WKU Athletics’ navigation through COVID-19 has ‘gone extremely well’
When the global coronavirus pandemic first made its way into the country, everyday life as we were all so accustomed to abruptly changed. From facial coverings being required to be worn to businesses only being able to operate at certain capacities, nothing was normal – and that was the case with sports, including within WKU Athletics.
While COVID-19 forced the cancelation of the men’s and women’s basketball teams’ postseasons, halted the spring sports season and spring football period and pushed back the start of the football season in 2020, WKU Athletics came together and has handled the challenges of the unprecedented pandemic like total professionals. With a small number of positive tests among its athletic programs and a consistent operations plan, WKU Athletics’ response to COVID-19 has been a successful one.
“It’s gone extremely well, from the standpoint of if you go back to a year ago when there was just so much uncertainty on what the future held,” said WKU director of athletics Todd Stewart. “Even when we got into last summer and starting bringing student-athletes back to campus, there were a lot of landmines out there. I think to successfully navigate that and have every one of our sport programs play their season, I really feel like every sport program has still had a very meaningful season. It’s been a tremendous accomplishment.”
AN UNPRECEDENTED TIME
The sports world – and life in general – was turned upside down on March 12, 2020.
Although the coronavirus first entered the U.S. in January and had over 100 cases in early March, it wasn’t necessarily a huge topic of discussion or highly feared until the week of March 9. Then-President Donald Trump addressed the nation March 11 on the outbreak, and by March 13 he had declared COVID-19 to be a national emergency.
In between March 11 and 13, all sports came to a screeching halt.
The NBA abruptly suspended its season on the 11th after a player tested positive, and the NCAA quickly followed suit as conference basketball tournaments were being canceled and the bombshell announcement that March Madness had been canceled came out on the 12th.
As for WKU, its men’s basketball team was set to open play in the Conference USA Tournament on the 12th – only for the league to announce the cancelation of the entire event hours before the Hilltoppers were scheduled to take the court.
Just four days later, on March 16, C-USA announced that all spring sport competition and championships had been canceled, meaning the baseball and softball seasons were stopped right where they were – right after the baseball team had just attempted to travel to Birmingham, Alabama for a weekend series with UAB only to turn around an hour into the drive and come back to campus due to it being postponed due to COVID-19 related issues.
Sports had come to an end – for the time being, at least.
PLANNING A COMEBACK
Once the coronavirus had put an end to the sports seasons from mid-March moving forward, WKU Athletics didn’t waste much time starting to plan out a return.
“The plan to start coming back really started a few weeks after the pandemic started once we knew spring sports were canceled and the winter championships were canceled,” said Zach Greenwell, WKU’s associate athletic director for communications and men’s basketball. “We knew we needed to start planning quickly for what the summer would look like if we were able to bring student-athletes and staff back in the summer. When you start looking at all the pieces that go into that, we knew logistically there would be a lot to look through. We were able to start meeting very quickly in the spring and start laying out what some of those things would look like.”
Through many, many meetings, WKU Athletics was able to put together a COVID-19 Restart Plan, which included a committee of seven individuals: Stewart, Greenwell, associate athletic director for facilities and administration Craig Biggs, associate athletic director for sports medicine and athletic training Mike Gaddie, Board of Regents chair Fred Higdon, sport management assistant professor Dr. Stacey Forsythe and marketing professor and faculty athletic representative Dr. Craig Martin.
The committee’s restart plan included much information, from a restart timeline for the sport programs to numerous plans of actions – ranging from medical, facilities, housing, dining and academics.
“It was a result from a lot of meetings,” Stewart said of the COVID-19 Restart Plan. “Zach Greenwell, Craig Biggs and Mike Gaddie from our staff were really the respective point people on that. They had a lot of meetings with other people on our campus and the public health people and the NCAA and Conference USA. There was really just a lot of information sharing early on, and then we kind of got to a common ground that was consistent with what a lot of other colleges were doing, in terms of how we would test and how often we would test. Once we got that in place, it was really just up to everybody – our athletes, our coaches, our staff and everyone who was on the testing list – to just be disciplined and do what they could, and everybody did. It’s gone as well as it could have.”
A major part of the restart plan was when and how WKU would bring student-athletes back to campus. The biggest question was how could they successfully do it in the safest manner possible.
Following their assembled restart timeline, WKU Athletics returned 65 football players on June 8, and they were the first group of student-athletes to be back in Bowling Green. Nearly a month later, on July 6, the remaining 40 football players returned – along with the full volleyball and soccer teams. On July 9, both the men’s and women’s basketball teams returned, with cheerleaders making their way back July 20.
