LARAMIE — As far as Dontae Crow was concerned, it was time for a nap.
Around 3 p.m. on Monday, with Crow and the rest of Wyoming’s football players having some down time in between mandatory team activities, Crow headed to his room in the off-campus house he shares with teammate Jahmari Moore and got into bed.
He hadn’t yet dozed off when his phone buzzed five minutes later from an incoming text.
“For some reason, I was like, ‘I better check it real quick,’” said Crow, a senior receiver for the Cowboys.
The message was impromptu yet urgent: Be at the indoor practice facility at 3:30 for a team meeting.
“You get that text, and you’re like, ‘OK, well they never just give you a 25-minute heads up for a meeting,’” Crow told the Star-Tribune in a phone interview. “So I was like, ‘Something’s not right.’ So I went and knocked on Jahmari’s door and was like, ‘We’ve got to go. I don’t know what’s happening.’ But I just had a feeling it wasn’t good.”
Less than 30 minutes later, UW athletic director Tom Burman broke the news that the team had been trying to avoid all summer: You won’t be playing this fall after the Mountain West decided to postpone all fall sports competitions indefinitely amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Having worked in intercollegiate athletics for more than 20 years, Burman has had his share of rough weeks on the job. A tight budget forced him to eliminate a handful of sponsored sports during his time as Portland State’s athletic director in the early 2000s, and he’s had to terminate coaches. Burman fired Dave Christensen in 2013 before hiring Craig Bohl to lead UW’s football program and, just five months ago, replaced Allen Edwards with Jeff Linder as men’s basketball coach.
The most recent week, Burman said, rivals any of them.
“This is right up there. No doubt about it,” Burman said. “I met with each of the individual teams, and it was hard. Very hard.”
While nobody involved in UW athletics has knowingly tested positive for COVID-19 to this point, infections reached other college football teams. More than 15 Football Bowl Subdivision programs chose to temporarily pause on-campus workouts at one point this summer because of positive cases, and with more information becoming available about the potential long-term health effects of the virus, multiple conferences, including the Big Ten and Pac-12, have elected not to risk it for the time being.
So while the Mountain West’s decision may not have come completely out of left field, the finality of it continues to stir up raw emotions.
“That’s the part that still makes me the most angry. We seriously bought in,” Crow said. “It’s like you do everything perfect but somebody else or other places might’ve done things differently. And then because of that, you can’t play.
“You think you have your head wrapped around it because there’s been this chance of us not having a season the whole summer, but then you get that news, you’re like, ‘OK, this is real.’ Now what are we supposed to do?”
It’s a question everybody with vested and rooting interests in the state’s lone college football program is suddenly left to ponder.
When Pennie Espeland found out about the Mountain West’s decision on her Facebook page, the frustration flew.
“There was an expletive that I yelled,” Espeland said. “Just the whole body. We just plummeted because we really thought that (a football season) would be the sign that this was over and we’re moving on.”
Espeland and her husband, Gary, have been married for 43 years. They’ve had UW football season tickets just as long. They’re also habitual tailgaters, making the short drive from their house in downtown Laramie to the stadium parking lot on the east side of War Memorial Stadium hours before each home game to mingle with friends and other UW faithful.
Now they’re having to entertain the question they never thought they’d be asking themselves: What are we going to do with our fall Saturdays?
“We’re going to cry,” Gary said through a smile.
Sue Nelson has been even more invested in the Cowboys’ football season over the years. Often referred to as UW’s super fan, Nelson has lived in Laramie her entire adult life and can’t remember the last time she missed a home football game (1970, she guessed). For years, she’s also been the only fan allowed to watch the team’s practices, which are otherwise closed to the public.
“It’s going to be disappointing,” Nelson said. “I hope there are a lot of replays on TV. But it’s going to be empty to me because I look forward to football more than anything.”
Nelson said she’s thought about fishing to occupy her time on fall weekends. She’s also got a trip to Jackson planned. But it’s still hard for her to comprehend that she won’t be planning her Saturdays around football.
“I don’t know,” Nelson said. “It’s going to be hard without anything to watch on television because I look forward to Saturday night watching games all throughout the country. That’s going to be really, really hard.”
Gary said he’s hoping the conferences that have yet to pull the plug on a fall season — the SEC, Big 12 and ACC among others — still give him some college football to watch.
“That’s just such an important part of life for most everyone,” Gary said. “You’re so used to doing that and watching it from sun-up to sundown. We’ll still hopefully have some sports.”
Gary and Pennie might also do more traveling on fall weekends, but Pennie would also like to maintain as much of a gameday connection as possible with fans across the state. She said she would like to see the university turn what would have been gamedays into brown-and-gold Saturdays in different communities and share fans’ photos on the school’s social media accounts.
“Just keep us connected however they can,” Pennie said. “I don’t think our morale will go down. I think we’re just going to hang in there tough because this is just something that can’t be avoided, and we know it won’t be forever.”
Said Kevin McKinney, UW’s senior associate athletic director for external affairs, “(The fans) love to get together and see their friends. It’s a great release, and they’re not going to be able to do that.”
There is one tailgating tradition, though, that will continue for Pennie and Gary this fall.
“We’ll sit in our porch swing in our brown and gold and drink Bloody Marys,” Pennie said.
