College athletic directors are adept at adapting.

They deal with budget constraints, coaching changes, contracts and the annual prospect of some natural disaster, scandal or calamity enveloping a single sport, or the entire department.

For even some of the worst scenarios, there is precedent. And remarkable adaptability.

After Hurricane Katrina turned LSU’s campus into a triage facility in 2005, the school hastily moved its football season opener with Arizona State to ASU’s campus in Tempe.

Tulane didn’t play a single game in what was then its home stadium, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which was ripped to shreds by the storm. But the Green Wave defiantly managed to complete an 11-game football schedule, which included “home” games in Tiger Stadium, Cajun Field, Shreveport, Ruston, Monroe and Mobile, Alabama.

But there is no precedent for the coronavirus pandemic that has brought the United States economy to its knees and frozen American sports along with it. College football and Major League Baseball played through the deadly waves of the Spanish flu epidemic from January 1918-December 1920. During that time, Sir Barton won horse racing’s first Triple Crown in 1919, and the NFL played its first games in September 1920.

But no one who was alive then can offer advice now on how they managed to get on with it, or to truly compare sports then to the multi-billion dollar industry it is now.

That leaves people like LSU’s Scott Woodward grasping for answers against what UNO AD Tim Duncan aptly referred to as an “invisible enemy.” And in mid-April, with immense college spring sports events like the NCAA basketball tournaments and College World Series canceled and prospects for football season unknowable. It's hardly a comfortable position to be in.

“We’re grasping at straws and looking for scenarios we don’t know anything about,” Woodward said. “While we’re working hard as hell to get back to normalcy, right now the focus is on our (student-athletes). That’s what I can control.

“I have little control over what the (Southeastern Conference) and NCAA does. Input, but no control. We’ve never lived through this stuff. We weren’t around for the Spanish flu. It’s hard to predict and know anything.”

Tulane’s Troy Dannen met with Green Wave football players Friday morning in a Zoom teleconference, a group hoping he could give some clarity as to what lies ahead.

“They want to know what’s happening,” Dannen said. “There are no answers. My advice is not to listen to anyone else. They’re talking with opinion, not answers, just like I am giving my opinion. The answers will evolve.”

Spring sports ‘do-over’

The focus on student-athletes has indeed given Louisiana schools a small measure of control in what they can do for spring sports. Earlier this month, the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility for athletes in spring sports whose seasons were cut short. They can return for a fifth year — or even seventh, as in the case of LSU beach volleyball player Toni Rodriguez — if they so choose.

Ivy League schools have decided they will not give the extra year. So has Wisconsin. But athletic directors from LSU, Tulane, Louisiana, Southern, Southeastern Louisiana and UNO all said they would welcome back anyone who wants to return.

“They deserved it,” Southeastern's Jay Artigues said. "This was out of their control. Football players can play four games and get a redshirt year, so they should get their year back.”

The costs could be considerable, and will cut deeper into athletic department budgets already figuring to be thin in the wallet. UL athletic director Bryan Maggard figures if even half his school’s eligible seniors decide to return, it will cost his program about $250,000 in scholarships.

“We knew it was coming,” Duncan said of UNO. “We spoke to our executive staff and our president, (John) Nicklow. He’s a former athlete and his first comment was that it’s the right thing to do, so let’s figure this out.”

Southern athletic director Roman Banks said with the prospect of crippling budget cuts, he will leave it up to his spring sports coaches whether they want to bring back their seniors.

“You’re in a time when revenue is down and budgets will be very short,” Banks said. “They may have to make a decision whether to recruit or keep that senior.

“There are a lot of tough decisions.”

Football’s fate

The heart of the matter for most college athletic programs is whether or not football season will happen. At football schools — which include all the major colleges in south Louisiana, except for UNO — the sport pays for the lion’s share of the entire athletic budget in the forms of TV, ticket and merchandising revenue.

The questions seem to stretch out maddeningly to the horizon. When could they start? How late could you start? Will it be a full schedule or just conference games? Will fans be allowed in the stands? Assuming a coronavirus vaccine won’t be ready until sometime in 2021, how do you handle testing?

Maggard sees four likely scenarios for football in 2020:

1. Schools are able to play a full 12-game regular-season schedule.

2. The season, scheduled to start in September, is pushed back and ends in December or January but still retains all 12 games.

3. An abbreviated season with conference games only.

4. The worst-case scenario: no football season at all.

“There’s no blueprint on what we do if there’s no football season,” Maggard said. “It’s hard to prepare for the latter, but it is a possibility.”

In general, the ADs are optimistic football will happen in some form this season.

“I think by fall we’ll be back to normalcy,” Artigues said. “I can’t say this week when it (football) will come back, but I think by the time August rolls around, we’ll be getting ready. I’ll be shocked if it didn’t start on time.

“That may be a little optimism on my side, but we can use a little optimism right now.”

Count the state’s No. 1 football fan, Gov. John Bel Edwards, in the optimistic camp as well.

“I suspect they will be able to do that,” Edwards said during an Advocate and Times-Picayune town hall interview session Thursday. “But I don’t know what the games will look like.”

When Woodward worked at the University of Washington under former LSU Chancellor Mark Emmert, he helped start the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), whose coronavirus forecasting models have been cited widely during the pandemic.

According to the IHME’s latest model, the last coronavirus-related death in Louisiana is expected May 10, with the state moving into the containment strategy of its pandemic response by May 18. The forecast model runs through Aug. 4.

“I’m very positive,” Woodward said. “I believe in the science and the doctors and what they can do. But it’s going to be a long haul. We have to be smart and creative about what we do.”

LSU strength and conditioning coach Tommy Moffitt said Monday on the "LSU Sixty" radio show that football players will need a month of training before they could begin preseason practice, which would also take a month. In LSU's case, that would mean starting preparation in early July for the Tigers to begin the season as scheduled Sept. 5 against UTSA.

Whether even under the most positive timelines there are fans in Tiger Stadium, Yulman Stadium, Cajun Field or Strawberry Stadium watching such games is an entirely different matter.

Banks said at Southern, he sees being able to have fans in A.W. Mumford Stadium as essential to his school being able to field a team. Southwestern Athletic Conference schools rely more on ticket revenue because they survive without a mega-million-dollar TV contract like LSU can rely on through the SEC.

“From our standpoint, if we can’t play in front of fans, we’re spending money and doing a lot of different things without a cent coming in,” Banks said. “Football is very costly for us. We need to have some type of return.”

And in his mind, having fans in the stands isn’t likely before there is a vaccine, which is not likely until sometime in 2021.

“We’ve got to give them confidence that they’re not going to a game to die,” Banks said.

Dannen, who is dealing with a potential citywide ban on mass gatherings in New Orleans that could include football games, isn’t sure a game can happen safely, even without fans in the stands.

“Even without fans, there are 300-500 people involved at field level,” he said. “I struggle to think how it’s safe and adequate for folks on the field.”

Still, both Banks and Dannen believe football season could get underway, even if the start has to be pushed back into the late fall or winter.

“I can see a scenario where we start on time; a month, two, three months late; anytime in the year,” Dannen said. “I can see us playing 12 games or just eight conference games. But what complicates things is, it isn’t just what Tulane and Louisiana can do, but all the other states —whether all 50 states will be in the same place at the same time. It’s hard to believe that’s going to be the case.”

Banks said his deadline for starting the season at all this fall is between the first and second weeks of August.

“If we can’t do that,” he said, “then the season is foregone and let’s push it to the spring.”

ESPN analyst and former LSU All-American Marcus Spears said recently it's unrealistic to expect college football players to basically play two seasons in 2021, but Banks said he thinks it can be done with adjustments. That would likely mean the elimination of spring football.

Funding issues

The prospect of not playing football has athletic departments preparing budget scenarios with cuts in revenue from 10% to as much as 60%.

“If fans aren’t going to games, it will also impact annual giving and parking and concessions,” Maggard said. “It would be quite devastating not to have a football season.”

Not only that, but because there was no NCAA men’s basketball tournament this year, the NCAA has to cut the funding it normally shares with the schools. At UNO, Duncan said that means going from about $300,000 in revenue to about $146,000 from the NCAA. Like Maggard, Duncan used the term “devastating” to describe the lack of funding.

“We’re getting big reductions from NCAA distribution and the state as well,” Artigues said. “There’s no sales taxes coming in, and the price of oil is down. We’ve had budget meetings with every sport talking about 10, 20, 25% cuts. Each time we make plans, it’s with us trying to figure out how we least affect the student-athlete experience. We have to make sure they don’t suffer.”

Some schools outside Louisiana have already started cutting Olympic or non-revenue sports, but Maggard said that doesn’t provide as much relief as it appears for what the ADs hope will be at most a one-year problem.

“Typically you would honor scholarships through the year in which you cut the sport,” Maggard said. “And there are associated expenses. Those are steps you potentially have to look at, but it’s the very last resort.”

The only certainty is that one day the games will come back. The stadiums will fill up. And the appreciation of a tailgate party and a touchdown will be deeper than ever.

Dannen described where college athletics is right now as darkness, the turning off of a light. How to get back into the light of normal competition again — and when — remains the unanswerable question. And it isn’t an answer schools across college athletics are likely to find simultaneously.

“We all went into the dark together,” he said, “but we won’t all go back into the light together.”


Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com