Colgate Athletics Deals with Cancelled Seasons, Questions of Recruitment, Eligibility and How to Move Forward

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Colgate University

Eric Fishbin, Sports Editor

In the hours after the Patriot League men’s basketball Championship game came to a close on March 11, Colgate players and fans were struggling with the emotional impact of a historic season and playoff run cut short.

After the team set a school record for wins in the regular season (25), and reached the Patriot League Tournament finals for the third consecutive season under coach Matt Langel, the Boston University Terriers ended the Raiders’ run in a narrow 64-61 win. 

In the moments following the final buzzer, the Terriers and coach Joe Jones celebrated the victory. At the time, they believed they would be heading to March Madness to represent the Patriot League for the first time since joining the conference from America East in the 2013-14 school year.

The Raiders would have to settle for competing in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), since they won the regular season title and earned an automatic bid.

Two hours before the Patriot League Championship game was set to tip off, hints of the cloud about to settle over the entire NCAA started to emerge in Hamilton: An email to the student body and community members alerted those who were feeling ill or were particularly susceptible to illness to stay home, rather than file into Cotterell Court to watch the game in person.

Meanwhile, on sight and before 5 p.m., a line of students had already begun to form inside the Reid Athletic Center—extending outside to Broad Street—and the Athletic Department made the decision to proceed with the game as scheduled.

Additional safety precautions were taken, including a separate section designated for Boston fans (which is standard for any team hosting a tournament game, anyway) and extra hand sanitizer on deck. The email also encouraged fans to withhold from traditional practices of social etiquette such as high-fives after a successful three-point bucket by junior guard Jordan Burns, for instance.

“Looking back on it, had we had more time to maybe have the game without a crowd—to be able to notify people not to come—that would have been a better decision. But we didn’t have that information at the time,” Vice President and Director of Athletics Nicki Moore said.

Later that same night, across the country—Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus. The Jazz-Thunder game was abruptly stopped by a medical trainer and fans were sent home, confused and disgruntled. The NBA season was suspended within hours, shocking the consciousness of fans around the world.

On Thursday, March 12, much of the grief felt after the Patriot League Championship on campus seemed to dissipate as a bigger problem was quickly coming on: The 2020 NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments, including the NIT, had been canceled. 

And this was just the start of an avalanche of unprecedented announcements. On the receiving end, powerless were college-aged student-athletes and their dedicated coaches who have spent their lives focused on developing young players.

The feeling of defeat which was immediately known by the basketball team members had transformed, mutated and extended its reach. By 10:30 a.m. the Patriot League Council of Presidents (which comprises the league’s participating schools’ Presidents) determined that the spring season’s games and practices would be canceled due to the global pandemic. Players, coaches and staff were notified soon after the decision was reached, marking the beginning of an unforeseen time in the world of collegiate sports.

The announcement forced a deep feeling of agony to be shared among the Athletic Department and student-athletes on campus. Their seasons had collectively come to a close less than 14-hours after three three-point attempts rattled out and kept the Raiders from forcing overtime—which would have extended the season for just five more minutes.

“Those were tough days, and at the same time, everything was moving so fast that people did not have much of an opportunity to question or challenge the decisions being made,” Moore said. 

Many coaches and athletes were left in a state of shock and with questions left unanswered; some wondered about the effects on eligibility, while others might have wanted to press for the potential to return to competition as soon as possible. 

Moore expects the NCAA governing body to restore the lost year of eligibility for student-athletes. But, there is a steep stack of logistical issues to work through in order for senior student-athletes to continue competing in college. Coaches will also have to balance roster spots with an incoming class and decide how to distribute scholarships that come with financial aid funding. 

The situation is as complex as University administrators and professors trying to replicate the on-campus and in-person classroom experience with students spread across time zones all over the world—if not doubly as difficult. 

“I am highly doubtful—they are talking about waiving the financial aid limits for a period of time to expand the number of scholarships available for the fifth-year seniors to continue to be on aid. But we still have to pay for them, so there are a lot of schools—us included—where that would be a significant financial hit that we are not prepared to take,” Moore said. “Probably, the burden is going to fall on coaches everywhere to manage their rosters and determine who they can have back and who they just don’t have a spot for.”

The NCAA’s expected ruling, despite its promise to extend eligibility, will not make it possible for schools across the nation to bring back all senior student-athletes who would wish to return to their own campuses—which they have gotten used to calling home, and whose school colors and logos they are used to representing on game days and up the quad.

On the more forward thinking and optimistic front——there is another set of questions focused on the eventual return of sports that will remain unanswered: How will coaches recruit effectively since prospective students can no longer come to campus? And how will the summer sessions or fall season play out, particularly for teams who like to train within NCAA regulations throughout the year? 

While there is an NCAA-mandated dead period for recruiting until April 15 restricting coaches’ contact with prospective players, high schoolers would hypothetically still be able to visit campus on unofficial visits during their breaks over Easter and Passover in a typical year. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Colgate’s aesthetically breathtaking setting has played a role for some recruits who decide to spend their four years competing for the Raiders.

“Our chance of a kid committing to Colgate goes up exponentially when they have seen campus. This is a place that once you step foot on it [and] it really makes a big difference. Hopefully down the road we will be able to make up for that lost time,” head coach of the football team Dan Hunt said. “Obviously it is going to depend on how this plays out and when it is absolutely safe. There are bigger issues on a global scale than the Colgate football team, but hopefully by the summer you get that normalcy back and kids can get back to what is important for them. For our guys, football and lifting will be one of them. If available to us, the summer would become huge.”

While summer training sessions and fall seasons are in question and out of their control, in the meantime coaches across sports will continue evaluating film to scout prospective recruits. They will also put out messaging and advertising via social media to engage with prospects indirectly. 

“This class will be the most evaluated class in NCAA history because coaches will have so much time to look at film,” Hunt said.

And those who were most directly affected are still left wondering where a deeper sense of closure might come from.

For the men’s hockey team, Sunday, March 8 was filled with excitement; they were reeling in the glory of a thrilling overtime goal scored by senior forward Tyler Penner. The OT-winner clinched the best-of-three series against Brown University and the Raiders earned a spot in the quarterfinals of the ECAC Tournament. It was also the team’s final home game of the year. But as it turned out, it was the final game for the seniors representing the Raiders anywhere.

That afternoon, the team gathered to watch Union College play Yale University; the winner of that game would determine who the Raiders would face in the next round. 

After Yale’s win, the Raiders were slated to skate against the Clarkson Golden Knights. But by Wednesday night, after the Ivy League had canceled its spring seasons, the team learned it would be traveling to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the quarterfinals, instead; Harvard University and Yale were forced to drop out of the tournament.

By Thursday, the ECAC Tournament was canceled in its entirety—following the lead of the NCAA. The Patriot League followed the Ivy League, which made its announcement at 3 p.m. on Monday, March 10, in canceling its spring seasons and was one of the first Division I conferences in the nation to call off competition.

“We had a team meeting and [coaches] broke the news… It was heartbreaking—I’m not going to lie—it is really hard. Even if our season ended, you always want to go out on your own terms whether it’s a loss or you keep on winning and win a National Championship. You always want to have that sense of closure and to not get that has been hard to deal with…To be told that you have to leave campus soon after does not help,” senior men’s hockey forward John Snodgrass said.

Sidelined and rendered unable to do anything to change the circumstance, coaches and administrators could only offer heartfelt words of empathy to their athletes—they, too, had lost something they deeply care about. Albeit, there is usually a ‘next year’ for them to continue competing.

“I wish that I could do more to try to provide everybody with more structure and certainty and normalcy, but there are limits to what you can do,” Moore said. “For most of the folks at Colgate, from Administrative Assistants to the Senior Associate Athletic Directors to myself and the coaches, most of the reason we get into this is because we are driven to provide an excellent educational and athletic experience to student-athletes. We believe in the power of that experience to launch student-athletes into lives of purpose and meaning and productivity. So when being able to do that—at least in the ways that you typically do—is quickly taken away, there is a void there.”

Moore continued to lament the feeling of incompletion shared in the Colgate and broader NCAA athletic community; it is uncommon to find an athlete or coach wanting to stop giving it their all if it is within their control to keep pushing.

“We had several coaches who were off to a really good start for the spring. To have that either cut short or to not even get a chance to start—women’s rowing coach [Jessica Deitrick] for example, we hired her at the end of last season and she has been working all year in order to compete, and she didn’t even get to compete with her team,” Moore said.

While the decision came on March 12, it would not be enforced until after the weekend on March 16. Coaches and administration hustled to organize impromptu final dinners and banquets to celebrate all that the student-athletes had accomplished that year and in their Colgate careers.

“Some of the words that I heard the students—particularly seniors—speak, I was so impressed. The [speeches] I heard this year were straight from the heart and really pretty affirming and heartening to hear. [The coaches] did what they could and then tried to get everyone to go home when they could,” Moore said. 

While student-athletes were asked to leave campus, their friends, classes and teammates shortly after the devastating news—along with the rest of the student body—many members of the Athletic Department are still in Hamilton and have continued to find ways to be a unifier and impact the community. 

