MISSOULA — For the athletic directors around the Big Sky Conference, the past weeks and months have been long as they attempt to stay ahead of a pandemic that has a mind of its own.
On Monday, the conference made some of its biggest changes, including allowing schools to individually make their own decisions within NCAA guidelines as to when student-athletes can come in for workouts again.
Huge shifts to the season and postseason schedules and tournament layouts for many fall sports were all changed.
“We went back and forth on a lot of different things, tried to stay true to a good student-athlete experience while navigating a very different financial future for us,” Montana athletic director Kent Haslam said to 406mtsports.com on Wednesday afternoon. “I thought they were good decisions that were fair for what we know right now.”
The biggest, especially for the two Big Sky schools in Montana, is the ability to allow student-athletes to return to practice facilities. Currently, there is no definite timeline as to when that might happen, though the NCAA could potentially begin to relax its coronavirus rules on May 31.
For Montana and Montana State, this is massive news. The Treasure State has one of the lowest overall caseloads in the United States, therefor local regulations regarding social contact could also be relaxed sooner rather than later.
Gyms, for example, begin to open in Montana on Friday. It might not be long before Bobcat and Grizzly student-athletes are allowed back into their facilities.
How that looks could be fascinating.
During a Zoom media call on Tuesday morning, Montana State athletic director Leon Costello laid out the basics of how the Bobcats would begin to come back.
Screening for the coronavirus will be mandatory for all student-athletes, though what’s involved with that still has yet to be determined. Temperature checks are a given at this point and facial coverings will likely have to be worn inside the facilities and even the workout groups the student-athletes find themselves in will have been carefully thought out.
It would also take anywhere from 4 to 8 weeks for fall student-athletes to get ready for the season, whenever that may be.
“Look at, say, a football team. Do you really want to group our running backs together in the same group because if one running back would happen to show signs or symptoms, that would take all the running backs offline,” Costello said. “You don’t want to lose an entire position group because of how you group them together for workout groups.”
UM has a very similar plan and Haslam said he has had long hours working and planning with a variety of groups on campus and in the athletic department to build those plans. Tracing, Haslam said, will be vitally important if a student does get sick. He emphasized the need for student-athletes to stick within their groups.
The Champions Center is large, which will help Montana space out its athletes and avoid students having to touch the same equipment before it can be disinfected.
“We certainly don’t want to go too quick,” Haslam said. “We’re certainly anxious to get back. Our student athletes are anxious to get back. Our coaches are anxious to get back. Our strength and conditioning coach is anxious to get back.
"Those are things we want to get back to doing but we don’t want to do it in a irresponsible way.”
Scheduling is a major hurdle that has been the topic of many discussions in the twice weekly athletic director meetings the Big Sky has. California State University’s 23-campus system — which includes Sacramento State — has said it will likely not be having in-person classrooms.
NCAA President Mark Emmert has said several times that unless schools reopen, they won’t be able to have sports.
While it remains to be seen what extent schools will need to reopen before the NCAA allows them to play sports, there is a distinct possibility that some Big Sky members simply will not to be able to field certain teams in the fall. That’s a contingency everyone is planning for.
“Once you get back to playing games, the next thing is playing as many games as you can, to the max,” Haslam said. “At this point you’re just hoping to play any amount of games.”
Right now, at least in the football slate, all of Montana and Montana State’s football games are still on as scheduled. Both schools have reached out to their non-conference opponents in a variety of sports to keep those lines of communication open.
Solutions such as playing opponents twice have been thrown out, but until the fall season draws closer and more clarity is had, they simply are contingencies.
“That’s where we are with sports in general and then it comes down to institutions making those decisions based on budget,” Costello said. “What can we do, what adjustments do we need to make for travel? Maybe we need to reduce the non-conference schedule. Those are all things we’re looking at that I wouldn’t necessarily say we have the answers right now.
“As with everybody else, everything is kinda on the table right now.”