No regrets: How CU Buffs, Rick George have navigated challenging year – The Denver Post

A small section of fans at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis roared on March 20 when the Colorado men’s basketball team emerged from the locker room.

Sitting with several dozen CU supporters, athletic director Rick George quickly noticed the elation on the face of junior forward Evan Battey and other players.

“When our guys came out and they saw all of us in this corner … Evan was jumping,” George said. “I mean, they were so excited to play in front of people; not just their families, but other people where there was a basketball atmosphere. They were excited to do that. Just seeing that, I don’t know how you can regret that.”

CU routed Georgetown, 96-73, that day in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but the pregame elation won’t be forgotten by George because he knows what it took to get there.

During the past 13 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted millions of people in all walks of life. For CU athletics, it has led to a massive loss of revenue, layoffs, furloughs, postponed and canceled games, and empty stadiums and arenas.

George and the Buffaloes have managed to navigate through the most difficult year ever for college athletics.

“I would say it’s the most challenging and definitely the most interesting (year), because so many different things happened throughout the year,” George said.

Sudden stop

On the night of March 11, 2020, the CU men’s basketball team was upset by Washington State in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

It wound up being one of the last major sporting events in the country for months.

The next day, fear of spreading the novel coronavirus led to the cancellation of the rest of the Pac-12 Tournament, as well as a shutdown of all college and pro sports.

Within two hours of returning to Boulder with the basketball team, George was at the CU Events Center, talking to all of the student-athletes and coaches. There was uncertainty, concern and panic. The next day, the CU campus shut down and went to remote learning.

Thus began an intense and challenging year for George, who has operated through strategic plans since he was hired as CU’s leader in July of 2013. Suddenly, long-term plans went out the window.

“We were in pretty much of a crisis mode,” he said.

Roller coaster

After several months of uncertainty, student-athletes began returning to Boulder in June. There were mask and social-distancing mandates and limitations on the number of people who could train at one time.

“It was such a huge adjustment for students that it took a couple of bonks over the head to make sure we knew what exactly this meant,” CU women’s basketball coach JR Payne said.

In July, the Pac-12 announced plans for a remodeled football season. But, on Aug. 11, when COVID-19 numbers spiked, the conference elected to shut down all sports until at least Jan. 1, 2021.

On Sept. 24, that changed again. The Pac-12 made a deal with Quidel Corporation for daily, rapid-results COVID-19 tests, and that gave conference leaders the comfort to return to playing sports – something all of the other major conferences were already doing. To return, the Pac-12 would test athletes more than any other conference.

“It might have been a little bit overboard, I don’t know,” Payne said. “But, I know we were very comfortable and confident with everything we were doing and I think the fact that we were doing it almost daily gave us confidence.”

Through it all, George and his staff made a point to keep coaches, student-athletes and their parents informed.

“What I love about Rick is he’s very clear in what his expectations are and what he wants, but he also genuinely loves people,” Payne said. “I know for me, I’d run through a wall for someone like that.

“Rick made his expectations of our students and staff very clear from the very beginning.”

New normal

To visit George at his office recently, it was required to stop by the COVID-19 testing station at CU’s Champions Center. Andrew Hamstra, the associate athletic trainer for CU football, handled the nasal swab test.

“Put that in your nose until you get resistance and then do five circles with the swab,” Hamstra said.

The swab was then placed into a tube, where it had to sit for 15 minutes. Then, it went into the processing machine, which produced a result within 20 seconds. Less than 20 minutes had passed from the swab to the time of the result, making it a very quick, easy and painless process – if you only have to do it once. For CU’s student-athletes and staff, however, that’s been a part of the daily grind since October.

In the fall, football players were tested six to nine times per week – mostly the nasal swabs, but also at least one PCR saliva test per week. A negative result was required to work out, practice, or play a game. Testing the entire football team and staff takes more than an hour each day for the CU medical team.

Throughout the winter and spring, student-athletes in basketball, volleyball, soccer and every other sport have gone through a similar routine. George recently revealed that CU has administered nearly 15,000 COVID-19 tests, with a positive rate of only 0.6 percent.

“Everybody committed to it because they knew that they had to in order to play,” George said.

Waiting for results from the medical team was stressful for coaches. A positive test could sideline a player, a position group, a coach, or cause a game to be canceled.