“Seeing the way that they have turned the page—we have a ton of student-athletes and coaches who are looking for ways to serve in the community, so we are facilitating some of that. They are moving forward in some ways to think about other people at this point, they continue to inspire me,” Moore said.

Hunt said he recently received a text from his wife: it was a picture of the inside of FoJo Beans, a local coffee establishment, which has converted part of its store to a mask-making station for those in need of them in Hamilton. Quickly inspired by the act of creativity, Hunt started to inquire if any materials in his team’s equipment room might be useful. If so, he would be happy to contribute to the cause. 

“If [they] could be converted into masks for whomever, however it can help, I think it would be a great idea. So I’m in the process of trying to find out what people need from a material standpoint and if that is in line with what we have, I would certainly have no problem loading up my truck and bringing in as much as we could possibly give them,” Hunt said. 

While many student-athletes have been forced to leave the Hamilton area, team members are getting creative to find ways to keep community outreach going from a distance. 

For example, Colgate Athletics has a long-lasting and strong relationship with Pathfinder Village in Edmeston, NY. Pathfinder is “a community where people who have Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities discover their own value and talents, and share these gifts with others,” according to its website.

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, many residents of Pathfinder were not able to leave the community for their respective homes and be with their families. In order to help ease the pressure of staff workers and teachers, Hunt and other teams are setting up ways to stay virtually connected and to engage with their ‘buddies’ from Pathfinder. After sending out an email to his team on Saturday, March 28, Hunt noted how quick his players were to offer their help. Other Colgate teams will be doing the same to stay connected to Pathfinder.

“They are struggling a little bit because they are kind of contained and want some version of normalcy, so they reached out… The residents there really enjoy interacting with the athletes, so we’re setting up a buddy system where they are going to be able to call and FaceTime, and maybe do some workouts online, with the guys and the people who are there,” Hunt said. “When you can still use the reach of athletics to help people, I think it’s a great thing.”

In addition, many student-athletes spend time in local classrooms in the community with their young biggest fans. And since the elementary, middle and high school students in town are no longer able to follow routines and go to school with their peers or attend Raiders home games, maintaining some form of connection has become even more important.

“Our student-athletes do the Adopt-A-Classroom program and it looks like our student-athletes are going to be able to send quick videos to those students, or pictures of them, at home themselves studying and working to say, ‘Hey, we’re in this together,’” Moore said.

Some of the smaller initiatives within the Athletic Department to maintain a sense of continuity and community include a Netflix lunchtime-chat on Thursdays to discuss current shows. 

Moore also helped launch a book club, where the staff will get together to discuss “Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer” by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell to start things off. The book is about Sir Ernest Shackleton, who saved his crew stranded in the Antarctic for two years. A relevant and insightful read, some might say, in the midst of the pandemic.

While the student-athletes are hoping to help out in the ways they are able to, the shock and suddenness of the situation still has not completely settled. The Athletic Department and coaches are trying to do their best, but each athlete has processed the events in their own way. In turn, coaches have had a couple of meetings to share their experiences with their players.

On March 20, coach Langel spoke about how his team was dealing with the effects of the news. On March 27, a panel of five coaches who had their seasons cut short spoke about their experiences in the aftermath of the March 12 announcement. 

“The thing that I really took from listening to those coaches talk about their team was, you kind of have to give each individual person a little bit of space and freedom to process this in their own way. I think everyone handles a situation like this differently— there is really no right or wrong way—and you have to give the individuals to react the way they feel they need to react. But also, [trying to keep some] contact with their team and their coaches to [let them know] they are not alone. And that’s a fine line. I was really impressed by listening to the coaches talk about it and listening to what they have done with their team…I really felt for those coaches listening to those stories,” Hunt said. 

While the end came on abruptly, some traditions will continue. The Golden Gates, Colgate’s homegrown version of the ESPYs, will take place throughout the week of April 20 and student-athletes will have a chance to be recognized for their hard work. Moore praised the creativity of the communications, marketing and student-athlete development teams for their efforts. 

The Athletic Department continues to work in order to honor the student-athletes who have represented Colgate University in competition around the nation for years. They have given up countless weekends with friends on campus, have been forced to face professors and ask for deadline extensions and to adjust test dates, study on long bus trips and balance what is essentially two full-time jobs—among other unseen sacrifices.

“I can’t even imagine it, I give those athletes a lot of credit for how they are handling it and getting through it. That’s just incredible to me…There is no blueprint for this… Colgate has always been a student-first educational experience and it certainly looks like they are living up to that now. Athletics is a part of it and we are going to keep trying to improve our [student-athletes] as best we can and give them the best outcomes going forward,” Hunt said.