COVID-19 could challenge small schools and force season delay

Updated: July 1, 2020

Photo: Bloomsburg’s Marcus Gordon is about to begin his fifth season as head coach of the Huskies. Wrestling is the only Division I sport within the athletic department at this university in Pennsylvania.

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By Mike Finn

Marcus Gordon, like many smaller Division I program head coaches, is forced to wear many hats in preparing his wrestlers to succeed on both the mat and in the classroom at Bloomsburg University.

But like many of his peers, Gordon has been forced to wear something else the past four months as he starts his fifth season as coach: the fear of the unknown regarding his sport, stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

These are not normal times for college wrestling programs, which saw the 2019-20 season abruptly end on March 12, shortly before the NCAA was set to hold championship tournaments in three divisions, and forced student-athletes to finish their spring semesters on-line and while continuing to train at home.

“As a coach, you are always checking on your team, whether it’s in practice or in class,” Gordon said in May. “Now I do a lot of Zoom calls to make sure their classes are going well and making sure they are trying to do something. Normally, our kids would still be training and competing in freestyle right now. Hopefully, once the ban has been lifted, they will be in decent shape.”

Coaches like Gordon must also figure out a way to recruit athletes who cannot visit campus.

“It’s been challenging, but it’s something that we can get through and make it happen,” Gordan said. “It’s a shame our guys did not get to go to nationals or that recruits can’t come on campus. I’ve been answering a lot more different questions than normal.”

But perhaps the biggest questions for today’s college wrestling coaches deal with the financial shape of their programs … as two different lifelines are being cut off as the state after the state basically shut down.

And one of bigger losses for programs were the loss of summer camps that help finance wrestling programs.

“Our summer camps are crucial for us,” Gordan said. “It helps our scholarship fund. We are not a fully-funded program so we have to do fund-raising for most of our scholarships and we also use that money for our assistant coaches. Not being able to have camps this year is going to be tough.

The bottom line of this crisis might be the bottom line of athletic department budgets as programs may not be able to also count on donations from alumni and fans as it has in the past.

“Those have been the trickiest questions,” said Gordon, who in 2016 was named head coach of this Pennsylvania-based university, which has an enrollment of 8,600. “I’ve had multiple Zoom meetings and phone calls with my athletic director. We are trying to figure out other options in how to bring in revenue, including talking to our donors who normally donate to help our scholarship issue and lot of guys are business owners, whose businesses have been closed down.

“Lots of time we are left with no answers. In the past, if donations were low, we’d add another few days of the camp during the summer … or visa versa.  Right now, our two main options are out the window.

“I think every program has to feel that way. At Bloomsburg, we are the only Division I sport within the program and the entire town supports wrestling. I think the administration would hate to see us be gone. Yes, our program is in jeopardy and I think our sport is in jeopardy with everything going on.”

No program knows that more than Old Dominion, which was cut on April 2, when the university cited a loss of revenue because of the pandemic shutdown.


Assessing Program Strengths and Weaknesses

Mike Moyer, the executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, is well aware of Gordon’s concerns … and is trying to help the current 385 programs in three NCAA divisions as well as those NAIA and NJCAA schools.

That’s why the NWCA hired a company that independently rates the value of different businesses, including college wrestling programs.

“They’ve helped us develop the self-assessment tool at all levels and there are areas that we’ve drilled down on, which are the most important areas for administrators, when it comes to what’s going to stay and what’s going to go,” said Moyer.

“We’ve also created an internal report card on every one of our college programs. We can look, not only at the health of the wrestling program, but of the institution. With this tool, it is easier for us to forecast what’s likely coming down the pike as a result of this pandemic.

“We are trying to coach our coaches into getting their administrators to look at sports differently. At the Div. II, III and NAIA levels, we’ve come a very long way to look at the tuition-revenue benefits of adding sports. This is a new phenomenon at the Div. I level so an education process has to take place. If coaches buy into this, they are going to be equipped.

“This way, we can more objectively look at what are the most vulnerable college programs so that we can be much more proactive in supporting them as opposed to the announcement they’ve been dropped, then scramble and try to save it.

