For the first time in 35 years, Eric Houle has some spring free time. As track and field coach at Southern Utah University for three and a half decades, March until May has always been chock-full of workouts, travel and meets.
Not this year. You already know why.
Houle is taking his Coronavirus enforced free time on walks with his family and has enjoyed the time to be around his loved ones. Still, he fears that once things go back to normal, it won’t quite feel normal.
“An athlete, after this all over, will never be the same again,” Houle told SUU News. “They lose development through the season and pushing themselves to reach new personal records, but it’s better to stay alive than to set a new record.”
Coaches across the country are making similar realizations. SUU’s staff has kept the disruption in perspective. Almost no one wants play or practice to resume, but the future hangs over each team like a dark storm cloud.
Collegiate athletics are cyclical in nature. Competitors are only allotted four seasons of athletic eligibility, which means the best programs are the ones who are constantly looking ahead. Recruiting is an essential part of a coach’s duty and one bad recruiting class can severely hamper the program years down the line.
Houle knows the ins and outs of recruiting athletes to SUU better than anyone because of his experience. He’s mastered the art of phone calls and emails to attract high school athletes, but will miss a critical part of his recruiting strategy because of Covid-19.
Official visits are one time invitations for a recruit (and their parents) to personally walk on campus and get to know their coaches. The NCAA suspended all recruiting until at least April 15, but if the Coronavirus continues to shut down the country, it will keep recruits from visiting their schools in person.
“Now you’re trying to convince someone to choose a place without ever being able to see it,” Houle said. “It’s tough.”
For SUU men’s basketball coach Todd Simon, only a few scholarships open up for new recruits to fill each season. Each recruit is invaluable, and men’s basketball programs at every level of the NCAA may not have the same access to prospects as they usually have.
“You’re going to see a lot of poor fits during this recruiting cycle,” Simon said. “In general terms, when you can’t look a recruit in the eye, see them in person, see their body language or see how they fit into the culture of the team, you don’t as good a read on the person and the fit.”
Recruiting hasn’t been the primary resource for acquiring talent during Simon’s time at SUU. The T-Birds have benefited from student-athletes at other Division-I institutions electing to transfer from their first school and play for SUU like Dwayne Morgan, Cameron Oluyitan and a slew of others have since Simon arrived.
The only penalty for transferring is that men’s basketball players must sit out the season after they transfer. Many have suggested that a one-time waiver should exist so that student-athletes can transfer without sitting out a season. Other sports like volleyball have already adopted the rule, and if the rule were to be instituted, players could seemingly at will.
Mix that together with the mounds of bad fits from this Coronavirus-addled recruiting cycle, and college basketball will be looking chaotic over the next few years.
The exception has not passed yet, but Simon theorized that it’s only a matter of time until it’s in practice.
Roster construction has already been further complicated by the growth of graduate transfers. Student-athletes who finish their Bachelor’s Degrees can transfer without penalty to universities who offer a master’s program their initial school doesn’t house.
According to NCAA.org, the amount of graduate transfers had doubled by 2018, only five years after the waiver was initially instated in 2013. In 2018, 2.6 percent of all players were graduate transfers, the greatest portion of grad transfers of any Division-I sport. Student-athletes who complete their schooling at mid-major universities are making the jump to bigger schools all over the country.
“I think college basketball as we know it is going to look very different a year from now,” Simon concluded.
While Houle, Simon and the rest of SUU’s coaches continue to do their due diligence by assessing recruits through film study and phone calls, developing student-athletes who are already on campus presents another unique challenge.
Teams are not allowed to meet or practice at this time, and while strength and conditioning coach Marcus Romero continues to send the student-athletes training recommendations, the T-Birds with eligibility left are missing out on a crucial time where they could get into the gym to work on their skills.
This challenge is especially difficult for SUU gymnastics coach Scott Bauman. The tail end of the spring is a time that Bauman sets apart for his squad to work on new skills and techniques.
His team lost its chance to compete at the conference championship, but also the time where last season’s underclassmen would learn what they needed to contribute next season.
“They’re going to have three months off, and these athletes have never had three months off in their entire lives,” Bauman said. “They just don’t take that much time off because it takes too long to come back.”
After spending 20 hours a week in the gym, just getting back up to speed will prove difficult. Trying to incorporate new skills into their routines is a different beast altogether.
Perhaps the only solace for coaches during this time of uncertainty is the fact that every other coach in the country is dealing with these same challenges. No one knows what the fall is going to look like. No one knows if football season will be played, or how its absence will affect revenue streams for athletic departments across the country.
Bauman focuses on what he and his student-athletes can learn from this disruption.
“Not everything in life goes the way you plan it,” Bauman said. “There are lessons to be learned from this, and I tried to explain to my team that sometimes these things happen and there’s nothing you can do. You have to make the most of it and make the best of it.”
With so much uncertainty ahead, there is no choice but to press on.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletics