TUSCALOOSA — In between practicing “social distancing” by holding multiple daily meetings remotely from home amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, Greg Byrne has somehow managed to catch up on “two whole episodes” of the popular Neflix series Ozark.
For a workaholic like Alabama’s athletic director, that’s quite the accomplishment.
“It’s actually been a very busy time for our staff, we’re on conference calls with the university, the SEC, with our (Alabama) coaches, with our staff walking through all the different things we’re trying to deal with right now,” Byrne said during a scheduled teleconference with local reporters Thursday.
“Right now there’s a lot of unknowns, and we’re going to continue to work with our conference colleagues and campus leadership and health officials as we move forward in the coming weeks.”
Like most across the landscape of college athletics, Byrne is doing his best to transverse these “challenging” and “unprecedented” times after the NCAA and individual conferences, including the Southeastern Conference, canceled the remainder of spring sports through the end of the 2019-20 academic season as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic altering life worldwide.
During a nearly 30-minute teleconference, Byrne touched on a lot of topics, including the ongoing discussion around the NCAA granting spring sports student-athletes another year of eligibility to replace the one lost by the abrupt cancellations of their seasons. He also discussed the impact the ongoing health crisis could have on both spring football practice and the upcoming 2020 season.
Byrne initially met with all of Alabama’s head coaches early in the afternoon last Friday, March 13, shortly before the SEC announced the postponement of all spring sports competition through April 15 (which has since been upgraded to a cancellation of all sports competitions through the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year).
“We met with our coaches that day (March 13) and the disappointment as you can imagine was significant,” Byrne said. “But they were also focused on the health and well-being of their teams, their student-athletes and our fans, and then realizing that this is a national and global issue. So obviously the importance of sports is minimized during these times.
“But they also were hurt for their kids and coaches want to compete, kids want to compete. And to have that taken away was significant in their lives. Our focus then started changing to making sure from a mental health, from an academic, from just a well-being standpoint, that that had to be the focus, and the coaches have been great through that process. Coach (Nick) Saban and I have talked several times and he’s been very, very supportive and good through this process.”
The SEC’s decision to suspend all organized activities through at least April 15 came roughly an hour before the Crimson Tide football team was scheduled to hold its first spring practice before taking a week off for spring break and ultimately returning to the practice field March 23.
Of course, none of that happened, placing Alabama’s opportunity to hold any semblance of its normal spring practice schedule in serious doubt as national health officials have since recommended less than 50 people be in any one place at the same time for the next eight weeks to potentially minimize further spread of the virus.
“It still has not officially been cancelled, but I think the reality is … the chances (of holding spring practice) aren’t great, but we haven’t made that final determination at this point,” Byrne said.
Byrne added he and Saban have had “several” discussions about potential alternate ways to hold spring practice while still remaining in compliance with national health recommendations.
“Obviously, you just can’t go out and play games without any practice and development time beforehand, so we’ve talked about what different scenarios look like so I can have his thoughts, which you all know he is always very well thought-out on different possibilities, different scenarios,” Byrne said. “It’s been very helpful. But because of where we are in the process right now, we haven’t gotten any more specific in just looking at potential scenarios.”
With that in mind, there remains considerable optimism that, with proper action taken nationally in the meantime, the 2020 college football season could still be held as expected with little to no impact.
In fact, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey expressed “optimism” for a complete 2020 football season, which is set to kick off the first week of September.
“My hope is we can return to our normal organized activities, our normal experiences and be part of that celebration around soccer or volleyball, cross-country, football in the fall,” Sankey said during a Wednesday teleconference. “But, we’ll have to see.”
Meanwhile, Byrne reserved a little more caution on the topic.
“I still think it’s too early to really have strong opinions on that. Our focus has to be on the health and wellness of everybody involved,” Byrne said.
“And if we as a country do our very best to minimize the spread of this virus that it gives us the best opportunity to return to normal as a country as soon as possible. And I think that needs to be the focus right now.”
Should there be a normal football season, Byrne expects the still-ongoing remodel of Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium to be completed in time for its first scheduled game Sept. 12 against Georgia State.
“The construction continues. … We’re on schedule,” Byrne said. “It’s been a wet spring, but I can tell you we’ve had regular conversations with our contractor on this to make sure that they’re taking necessary steps during this new reality that we’re in.”
Here’s what Byrne had to say on other topics of significance:
On the potential for the NCAA granting spring sport athletes an added year of eligibility: “We’re supportive of the spring sports being able to adjust the rosters and if a student-athlete would like to come back that they have the ability to do so. But at this point I don’t know if that’d just be seniors or all of our student-athletes, whoever had their year taken away from them. I think there are arguments on both sides. I’ve been told there’s not a ton of support nationally for winter sports, but I do think there’s some openness within the SEC to look at that. But at this point we’re not far enough along to say that’s going to happen for sure.”
On the potential financial impact of canceling spring sports, including the NCAA Tournament: “We think the NCAA Tournament part will be a couple of million dollars. That’s our best estimate at this point. And we’re studying, which we do constantly, we study different economic scenarios, so we’re currently doing that, and we’re talking about some new realities. But I don’t have any data beyond from what we think from an NCAA standpoint will be the impact. Everything else is too early to understand.”
On the ability to recoup money given cancellations/travel restrictions: “Yeah, that’s one of the things we’ve tried to evaluate, expenses that we’d normally have in the spring with our spring sports and recruiting and everything else that goes on, what type of savings will be there, will we be able to have from that. And we don’t know what that would be yet but we’re working on that.”
On communication with Alabama athletes regarding the virus: “What I can tell you is we’ve communicated extensively with our student-athletes, our coaches, about steps they need to take to prevent (getting the virus), and if there are signs they have it on what they need to do and communicate with us. So our medical team, our coaches have been very proactive with the communication with our student-athletes on that. And that’s the approach we’ve taken. Obviously, if we feel that somebody needs to be tested, we’ll do everything in our powers and resources available to make that happen.”
On how the new strength and conditioning staff has been able to help: “Yeah, right now we can’t do organized team activities but as you can imagine, our young people are very driven to be able to do what they do and to be able to be a student athlete at the University of Alabama and the SEC, you put a lot of time and effort into developing yourself. So we have tried to provide support where appropriate with our student athletes and any questions they have that they can call in and talk to our strength and conditioning coaches and talk about programs they are doing, but right now, there aren’t a lot of gyms that are open and I think our kids are doing things on their own at their homes and that’s what our coaches have tried to offer where they want questions and planning where it’s appropriate.”
On his reaction to student-athletes’ disappointment following the cancellation of spring sports: “I saw Sarah (Cornwell) from softball took that picture from the mound out at Rhoads Stadium just with the empty stands behind her. You just, … you know, you feel for them. One of the things we sometimes forget, and I have to remember myself, is physically you look at these kids and they’re so developed and are able to do things that most of us, including myself, we’re limited in our abilities. They’re doing their athletic activities at the highest levels. And the work, energy and effort that goes into that, to see that taken away from them, it’s heartbreaking. But you balance that with the reality that (with) where we are as a country and the world with this crisis. We understand it’s certainly not as important, but if you don’t have empathy or sympathy for what so quickly came to an end for so many of them, I don’t know how you don’t. I think people, especially your Alabama fans or Alabama student-athletes have been very compassionate about it, and you try to support one another. I know that’s the case around the country.”