“The coaches will get a score, which is meaningless until all of the coaches have done it so that we can we balance their institution against other like institutions. We want coaches to know what their vulnerabilities are and not bury their heads in the sand, but be able to approach their supervisor and say they have a vulnerability and show their plan for adjusting it.”

Moyer tries to remind coaches that wrestling cannot be the reason universities  lose money; something that could happen with the NCAA’s updated Academic Progress Rate.

“When you are trying to have a sport that thrives in an education environment, there are check boxes that are really important that your sport does well in,” Moyer said. “One of the check boxes involves eligibility and graduation rates. At the Division I level, this is the first year that there is an academic rating that is added to the revenue-share formula.

“I don’t know if the pandemic has affected this at all, but prior to COVID-19, the average athletic department could earn an additional $50,000. By year number three, it’s north of a quarter million.

“What you don’t want is a situation where you have a Division I wrestling program being part of the reason the athletic department missed out on this money. The athletic department has an average APR score by averaging all of the teams’ APR scores. The number has to be above a 985. The problem of wrestling is that the sport’s average APR is 975.

Moyer said research tends to suggest student-athletes struggles begin once they get to college and are forced to balance both academic and athletic demands.

“It’s not that we are recruiting the wrong student, but what happens when they get there,” Moyer said. “One of the schools of thought is if the freshmen have that first semester to get their feet wet academically, could it then help that academic checkbox.”


Starting season in January?

One option the NCAA is considering is moving the start of the next season to January instead of October. A variable driving this drastic possible schedule move is the fact that many universities are planning on ending their fall semesters before Thanksgiving to avoid another surge of the coronavirus in December.

“The concern is that many schools are talking about sending their students home around Thanksgiving and not bringing them back until January,” Moyer said. “If the students aren’t allowed back, will the athletes be allowed back? That will be a strong argument to make January 1 as the start date to the season.”

Might moving the season to one semester also force a change in important dates of conference qualifiers, NCAA Championships, including the Division I tourney set to be held March 18-21 in St. Louis and the Olympic Trials, to be held  in State College at an undetermined date after COVID-19 postponed the Games to 2021?

“The challenge to the January 1 start date is if you don’t have the flexibility to move the NCAA tournament later, you would wind up with a three-week season, considering the wrestlers will need to practice for three weeks before they compete,” Moyer said.

“That means if they need three weeks to prepare for competition and don’t start until say Jan. 21. And if they need two weeks between the last dual meet and the conference tournaments and then another two weeks to prepare for Nationals, that will only give them three weeks of (regular-season) competition.

“92 percent of coaches were in favor of a later start, but start practicing in December, start competing in January and then moving the NCAA tournament into mid-April.”

The National Junior College Athletic Association announced on June 19 that the junior college season would be delayed.

NJCAA Wrestling programs will be permitted to hold fall practice starting October 1, concluding October 31. Regular season practice will be permitted to begin starting January 1, 2021.  Competition will be permitted to begin starting January 20. The 2021 NJCAA Wrestling Championship will be held April 23-24 at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Moyer said he believes the NCAA wants to wait to see how things go with the fall sports before taking on the winter sports challenge.

“The football situation is going to clarify itself in the next few weeks,” Moyer said. “Many of the football programs already have athletes who are testing positive. That’s going to happen in all sports and what will that mean?”


The Health Question

Moyer said the NWCA has created a task force of medical people who have ties to the CDC.

“Our goal through this task force is to not supersede what the state government guidelines are but to provide layers on top of their recommendations with our specific sport information and to provide our coaches with the best practices,” he said. “It’s challenging because the state and local governments are all over the place.”

Moyer pointed out that wrestling has overcome health issues in the past, which will help in the mindset of adjusting to eventual new health recommendations.

“One other benefit is that we are used to hygiene in this sport with skin checks at weigh-ins and sterilizing mats,” Moyer said. “If we are taking temperature checks before every practice, I don’t think it will be disruptive to our sport.”

Gordon said he is trying to stay positive as decisions are made. Until then, he is still trying to make sense of what has happened.

“I’ve told my wife multiple times that this seems so weird — and that’s not the right word. It’s so different,” Gordon said.