Following those six programs, men’s golf student-athletes returned August 14, with women’s golf on August 17, cross country on August 18 and track and field, softball, baseball and tennis all on August 22 before the start of the fall semester.
“We knew we couldn’t bring everybody back all at once. There was no possible way we could bring everyone back safely all at once,” Greenwell said. “So, what does that look like? Who are we prioritizing? What do they need to do when they get here? How are they going to be able to eat? It’s just amazing the kind of things we had to think about, so there was a lot of planning that went into that by a lot of people. Everyone brought different perspectives on things, which was great. We made a plan, but we stressed all along that it was a living document and we would find things that we needed to do that we hadn’t planned for. We were updating that plan in real-time. I’m really proud of the work everybody did to be able to come back and do it safely.”
A RETURN TO PLAY
After months away from the playing field, WKU Athletics finally returned to game competition on September 12 as the football team kicked off its season with a road game at Louisville.
It was a surreal moment for a team that didn’t have the chance to go through its usual spring practice period – and a group of coaches and players that were just fortunate to be back on the field again.
“There’s no question when we wake up Saturday morning those butterflies will gradually work their way up to the game, but that’s a really good thing,” WKU head football coach Tyson Helton said during his media availability previewing the game on September 10. “It makes you sharp and it makes you at your best. I’m sure I’ll be that way come Saturday.”
Following the football team’s season opener at Louisville, they went onto play 11 more games – including a postseason bowl game against Georgia State in the LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. By playing a full 12-game schedule, WKU was one of just eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs to play a full slate in 2020.
Alongside the football program, WKU’s men’s basketball team was able to play a 29-game season, which included multiple top-tier matchups with opponents such as Memphis, West Virginia, Louisville, Rhode Island, Alabama and Houston – and a trip to the National Invitation Tournament in Frisco, Texas.
“We’ve had really good success across the board, but those two programs were key for everyone in the country,” Greenwell said. “We needed to be able to play football and have a College Football Playoff and everybody needed basketball to be played with an NCAA Tournament. In every sport, we’ve had a lot of success – and I’m really proud of that.”
As some colleges around the country opted out of playing sports in 2020, and while others schools decided to play but without fans in attendance, WKU was able to do both.
During the football season, WKU’s Houchens-Smith Stadium operated under a 20% capacity, which allowed nearly 5,000 fans to attend – including 1,000 seats for WKU students. For WKU men’s and women’s basketball home games at E.A. Diddle Arena during this past season, there was a 15% capacity, which allowed nearly 1,200 fans to attend – including 150 tickets for student section seating.
“A lot of factors went into the implementation of our game day setup for this season,” said Les Forsythe, WKU’s assistant athletic director for facilities. “We collaborated with Kentucky and Louisville’s athletic departments and also received feedback and direction from the Kentucky Governor’s office. There was also many meetings and collaboration with the athletic facilities, athletic marketing and sports information department.”
A SUCCESSFUL NAVIGATION
With the COVID-19 Restart Plan and a consistent operations approach, WKU Athletics has been able to successfully navigate through the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
From the start of the pandemic in March 2020 to now, WKU has administered nearly 20,000 total COVID-19 tests and has had a positivity rate of just over 0.7%, according to Greenwell.
“We couldn’t fully contain having some cases within our programs, but we were able to avoid widespread outbreaks that really stop you in your tracks from playing,” Greenwell said. “We had to pause a few times in some sports, but really no widespread outbreaks or anything that brought us to a screeching halt. I think that’s a testament to a lot of people – the student-athletes for buying in, a lot of work from the staff and coaches and the amount of help we’ve had externally, from our medical team, from people on campus and in the community has been huge. Everyone’s not as fortunate to have what we’ve had and to have some of the support we’ve had.”
COVID-19 has wreaked much havoc on sports and life, but it has taught a main lesson: Never take anything for granted.
And despite everything that’s happened and changed because of the pandemic, Stewart says it’ll only strengthen the WKU Athletics department moving forward into the future.
“The old saying is if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger,” Stewart said. “I know this was an enormous challenge for everybody in different ways and it has taken a toll on some people with a lot of mental fatigue just dealing with everything, but for us to be heading into April and to have achieved what we’ve achieved this year I think will give everybody a lot of confidence – not only from an athletics standpoint, but also moving forward in life. When a difficult situation comes up, hopefully people will be able to get through it because they were able to get through this.”