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Virus touches college football, from upending schedules to making coaches ill

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If coach Dana Holgorsen seemed relieved after his University of Houston football team finally played a game Thursday night, no one can blame him. Five times the Cougars had season-opening opponents either cancel or postpone games because of the coronavirus pandemic.

When finally allowed on the field, the Cougars overcame five turnovers to outlast Tulane 49-31.

“We won, so that’s good, but there’s a lot of things we’ve got to get better at,” Holgorsen told reporters.

Houston’s story is only one of several to play out this season as colleges return to campus and try to find a way to coexist with COVID-19. Through Thursday, 26 FBS games had been postponed or canceled since the season began. That’s in addition to the upheaval of conferences retooling their schedules for later starts and shorter seasons.

The Gophers are scheduled to open a nine-game Big Ten season on Oct. 24 against Michigan.

In Houston’s case, the season was supposed to start Sept. 3 vs. Rice, but the Owls dropped out because of COVID-19. The next game, vs. Washington State, was eliminated when the Pac-12 originally canceled its season. The next game, vs. Memphis, was postponed, and the Cougars scrambled to fill that date with Baylor, until the Bears canceled 48 hours before kickoff. North Texas became the fifth program to beg out, canceling the Sept. 26 game.

“You can’t compare this to anything. … This is on a whole ‘nother level,” Holgorsen said earlier this week. “The one thing that has given us hope is we sit here and watch other teams playing.”

Familiar names impacted

When Notre Dame and Florida State meet Saturday night in South Bend, Ind., on display will be two teams whose seasons have been impacted greatly by COVID-19.

The fifth-ranked Fighting Irish return after their Sept. 26

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Colleges are cutting sports programs and upending lives

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A freshman track and field athlete cried on the bed in his dorm room. He felt angry and screamed. A baseball coach tried to explain the situation to his two young children before focusing his efforts on finding his players a home. Months later, he scrolls through Instagram and struggles with mixed emotions as he sees his players in their new uniforms.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has financially strained athletic departments. Schools didn’t receive their usual distribution from the NCAA after the men’s basketball tournament was canceled. They have lost revenue from student fees and donations. Most conferences are playing a shortened football season, with limited or no fan attendance, hurting yet another revenue stream. Many smaller schools are no longer receiving the payouts from nonconference matchups against Power Five programs. Schools have responded to these deficits by eliminating teams.

Around 80 Division I programs no longer exist, affecting roughly 1,500 athletes. Success and prominence don’t guarantee immunity. Furman baseball had a 125-year history. East Carolina men’s swimming won a conference title in February. Power Five schools — Iowa, Stanford and Minnesota — have discontinued programs.

“As an Olympic sport at a Division I college, you always have this understanding in the back of your head that if something is going to be cut, it’s potentially going to be your sport,” said Dan Shuman, a former East Carolina swimmer. “It’s living in the shadow of the guillotine.”

If that day comes, as it recently has for hundreds of athletes, they are forced to transfer to a new school or give up their sport to stay on campus. Coaches lose their jobs and must move their families for the next one. This process repeats around the country, each time beginning with an emotional team meeting that leaves athletes scrambling to adjust.