“It was just a challenge of understanding that each day could be a completely different day than it was the previous day,” head football coach Karl Dorrell said.

Cancellations have been common throughout the Pac-12. Arizona State, for example, had to cancel three consecutive football games, including one against the Buffs because of its COVID-19 issues in the fall. Oregon State women’s basketball canceled six games in a row at one point.

CU has had very few contests canceled because of its own COVID-19 issues, but there have been some cases of student-athletes testing positive or sitting out because of contact tracing.

“I think they did well in handling (the virus),” football player Dimitri Stanley said. “They made sure to keep everybody that (tested positive) away from the team, and made sure they were really strict on the COVID restrictions – testing and everything. Especially during the season, we didn’t have too many positive cases.”

Maintaining focus

Several basketball players, including McKinley Wright IV, Jeriah Horne and Battey, requested a meeting with George last summer.

“They just said, ‘We want to play. Whatever you’ve got to do, do it. We want to play,’” George said.

Many student-athletes in all sports felt the same way, but CU and George didn’t have much control. It was the Pac-12, the NCAA, campus leaders and/or local, state and federal health officials making the ultimate decisions on whether games would be played.

What CU could control was supporting the student-athletes. It became clear last summer that the pandemic was going to cause major financial strain on athletic departments around the country. Some schools were quick to make cuts, including eliminating sports, as they planned for revenue loss. George maintained that cutting sports would be the last resort.

“One of the things that we said when this started is that we would not take away any of the support mechanisms of our student-athletes and we’ve either enhanced it or we’ve done as much as we have done in the past,” he said. “That was important to us and I think it gave all of us motivation in our entire department.

Throughout his tenure at CU, George has placed a large chunk of the budget on student-athlete support in areas of academics, nutrition, mental health, career development, etc. That has continued in the past year, even to the point of George actually serving grab-and-go meals to the student-athletes.

“We haven’t wavered in our support for them,” George said.

Tough days

While the CU staff has kept its focus on the student-athletes, difficult decisions have been made. There have been layoffs and furloughs, and every purchase of at least $1,000 has to be approved by George.

“We wanted only the essentials that we needed to get through this,” George said. “You have to make tough decisions in times like this. I can tell you, in my life I’ve never said, ‘No’ more than I have in this last year.”

The staff is smaller today than it was a year ago because of layoffs. Some in the department spent several weeks on furlough and coaches have had salaries reduced.

“You’re asking yourself, when is this going to stop?” George said. “It certainly impacted people’s lives. When you have to lay off people that aren’t coming back and they’ve got families – and it’s not like the job market is really gung-ho right now, especially at the time we laid them off, which was in June and July – that was hard.”

Amid tough decisions, George has spent countless hours in meetings with campus leaders, coaches, student-athletes, Pac-12 officials and the national committees on which he serves.

“During this pandemic, it’s like there’s no hours of the day,” he said. “You’re having calls at eight o’clock at night and six in the morning.”

Asked if there have been moments when he privately thought he didn’t want to do this anymore, George laughed and said, “More than one.”

Then, he choked up as tears filled his eyes.

“Sorry,” he said before a brief pause. “Yeah, it’s been emotional.

“It’s been hard, really hard for a lot of people. I’m not the only one. But, gosh, have there been times when I thought, ‘Do I still want to do this?’ Yeah, there’s been those thoughts. It’s been hard.”

George credits deputy athletic director Jason DePaepe and numerous others on the staff for their efforts and support.

“I’ve got a great team around me,” George said.

Youthful energy

Despite significant challenges and difficult days, George said there is one main reason he’s motivated to work every day.

“The young people,” he said. “Just being able to see them go out there and compete. … That’s what makes it all worth it.”

One of the best moments of the year for George was when the toe of UCLA’s kicker hit the ball to get the football season underway on Nov. 7 at Folsom Field.

“I can remember just taking a deep breath when that happened and just being thrilled that we were at that point,” George said.

The football team reached a bowl game for the first time since 2016. Dorrell – hired less than a month before the COVID-19 shutdown – earned Pac-12 coach of the year honors, while running back Jarek Broussard was named Pac-12 offensive player of the year.

Since the return to play, student-athletes have gone through daily testing, a life adjustment with remote learning and tutoring and wholesale changes in their social routines. Still, some have had to deal with getting the virus or quarantine time, while having the occasional practice or game canceled.

