MISSOULA -- Last week the sports world went through one of its wildest stretches in recent memory, as sporting events at all levels were canceled due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and leagues attempted to take preventative measures of spreading the virus.
The Big Sky Conference was right in the thick of it all at the college level as it followed suit with major conferences and canceled the remainder of its men's and women's basketball tournaments in Boise, Idaho, on Thursday morning just about an hour before the men's quarterfinal round was set to begin. The men's first round was played on Wednesday, while the first three rounds of the women's tournament were completed, with Montana State and Idaho due to play in the championship game on Friday.
Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill spoke to the media in a teleconference on Monday afternoon to discuss some of the decision-making that went into canceling the tournament and what the league was planning on doing before the wave of other tournaments began canceling everything.
Wistrcill said the league was aware of how COVID-19 was beginning to take off at a national level through Monday and Tuesday, and the Big Sky was keeping an eye on it. When Wednesday hit, the NCAA announced that the first two rounds of the men's and women's basketball tournaments would be played without fans.
"That really kind of got the ball rolling around the country," Wistrcill said. "Myself and other commissioners, we started texting and calling each other just to see what was going to happen with each of them."
Wistrcill noted that as Wednesday rolled on, leagues were beginning to seriously plan on not having fans attend the games, with Thursday serving as the likely start time for that. Most around the country made that rule during Wednesday's games, but the Big Sky Conference continued having fans through the day and night.
Wistrcill and the staff met on Wednesday night after the games to discuss what they would do going forward and who would be allowed to attend the games. Then at 9 a.m. the league held its presidents meeting.
"By that point, both the Ivy League and the Patriot League had canceled tournaments, canceled all spring competitions," Wistrcill explained, noting he marked down when everything was happening on a timeline. "We spent our entire meeting, we changed the agenda, to just talk about this issue.
"After about 45 minutes, (we) had really settled on, we were going to have the tournament but were going to allow very limited fan-bases. Basically student-athletes, the coach, they would allow a pass list of (certain) individuals, and that was going to be it, other than media, allowed at our tournament."
Wistrcill said the meeting concluded at about 9:45 a.m. Then larger tournaments began canceling around the country. Wistrcill noted the Big 10 and the American Athletic Conference were called at 9:48 a.m. Then the SEC and Big 12 canceled at 9:54 a.m.
"By 10:08, six other conferences had canceled," Wistrcill said. "So in about the span of 15 minutes we went from describing exactly how we were going to manage the tournament with fans to our presidents having a discussion about canceling the tournament.
"They ultimately decided that was the right thing to do, certainly with my support and the support of others, that at this point we needed to cancel the tournament."
Wistrcill said they let the athletic directors know right after that, and by 10:15 a.m. the athletic directors notified coaches and players.
"We went from the highest of highs to a lot of lows," Wistrcill said. "It really was a difficult time as we thought about our basketball teams and seniors, both men's and women's teams, that didn't get a chance to ride out their tournament dreams, but obviously the health and safety of everyone involved, including back on campuses that all our student-athletes were heading back to, was more important than any game, win or loss that was going to happen at the tournament.
"It was painful to be me, personally, knowing as we're making decisions to cancel the tournament that it was going to crush their dreams. I know how hard they work and I remember just sitting in the meeting room as I could see where this was going and my heart was just broken for them."
Wistrcill said he and his staff spent a lot of time speaking with medical personnel in the days leading up to the tournament. Idaho, at the time, had no confirmed cases while the tournament was going on, but with schools coming from states with confirmed cases (Washington, California and Colorado), they needed to be on top of it.
Through communication with the medical community in Idaho, and eventually learning they needed to limit the number of people they let in, the conference decided on Thursday to stop allowing fans, though this was before other tournaments began canceling.
Because there weren't any confirmed cases in Idaho by Wednesday, Wistrcill said the league was OK with still allowing fans based on the information they were receiving.
"At that point, as we talked to the doctors that were there on site and we hired a doctor to be there with us to help out any of our student-athletes, and so we were looking at guidance from him and talking with other medical professionals," Wistrcill said. "Also having two schools in Idaho, we had a direct link to the state health board in Idaho and other medical professionals there who were working with personnel at Idaho and Idaho State to help us make that decision. That's why we felt comfortable at that point with still playing through Wednesday night with all of the fans, but knowing that it would be addressed the next morning, we'd have more information by 9 a.m. the next day."
From an economic standpoint, Wistrcill said it was too soon to tell what impact the cancellation of the tournament ultimately had on the league, though he said attendance was up from a year ago. As of now, Wistrcill said he has not been told anyone in attendance at the conference tournaments has been affected by the virus.
The league was also scheduled to have its inaugural Big Sky Hall of Fame ceremony, but that has yet to be rescheduled.
In terms of spring sports, those are still up in the air. Wistrcill said the league will schedule another meeting to discuss that in the coming days.
"When we suspended the spring sports, we wanted to give ourselves some flexibility based upon having to make any decisions, so our presidents chose to suspend rather than cancel on late Thursday, so right now we’re under that suspension," Wistrcill said. "We’re in the process of scheduling another presidents call here over the next couple of days to kind of get an update on that to see if we’re going to continue with a suspension, to see what that means about any spring sports that we can fit in any competition or the potential of canceling the spring sports and practices and that sort of thing."
When sports return is something that will be based upon information provided to the conference by each school and how their communities continue to be affected by the virus. Ultimately that will come down to the presidents council when that updated information is received.
As for any kinds of extra eligibility for spring sports, the NCAA has put forth legislation that athletes will get that year back. A lot of the details have yet to be ironed out in terms of financial aid, scholarships, roster limits and more, but Wistrcill said the league backed that decision.
"We were certainly in favor of providing opportunities for our student-athletes, especially those ones who never really got to get their spring season started," Wistrcill said. "I really feel for them. I'm glad we're going to have that in place, though there's going to be some adjustments that'll have to be made."