When you’re a college baseball coach, there are wins and there are losses…and then there are losses. Like when you lose your entire season.
Carl Iwasaki, the head baseball coach at the University of Northern Colorado, was sitting in a fast-food spot in Lincoln, Nebraska, when his phone rang. On the other end was UNC Athletic Director Darren Dunn. Dunn was delivering news that was shocking...but it wasn’t.
The day before, Iwasaki’s Bears had completed a two-game series against the University of Nebraska. Their schedule had them getting on an airplane that Thursday and flying from Lincoln to northern California for another three-game series against San Jose State. But the coach had been monitoring the coronavirus outbreak on the West Coast, and the last thing he wanted to do was take his team on an airplane and into a virus hot spot.
“I had a really bad feeling about that,” Iwasaki recalls. “Probably the best decision I made all season.”
So Iwasaki had already taken the necessary steps to postpone the series with the Spartans. As luck would have it, Central Connecticut State had the same feeling about boarding a plane for Omaha, and had opted out of its games at Creighton University for that weekend. Iwasaki and Creighton coach Ed Servais thought they’d found an ideal solution: Instead of returning home, UNC could make that hour bus ride from Lincoln to Omaha and get a couple of games in against the Blue Jays. Scheduling problem solved.
So they thought.
“The whole world changed between the second and third bites of my Runza sandwich,” Iwasaki remembers. “I didn’t finish lunch. Before you know it, I’m on a bus headed back to Greeley.”
The night before, the sports world had been shocked into unprecedented action by a single name: Rudy Gobert. The Utah Jazz All-Star Center had tested positive for COVID-19, the potentially lethal version of coronavirus. Young, healthy, strong athletes weren’t immune after all: Anyone could get this potentially life-threatening illness.
Dunn’s phone call confirmed what Iwasaki thought might happen. The chain reaction that followed the
news about Gobert ended UNC’s — and everyone else’s — college baseball season.
First the NBA suspended play. Then the NHL. Then Major League Baseball canceled the remainder of spring training. And while the professional leagues were making these difficult decisions, the NCAA was making even harder ones: Canceling what remained of conference basketball tournaments and calling off what is arguably the biggest sporting event in any calendar year, the NCAA hoops tournament known as March Madness. Oh…and it wiped out the remainder of the NCAA spring sports calendar as well, effective immediately. The next time you could watch your alma mater compete in anything would be the start of college football season next September. Maybe. There's some doubt now as to whether or not there will be a college football season in the fall; that's TBD.
UNC’s bus turned around and headed back to Colorado.
“These kids have never been through any situation like this,” Iwasaki says while searching for any sort of parallel. “These kids were two or three years old when 9/11 happened. There’s no instructional manual for this.”
So the Bears returned home and Iwasaki had to turn his attention to helping his current players, plus
planning for the future of his program, short- and long-term.
“Baseball is very insignificant in my opinion to what’s going on, obviously…the health and welfare of everyone in the nation,” Iwasaki says now. “This is unprecedented, but I think this is the right thing — the NCAA has done the right thing. They may have pulled the trigger early [on canceling the College World Series in June], but we’ll get through it. And we’ll find out what’s the best thing for not just collegiate athletics, but what’s the best thing for all these guys moving forward. The health of the nation, the health of the community, the university is the priority. Once that evens out, then we will get back to talking about what we want to do with baseball.”
The stunning events of that week will have a ripple effect well into next season. Shortly after shutting down college sports for the spring, the NCAA announced that all spring sports athletes will be granted an additional year of college eligibility. That means some rosters will be a bit…bloated when the incoming freshman classes arrive next fall.
“Today we have a 35-player roster limit, so that definitely needs to be relaxed or we will have to back out on some commitments, because we’re definitely going to be over 35,” Iwasaki notes. “And the money situation is there as well, because we’re over-extended."
Ultimately, the NCAA executive council decided to let the schools and programs themselves decide how scholarship dollars will be allocated: They will allow the spring sports athletes impacted by the cancellation an extra year to complete their four years of eligibility, and they will allow more players to be carried on rosters and be on scholarship aid to account for the incoming freshman class, plus seniors who decide to remain in school for the extra year. But given the dicey financial situation that college athletics is facing, that could be a tough call for UNC and other schools.
“There’s a lot of dynamics involved," Iwasaki concludes. "The right decision was made; now we’re just going to have to manage it.”