for them. I place a really high priority on giving them back that piece in their life.”

Barrio might be a little more connected to students than most. With his family still in school in Connecticut when he took the UMBC job, the athletic director moved into UMBC campus housing in January. He was among the students forced to leave as COVID-19 took hold in March.

“It was wonderful getting a feel for campus life, and I learned how students live and eat,” he laughed. “Then I also got a feel for being in a confined space during a pandemic. I wasn’t out in the suburbs. It helped my perspective as we got off to this weird start. I feel so emotionally invested here after just a few months.”

Carter rattled off more basic concerns about student-athlete proximity and interaction not only on the courts and playing fields, but also in the locker room and training room and weight room.

“Small teams traveling in vans — if you normally put a team in two vans, now you might need to put them in four vans to spread them out,” Carter said. “Complexities exist throughout. You peel that onion you find more tears.”

Photo Credits: Courtesy of UMBC and Coppin State Athletics

Mike Ashley

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