Through Saturday, however, CU teams had competed in 163 events since November 7. Seven teams have completed their seasons and six others are still going.

So far this school year, CU has produced:

  • The best football season since 2016
  • One of the best men’s basketball seasons in 50 years
  • The best women’s basketball season since 2013
  • Two national champions in skiing (Magus Boee sweeping two men’s Nordic races and Cassidy Gray in women’s giant slalom)
  • A Pac-12 cross country champion (Eduardo Hererra)
  • A soccer team still in the hunt for a postseason berth
  • Record-breaking performances in track and field
  • The best GPA in CU athletics history in the fall

The grind has been difficult, but George said, “I haven’t had anybody tell me it wasn’t (worth it).

“I hope they don’t have any regrets because I don’t. And all the hard work that our staff put in, I mean we’ve probably never worked more hours than we’ve worked this year; I’m talking about our entire staff that’s been here on site has been pretty incredible.”

Doing their part

George, Payne, Dorrell and numerous other leaders at CU have gone out of their way to heap praise on the student-athletes. Rapid-results testing and staff adjustments and efforts were required to pull off a return to play, but nothing was more important than the commitment of the student-athletes.

“I felt like they were really resilient and they did a fabulous job of dealing through the pandemonium of this pandemic,” Dorrell said, “and then after a while, they got used to just taking advantage of the opportunities that were allowed.”

It wasn’t simply handling a pandemic that impressed George, however.

The death of George Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis who died after being restrained by police on May 25, sparked a social justice movement that continues. CU student-athletes have used their voices to speak up – including during a peaceful march in June – while social justice messages have been a part of Buffs’ games throughout the year.

“They’ve used their voices, we support them using their voices, and I think they’ve done a terrific job,” George said.

The past year has also seen an intense and heated presidential election, a riot at the United States Capitol and, last month, a mass shooting at a Boulder grocery store where many CU students shop.

“I would say it was a great learning year because they did learn a lot,” George said of the CU student-athletes. “There was a lot thrown at them. They learned a lot about perseverance, about how to handle the ups and the downs and the highs and the lows.

“You learn about perseverance, you learn about patience, resilience and different things like that. I think from that perspective, it was a really good learning year, but I would say there weren’t a lot of great things about this year.”

Perhaps the greatest aspect of this year was how the student-athletes handled it.

“Our student-athletes continue to do a great job,” George said. “I couldn’t be prouder of our student-athletes and our coaches for what they’ve done.”

Forging ahead

This will be an extremely difficult fiscal year on the athletic department’s finances. Playing in front of empty stands in Boulder cost CU roughly $26 million in ticket sales. George also anticipates the Pac-12 distribution to be about half of the originally projected $34 million.

In all, CU’s revenue will drop by roughly $45 million from last year. Even with all the efforts to cut costs, George projects a deficit of about $20 million. CU is planning to utilize a Pac-12 loan program to cover that deficit.

Fans are returning to stadiums and arenas in pro sports – although in limited numbers – and George is hopeful that Folsom Field and the CU Events Center can be filled later this year. He’s also aware that the pandemic isn’t over.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said of the 2021-22 school year. “But, I was pretty positive and optimistic about this last year and that didn’t go so well.”

With COVID-19 numbers down and thousands of people around the getting vaccinated every day, however, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Even when there is a return to “normal,” this past year has taught CU many lessons it will carry into the future.

Virtual meetings have been necessary, but efficient. Coaches have learned they can do a lot of their recruiting from home, rather than spending countless hours in airplanes and rental cars. Telemedicine has been vital, saved time and, in some cases, been more personable. The CU donor base, George said, has actually had more access to meeting with coaches because of virtual events.

“I think what we’ve done is we’ve learned how to do things a little bit differently,” George said.

That moment at Hinkle Fieldhouse last month, however, was a reminder of what George, the Buffs and the fans have missed the most over the past 13 months: each other.

George is eager for a lot of aspects of his job to return to the pre-pandemic normal, but he didn’t hesitate when asked what he’s looking forward to the most.

“Going to tailgates before the game and visiting with donors and seeing our student-athletes compete and being on the road to fund raise,” he said. “I enjoy that part of my job and just seeing people face to face again. That’s what I’m most looking forward to.”

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