The decision whether to play football in the fall was voted on by the presidents of the Mountain West’s 12 football members. UW President Ed Seidel declined to reveal how he voted in an interview with the Star-Tribune, though Seidel said in an Instagram post that “I expressed my willingness to go with the consensus view.”
“I know how important, particularly the football team, but the sports program is generally to a state like Wyoming,” Seidel told the Star-Tribune. “I know the fans are going to be very, very unhappy about this, but I hope they understand this decision was driven by medical safety considerations and nothing else in terms of the decision that was taken.”
The decision only adds to the massive financial hit for which the school is bracing. As a result of state budget cuts, Seidel said Gov. Mark Gordon has asked UW to reduce its operating budget by a combined $42 million over the next two years. A reduction in enrollment, by what Seidel estimated to be somewhere between 10 to 20 percent compared to this time last year, will also cost UW a chunk of tuition revenue.
With no ticket revenue or payout from the Mountain West’s lucrative television contract with CBS Sports and FOX, UW’s athletic department is looking at a revenue loss of at least $8 million and as much as $10 million with no football, Burman said.
“How do we work forward from that?” Burman told the Star-Tribune in a phone interview. “That’s been much of our focus the last 24 hours (since the decision), is to try to put a plan together to get in front of the trustees to have dialogue. We’re still working through it. There are a lot of unknowns.”
UW is now waiting to see if there will be basketball and, if so, if some of the revenue from its corporate sponsors can be applied to the basketball season. The cancellation of spring sports back in March saved on travel expenses, and UW has held off on filling vacant staff positions within the athletic department while also cutting back in other areas, including gameday operations.
“We’re still trying to figure out how much savings is really going to be there,” Burman said.
Seidel said Gordon has also asked him to look into implementing university-wide furloughs as another cost-cutting measure, though Seidel added UW is still in the phase of “collecting information and recommendations” and doesn’t anticipate that course of action being part of the school’s budget reduction plan. Whether it’s money from the university’s budget, tapping into strategic reserves or even CARES Act funding, Seidel said UW is “looking at every avenue” to help with the athletic department’s financial deficit.
“Each has its own sort of way it can be used, and we’re looking at how to optimize that.”
Playing a spring season would help mitigate the financial blow to the athletic department, but with player safety being the primary factor in deciding when fall sports can resume, neither Seidel nor Burman is convinced it’s going to happen.
Trying to play games in January, February and March in Wyoming is one thing. Asking a heavy-contact sport like football to squeeze two seasons into a calendar year, even if they’re abbreviated, is another.
“We’d have to really talk that over with the players, the AD, the coach and the other coaches, of course, because you have to play other teams and they all have different situations,” Seidel said. “It’s a complicated situation.”
So for the time being, UW football’s program is on hold.
Athletes in FBS conferences that have already called off the fall season can still participate in up to 20 hours of team activities per week, including as many as six hours of walk-throughs. But Bohl, who has yet to publicly weigh in on the Mountain West’s decision, has given his players the option of staying in town or returning home for the time being as he takes some time to decide when he wants the Cowboys to reconvene.
Crow said he went back home to Sheridan to see his family but would like to return to Laramie soon to continue working out before classes start. The fall semester at UW is scheduled to begin virtually Aug. 24 before the school starts phasing students back to campus.
“They don’t even know when we can come back and start working out or anything,” Crow said, “so it’s pretty much in the air.”
Players are also left to figure out what the Mountain West’s decision means for their scholarships and eligibility, particularly if spring football doesn’t happen and an entire season is lost. And what if some of them still don’t feel safe playing in the spring?
Burman said players would likely be allowed to opt out if there’s a spring season and keep their scholarship if doing so out of health concerns related to COVID-19. Any other reason, and “then I’d have to think about (whether or not to honor the scholarship) in that case,” he said.
As for eligibility, the NCAA’s Division I Council provided some clarity late last week when it recommended that athletes who opt out of future competition, or lose a season because of the pandemic, should have their eligibility extended and be granted an additional season, if they participate in 50 percent or less of the maximum number of competitions allowed in their sport.
The recommendations have to be approved by the Division I Board of Directors, which meets again Friday, but that’s likely a formality. Burman said the school would fund the extra scholarships.
“I don’t know how yet, but we’re going to do it,” Burman said. “There’s not an if. We will do it.”
That’s particularly good news for Crow and the other 10 seniors on the Cowboys’ roster. Crow said he’s just a couple of classes shy of graduating with a degree in American Studies, but without knowing if he’ll play his last season at UW in the spring or next fall, Crow said he may alter his class schedule for the upcoming semester or take additional classes in pursuit of a minor.
But while Crow intends to wait it out until the Cowboys play again, everyone’s situation is different. Players could also transfer in hopes of still getting a season in this fall, though no UW players have knowingly decided to do so at this point.
“(Some players) have to take certain classes for their degrees in the spring, and they might not be able to do football with that. And some are getting married,” Crow said. “You’ve got to move on at some point for some people. So I know for other people it might be very different, but for me, it was like, ‘Nope, this is what I came here for. I’m going to finish.’ I’ve got to play my senior year. That’s when it’s the most fun.”
In Wyoming, the hope is that happens sooner rather than later.
“It’s really hard on everybody involved,” McKinney said. “And you’ve got to keep saying that it’s one year. We’ve just got to get through it. But it’s still, at the time, really, really difficult.”