Starting March 12 and continuing over the next several days, college athletics essentially ground to a halt.
Facing growing concerns about the spread of COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, the NCAA and then the NAIA in quick succession canceled their postseason basketball tournaments and other winter sports and within days had canceled spring sports for the year, as well.
In Fort Wayne, that meant men's and women's basketball teams at Saint Francis saw their national championship hopes dashed and the same for the women's team at Indiana Tech. It meant no more Summit League competition for Purdue Fort Wayne spring sports teams, who will now begin their transition to the Horizon League much sooner than previously expected.
For athletic directors at those schools, it means navigating challenges that would have seemed unthinkable just weeks earlier, helping athletes transition into a world without sports and trying to lift the spirits of seniors who saw their college careers cut short.
“Challenging, emotional, uncharted,” Indiana Tech athletic director Debbie Warren said when asked to describe the situation. “I've been doing this (working in college athletics) for 43 years and announced my retirement and never thought (over) my last 90 days, I would face these kinds of challenges.”
From the perspective of Purdue Fort Wayne AD Kelley Hartley Hutton, the lack of any upcoming competitions for which to prepare has been disorienting.
“As an athletic director, you get so caught up in, 'What's the next competition and who do we play next?'” Hartley Hutton said. “What's the next opportunity to move our school forward? That's the normal, always having something exciting and something to look forward to.
“Then, everything those student-athletes and coaches have worked for all year long – college athletics doesn't stop for 12 months – so to put it on a long, extended pause, it's hard.”
Saint Francis' Mike McCaffrey was especially surprised by the speed at which the situation developed from March 11 into March 12. He left March 11 to drive to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to watch the Cougars' men's basketball team compete in the NAIA national tournament.
When he departed that morning, “Nothing had really popped, I was confident, felt good,” he said. Saint Francis played the next morning, with McCaffrey in attendance, and won to extend its season, or so it seemed. Just a few hours later, the whole tournament had been canceled, as was the women's tournament in Sioux City, Iowa.
Instead of seeing his teams compete for titles, McCaffrey drove home, but not before meeting with the men's basketball team.
“I hugged our seniors Austin (Compton) and Connor (Lautzenheiser), thanked them for everything, told them, 'I appreciate you guys,'” McCaffrey said. “Unfortunately it's over like this. That's the hardest part, obviously is our seniors, especially our women's (basketball team). They didn't even get to play. It's tough.”
Although the winter-sport seniors had their careers cut short at the end of the season, the NAIA has already announced that all spring-sport athletes (not just seniors) will receive an extra year of eligibility if they want it. The NCAA has also announced relief for its spring-sport athletes, but the details have yet to be ironed out.
On the NAIA level, at least, McCaffrey believes there will be few seniors who make use of the extra year, though it will be important for athletic departments to work with university administrators to provide guidance as the athletes make those decisions.
“There's an initial instinct that says, 'Hey I want to play again, how do I make that happen?'” he said. “But to play next spring you have to basically enroll in 24 more credits, and I'm not sure that's in the best interest of a lot of our students. ... I'm not going to try to convince anybody to come back and play another season that's got their future already lined up.”
Once it became clear that the athletic year would end prematurely, the job of athletic directors shifted to getting coaches and athletes the information they needed to manage the rest of the semester without athletics. A large part of that process is providing the athletes with the tools to remain engaged academically, a job made more complicated because schools were at the same time transitioning to off-campus learning.
“Right now, they are dealing with a lot of time on their hands that, frankly, student-athletes are not used to,” Hartley Hutton said. “So that's a concern too. ... Usually their life is so structured and that's going to change. (We want to) bring them together in structured ways, but still meet all the requirements that (public health officials) are providing us.”
Still, Hartley Hutton is optimistic that the athletes will be able to handle that difficult transition.
“We are talking about high-achieving, very passionate young men and women,” she said. “This is what they do as athletes, they will find ways to be grateful for what they do have, about their current health, their families' health and how we get through this together remains to be seen, but I know they're going to take this challenge on.”