HELENA — Carroll College Athletic Director Charlie Gross still thinks back on the day when the coronavirus pandemic forced sports to shut down.
“Both basketball teams were headed to nationals,” Gross said. “There’s that immediate disappointment of a year of hard work, dedication, commitment and success you want to display at the national level.”
It’s been just over two months since the coronavirus pandemic shook up the world of sports. The NAIA canceled all spring sports back in March, stating that all possible scenarios were seriously considered but President and CEO Jim Carr could not, in good conscience move forward because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“These are opportunities that some student-athletes will never get back,” Gross said.
The pandemic has not only hurt the student-athletes but also the athletic department financially.
Gross said that there have been no discussions about cutting any sports, unlike some NCAA Division I schools such as Cincinnati dropping men’s soccer and Old Dominion cutting wrestling, but that’s not to say that there haven’t been hardships.
“We are committed to the sports that we offer,” Gross said. “Our athletic department helps drive enrollment and help extend the brand of Carroll College.”
While the athletic department has saved some money after ending all travel and operations with regards to spring sports, it also had to cancel the biggest fundraiser of the year.
The Saints Athletic Association’s annual auction has been held every spring for the last 37 years to raise money for student-athlete scholarships.
“Our goal was to net $130,000,” Gross said.
The athletic department has also postponed the sale of season tickets, individual game tickets and corporate sponsorships due to the uncertainty of what the fall sports schedule is going to look like and whether or not there will be any impact on the winter sports schedule.
“As you gear up for next year, your financial operations are based upon schedules and events,” Gross said. “Carroll College athletics is going to be here indefinitely but in what form this fall, we don’t know yet. When we know, we will fulfill our agreements and meet the needs of our partners, but we will also be sensitive of the economic impact that this pandemic has had. We are not the only one.”
Bill Roberts Golf Course has been a corporate sponsor since this past January and plans to continue supporting Carroll athletics. regardless of what the future holds.
“There are things that create a partnership outside just sporting events,” Bill Roberts golf professional Conlan Burk said. “All of these things have mutually benefited both of us.”
In the meantime, Carroll athletics has spent time finding ways to be productive while unable to be out in the community serving fans.
New paint has gone up in the hallways of the PE Center, the basketball court received a new coat of sealant, and Gross gathered his staff for a spring cleaning event called the Saints Bucket Brigade where they washed windows, cleaned stairways, swept the parking lot and pulled weeds.
Future of fall sports
The uncertainty of Carroll’s fall sports season might not be crystal clear, but the NAIA has at least set up a time frame for an attempt to return to normalcy.
Last week, Carr sent out a letter to all NAIA members stating that his goal is to share his plan no later than July 1, and is on track to meet the deadline.
“We know our institutions are under pressure and would appreciate answers sooner rather than later,” the letter read. “Please know that finding a safe way forward for fall 2020 athletics is the NAIA’s top priority…”
Prior to Carr’s letter, the NAIA also sent surveys out to the athletic directors asking for opinions on leading concerns and what steps should be taken moving forward.
Gross said his feelings are that athletic departments need direction from the national association, and when they get that direction, National Championships will be sponsored in each sport.
“We need to know what we need to do to qualify, including how many games are on a schedule and does it need to be in a conference setting and, from that, conferences can go and make their schedules,” Gross said.
More than half of the 250 NAIA athletic directors who participated in the survey said COVID-19 will not impact their fall sports, and almost 40 percent said they would shorten a season down to eight weeks prior to postseason play.
“Each sport has an athletic director or multiple athletic directors that serve as a liaison and oversee the scheduling with the (Frontier Conference or Cascade Collegiate Conference) commissioner. They all have been challenged to come up with creative and resourceful ways to carry out different scheduling scenarios,” Gross said.
“They are out there. It’s just making the decision of what one we chose. What’s best for Carroll and Montana is probably not going to be what is best for the rest of the country. How can we marry those together? I believe it’s going to be an abbreviated fall season for all sports with a national competition that will be eligible for programs who excel in their conference.”
If the fall season were to be delayed or abbreviated, 55 percent of the athletic directors said it will not impact their ability to facilitate winter or spring sports, and 64 percent said they would be in favor of holding fall championships in early 2021.
“The scenarios and the impact on our student-athletes is a matter of when they can actually come to campus and official practices begin,” Gross said. “It also matters what phase of the (governor’s stay at home order) we are in. There are so many moving parts.”
No matter how long he and Carroll have to wait for the NAIA to make a decision, Gross said he is confident that there will be fans at fall games, and he is already planning what contingencies there will be.
“We don’t have it all down just yet, but there are plans on paper so, if there is a change, you have to be adaptable,” Gross said. “The departments, the programs and the individuals that have an element of nimbleness and aren’t afraid of change probably do better.”