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UB athletic director: 'Unprecedented times' bring sports shutdown

Mark Alnutt stood inside an empty Alumni Arena and rewound the last four days for his athletic department, in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Unprecedented times,” UB’s athletic director said Friday. “Something that we’ve never experienced in our lifetimes. In regards to not just athletics, but the way of life, living.”

But he also made clear that neither the athletic department nor the university was blindsided by the ripple effect that a global pandemic could have on its community.

“With the coronavirus, and COVID-19 originating back in December or so, and making preparations, from a university standpoint, understanding a potential spread and going outside the borders of China, and it becoming potentially a global pandemic, like it is now, what were we going to do from a university standpoint?” Alnutt said. “How best could we keep in mind the health, safety and welfare of our students, our staff and our committees?

“For the past two months we have been talking, preparing, in the case something would happen.”

UB announced Thursday evening that it supported the Mid-American Conference’s decision to suspend all spring sports and cancel the remainder of its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. The MAC also canceled regular season and championship competition, and nontraditional season competition, for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year, as well as formal and organized practices for athletic programs.

That decision immediately impacts UB’s remaining winter and spring sports, and spring football practice. The remaining five practices and the April 3 spring game are suspended.

The NCAA announced Friday that it will consider eligibility relief for spring sports athletes, and said "details of eligibility relief will be finalized at a later time."

"There's been plenty of outreach to the NCAA," Alnutt said. "They're seeing what's possible for those seniors who might have had eligibility going into the spring semester, if there is an opportunity to extend that clock. There's so much to work with. You have to work that out, but if that's an opportunity, that's something I'd be very supportive of, to give these kids a second chance, so to speak."

Stadium.com reported the NCAA will also discuss a similar plan for winter sports athletes, though the NCAA has not commented on that issue.

Troy Keller, a senior on the UB wrestling team and a North Tonawanda graduate, prepared to compete in the NCAA championships March 19-21 in Minneapolis, but his athletic career at UB is effectively over with the NCAA having canceled winter and spring championship events.

“My wrestling career is really over without ending on my own terms...” Keller wrote Thursday on Twitter. “this sucks I hope @NCAA will fix this some way.”

Alnutt said cancellation was the recommendation made by the MAC’s 12 athletic directors to MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher and the conference’s university presidents.

“We put forward a recommendation to the board of presidents that we were going to cancel the spring competitive season, that we were going to end, effective immediately, recruiting as it pertains to coaches going on the road to recruit and unofficial visits and official visits on campus,” Alnutt said. “Also, the fact that when it pertains to practice – any athletic activity that is organized – we were going to suspend that until further notice.”

Alnutt confirmed that the NCAA has instituted a universal dead period for recruiting across all sports through April 15. No contact between coaches and recruits is permitted.

Alnutt also said that athletic department employees, from coaches to support staff and facilities personnel, will be paid through the duration of the athletics shutdown.

“It’s business as usual, not just for the athletic department but for the university,” Alnutt said. “The university is open and operational, and people will definitely get paid.”

Alnutt said there will be a conference distribution from the MAC, but did not know the particulars of what it will entail. He also discussed the financial impact of the cancellation of spring sports, from UB’s standpoint.

“For us, all of our revenue and expenses happened earlier in the year, through the fall sports and basketball,” Alnutt said. “Our spring sports, from an expense standpoint, don’t add up to the other sports. There could be some potential savings, but we will redirect those monies elsewhere to continue to support the student-athletes.”

In Cleveland, Alnutt was one of 12 athletic directors who met with MAC officials to decide whether to continue the conference basketball tournament, less than 12 hours after the NBA suspended its season after Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus.

Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, the home of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, hosted the MAC Tournament, and the UB women’s basketball team played there 10 days after the Cavaliers hosted the Jazz.

“We talked about options, in terms of what we’re going to do, and it became real, at that point,” Alnutt said. “As we went through the day, the determination was made to cancel the Mid-American Conference tournament. Then, conferences around the nation slowly started cancelling, postponing their tournaments.”

Steinbrecher said Thursday that MAC tournament teams used the facilities that NBA teams used, but a UB athletic spokesperson told The News that the UB women’s basketball team did not.

Alnutt also weighed science and protocol against perception.

“We heard from health officials, medical experts, what we know of the virus, in terms of contact, how it can live outside of the body, and also the amount of effort that they put into cleaning the facility, multiple times a day,” Alnutt said. “Also, too, the operations staff is different than the one that does Cleveland’s home games. If you look at science, we were very comfortable with it, but when that happened, it did raise (concerns).

“From a PR standpoint, is that something you can still continue to survive, if Rudy Gobert was there? Even if science says there’s probably no issue?”

Alnutt also acknowledged that in general, what surrounds a global health crisis remains a fluid situation.

“I’ve never been around something that’s changed so dramatically, through a short period of time,” Alnutt said. “This is where we are now. I hope not to have another press conference like this, to determine what the next steps might be.”

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