The University of Nebraska at Kearney football program had its new 2020 season schedule decided by blindly drawing names of conference opponents.
That process was just one part of the restructuring of all NCAA Division II schools’ sports schedules due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In May, the NCAA Division II President’s Council announced that it had adjusted the permissible contests in each sport for the upcoming academic year.
For UNK football, this meant reducing the number of regular season games from 11 to 10. The Lopers’ conference, the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, decided that the best way to do this would be completely scratching the schedules in place and giving each team five home games and five away games with conference opponents that would be randomly drawn. Since 2014, MIAA football teams have played an 11-game schedule in which they play every team in the conference and do not play any non-conference games.
As a result, the Lopers will not face Emporia State in the regular season for the first time since joining the conference in 2012.
The NCAA’s decision to shorten sports seasons was for financial purposes. According to UNK Athletic Director Marc Bauer, there were three big related financial implications to shortening the seasons: there will be more cost savings in general, schools will be able to avoid cutting any programs and eliminating jobs as a result of those lost programs.
The new football schedule is going to be one of the bigger sources in creating those cost savings, Bauer said.
“In football, the elimination of a regular season game actually really helped us,” he said. “…Obviously, traveling a football team in for one game is very substantial. So again, we had substantial savings in that.”
However, Bauer had the opportunity to protect one game and ensure that it would be a home game, although he was not able to choose the opponent. That game was the homecoming week game on Oct. 10. He chose to protect that game because of the outside planning that would be affected if things changed.
“There’s a lot of different entities on campus that are involved in the decision making process for that homecoming date,” Bauer said. “And if our homecoming date were to move it would’ve really, really caused a lot of issues in terms of scheduling and those types of things, things that have already been scheduled like our homecoming parade.”
Of course, other sports will be impacted by the change in schedule as well. Women’s soccer, volleyball and men’s and women’s basketball will all only be playing conference games this upcoming season, and the MIAA sets those schedules.
Every other sport will be setting their own schedule for the season that doesn’t go above the sport’s maximum permitted competition number. Bauer had a meeting with all the head coaches to discuss scheduling, and what teams should be looking at as they design their schedules.
For example, UNK wrestling typically attends the Las Vegas Invitational in Las Vegas. However, Bauer said that trip usually costs 8,000 to 10,000 dollars, so the team decided not to go for the upcoming year. While Bauer advised the coaches to save money where possible, he also respected the desires of the coaches and what they wanted to do.
“I asked them to look at their schedules and pick places that are fairly, you know, not too expensive, but yet we have a coaching process, right? They have a process and what it is that they’re doing to try to peak their team at the right time of the year,” he said. “So there are certain events that they feel are a part of their process and they need to go do it.”
Bauer said he expects the cost savings to be “substantial,” and that there will be a positive financial impact. Along with money saved from fewer sporting events, UNK has a new contract with BlueFrame this year, a streaming production service that is popular in athletic programs. With uncertainty about what fan attendance will look like in the fall and what will be allowed, Bauer said he expects streaming to go up, which may help them financially.
“Obviously we’d much rather have people attend our home events. But on top of, you know, the fact that we’re concerned about our attendance, the main reason we’re concerned is because there’s just so much uncertainty out there,” he said. “And there’s fear of contracting COVID-19. And so people may or may not want to attend.”
Meanwhile, Loper student-athletes and recruits are already starting to head to campus. The university is currently in a quiet period from June 1 to June 30, in which recruits are allowed to come to campus in person with family while following certain sets of guidelines.
Current student-athletes were also allowed to have voluntary workouts starting June 1. The Lopers had to develop a screening process to make this possible amidst the pandemic, and they screen about 80-85 student-athletes every day, according to Bauer.
On top of the regular season losses, the MIAA also made changes regarding conference championships. For basketball, the conference tournament takes place over five days with the top 10 teams in the conference. This next year, the days will be reduced to four and the number of teams will be reduced to eight.
UNK women’s and men’s basketball finished third and seventh, respectively, in the MIAA standings last season, but Bauer isn’t happy with the limiting of teams able to compete for conference and national championships.
“I understand there’s cost saving measures, but at the end of the day, that’s what we play for,” Bauer said. “I want our student athletes to have that opportunity to compete in a conference or a regional or national championship. And there’s been some limitations through our conference put on those championships. And I’m somebody that will support whatever changes are necessary, but it’s an area that I don’t think it’s necessary to eliminate or to cut back on.”
One of the biggest challenges for Bauer is managing the fluidity of the current situation. He said that coaches and student-athletes are impatient, and wanting to get out and do things. While he understands that, he said that the key right now is patience.
“They have to understand that this is a process. And we want to ensure not just the safety of our students, our coaches and our faculty and staff, but everybody that steps on this campus,” he said.
Nebraska-Kearney will also be hosting the Nebraska Shrine Bowl on July 11. Bauer is meeting tomorrow to start discussing how they will prepare for it, with the help of team physician Dr. Brad Rogers, Associate AD and director of sports medicine Bill Murphy and with UNL Associate AD and director of athletic medicine Lonnie Albers. The University of Nebraska Medical Center has also been an important part of the process, according to Bauer.
“We are extremely fortunate to be a part of a university system that is connected to a major health university, right, a major medical university because UNMC is working hard on helping with this whole process as well,” he said.
Bauer said that this is a difficult time for anyone and no one has all the answers, no matter how long they’ve been in the business. However, he said he’s encouraged by the way the University of Nebraska system is pulling together and he’s proud to be a part of it.
“We’re willing to share ideas and work, we want to see everybody continue forward and try to have some cost savings, not reduce programs, not eliminate positions,” Bauer said. “We want to get back to where we were at, and I think we’re heading in the right direction.”