MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The world certainly hasn’t rid itself of COVID yet. It remains a threat throughout the U.S. and beyond.
Still, the situation is better now than it was last year.
That includes the picture for college athletics, which may have some restrictions moving forward but definitely hopes to be in a much better place in 2021-22 than it was in 2020-21.
Crowds were often limited last year in most sports, and at times there were basically no fans allowed into events, other than a few hundred family and friends.
The largest crowd that attended a Mountaineer football game last year was the 17,843 who were able to spread out in the 100,119-seat Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin. After that, there were 14,672 in attendance for WVU’s game at Oklahoma State, 14,256 at Iowa State and 13,532 at Texas Tech. Each of those venues lists their capacity between 56,000 and 61,500.
West Virginia’s first two home football games of 2020 were limited to just game workers, friends and family, which kept the attendance to 976 and 978 for the pair of contests against Eastern Kentucky and Baylor, respectively. After that, WVU officials opened the 60,000-seat Mountaineer Field to 25% of its capacity (15,000), but still, its three remaining home games drew significantly less than that amount — 10,759 for Kansas, 10,441 for Kansas State and 11,111 for TCU. West Virginia’s final home game of the 2020 season was slated to be against Oklahoma, but after being postponed once because of COVID issues within the Sooner program, it ultimately was canceled altogether because of coronavirus problems within the Mountaineers.
Basketball and all other WVU sports teams also faced similar restrictions in terms of attendance. In addition, players and staff members were constantly subjected to COVID testing and the maximum number of contests allowed was often cut back as the Big 12 sought a way to continue competitions in the midst of a global pandemic.
“It was extremely difficult,” admitted WVU director of athletics Shane Lyons of the 2020-21 seasons. “I don’t think people who are not in this industry realize from an administrative standpoint how much time we spent on Zoom calls and teleconferences or whatever it may have been to try to get college athletics to work.
“It was a difficult year. Sitting here last June, the first part of July, there were questions about whether we would even be able to participate in college athletics,” recalled Lyons. “As we got closer, there were a couple of conferences that opted out of playing football and some opted out of playing sports altogether. We in the Big 12 held firm on our position of let’s not panic, let’s use science to our advantage, let’s be patient as opposed to pulling the plug too soon, which I believe some did.
“I’ll give a lot of credit to (WVU president) Dr. (E. Gordon) Gee both in terms of what he did here on our campus and also the leadership he provided to the Big 12. He looked at the suggested protocols and helped set the standards that were best for student-athletes from a health and safety standpoint, which allowed them to continue to participate.”
Certainly, all the limitations came at a significant financial cost to the Mountaineer athletic department. Lyons says his program took a hit of $25 million in lost revenue last fiscal year. Still, WVU and many others moved forward, holding contests as best they could.
“The big issue for me wasn’t about what I wanted or what my coaches wanted, but what our student-athletes wanted,” explained Lyons in an exclusive interview with the Blue & Gold News. “I felt when I talked to them, each and every one of them said they wanted to play, please do everything in your power to let us play. I got in this business to serve and try to make a difference in young people’s lives. So, when I had them telling me what they wanted to do, I believed it was my job to try to make it happen.”
While the attendance was down, the Mountaineers’ performances on the field or court were for the most part pretty good.
The WVU football team finished 6-4 with a victory in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. The men’s basketball squad was 19-10 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The women’s basketball team was 22-7, made it to the championship game of the Big 12 Tournament and earned a berth in the NCAA Tourney.
The women’s soccer team was 10-3-1 in a season split between the spring and fall, earning a spot in the NCAAs.
Men’s soccer played an abbreviated spring-only schedule, but finished 6-3-1 and just missed out on an NCAA Tournament bid.
“It wasn’t the prettiest of all seasons, but if you had told me last July that we would have gotten through 85% of the scheduled games that were played in football and a majority of those scheduled in basketball and the other Olympic sports, I would have been very pleased,” stated Lyons.
Some college programs and conferences opted to delay their seasons or not play them at all.
“I feel we did the right thing by playing, but yes, it was a hard year,” said Lyons. “We will never know the answer of what it would have looked like if we hadn’t played. That’s still the question.
“We did have to hit pause a couple of times with some of our sports teams. As a department, we did over 36,000 COVID tests. That’s a lot for your student-athletes and a lot for your staff to endure, but that’s what was necessary to do to play. We kept facing adversity and fighting and we got through it. It will probably go down in history as one of the most difficult times in college athletics, but we fought our way through it.”