As the world deals with the coronavirus pandemic, the Southern Conference has had to make some tough decisions. More might be on the way.
It’s been one heck of a first year for SoCon Commissioner Jim Schaus, who was hired last July.
In the past two months, Shaus has taken on a career’s worth of major challenges. He saw the league’s championship basketball teams not be able to use their automatic bids to the NCAA Tournaments. He’s also had to cancel all spring sports, and now he’s trying to figure out what might happen if and when football season gets started.
Schaus recently took a few minutes to discuss the challenges the conference is facing and how it might move forward.
Q: There’s so much uncertainty so obviously nobody knows what’s going to happen, but does the SoCon have a plan to maybe play football games without any people in the stands?
A: “We are having cursory discussions about fall planning. We’re really just finishing up some cost-saving ideas for the schools, some adjustments we might make to our championships, things like that.
“When you’re talking about the fall, I think we know that there’s a number of layers of decisions — whether that’s federal, state, local, NCAA — that will impact what’s going to take place. I know we’ve got some meetings coming up in May, our spring meetings, and that will certainly be a topic of discussion. We’ll look at some scenarios.”
Q: Will students have to be allowed on campus before athletics can resume in the fall?
A: “That’s the first gauntlet to clear if we’re going to consider sports. We have been looking at a number of scenarios, but we’ll be looking at it more intently this month. Obviously, if the schools don’t even open, there’d be nothing going on. Correct. That is probably the No. 1 layer to look at.”
Q: Here it is in the middle of May and we’re talking about football. It’s never too early, but what can be decided at this point?
A: “I get that our nature is to be able to look ahead and make decisions. This is just one of those times there has to be more patience. We’re going to have to make decisions as we go based on the circumstances. And sometimes we don’t like that, but that’s how we’re going to do things.
“A lot can happen in a month, two months, three months. Just look back a year. Look back a month or two about where we were then. And now a number of things are opening. There’s a lot of positivity that’s moving forward. I think we just have to take it one step at a time. And that’s the challenge. We’re all used to planning in advance, and this requires certainly that you hope for the best, plan for the worst.”
Q: What’s the most important aspect you’re dealing with when deciding when sports can return?
A: “You certainly need to be looking at concepts and ideas, but you also realize that you have to walk slowly because there’s a lot involved in the health and well-being of our student-athletes and fans and coaches, everyone involved. That’s paramount. And that’s going to be paramount to each state. So we have to strike a balance, I think, of moving into the reopening stages that are taking place at a whole bigger level than what we are dealing with on the athletics side. The welfare of the people involved is always going to be our primary concern.”
Q: If the states do things at different times and say one state in the SoCon is allowing things to be open and one’s not, will you consider moving games around just to make sure they can be played?
A: “Those are all topical discussions that are going to take place. I think you’re seeing some things on a national stage where some institutions or coaches are talking about there may be examples where there’s schools that may not be eligible to play. So I think those are all types of scenarios that conference commissioners are talking about.
“Yes, I think that that our regular-season schedule could be altered, could be shortened.”
Q: Looking back to basketball, you just came off a real successful conference tournament and you had a team that looked like it was ready to make some noise. How disappointing was it to see the NCAA Tournament not happen?
A: “I was just heartbroken for all the student-athletes that were not even able to have their conference championships in the spring. We are very fortunate on the basketball side that both the men’s and women’s champions — ETSU on the men’s side and Samford on the women’s side — had the opportunity to win a championship. But they didn’t get a chance to compete in the NCAA Tournament.
“You know, ETSU really had a fantastic season. I think they were well poised for success.”
Q: Looking back, canceling the NCAA Tournament was the right call, wasn’t it?
A: “It’s one of those things that everybody understands that health, safety and well-being is first and foremost, even though it’s tremendously disappointing for all the athletes and fans. But we all know that was the right decision. All of the closures and things have taken place in our country and around the world were the right choices. Safety has to come first.
“It was one of those ‘what-if’ scenarios. It’s one of those moments in history that you just have to realize you’ll really never get a chance to know for sure. I don’t think it really can diminish the success those teams had during the regular season. Winning a conference championship — I’m so glad that they got that opportunity.”
Q: I’m sure nobody expected the SoCon to celebrate its 100th anniversary in this kind of fashion. How unfortunate is that?
A: “When you look at our hundred-year history, there have been a number of things that have occurred. There has been war, a variety of things that have happened since 1921. And yet, the stability of our conference — there’s only two other conferences in the country that can celebrate 100 years of existence under the same name — we’re among the elite. And we’ve worked through adversity before as a conference.
“This is all really a new world order and things that we have not dealt with before, but I think we’ve got some really good people on it in our conference. As these decisions come up, I think they will be very mindful, thoughtful, do a lot of research, bench marking and take a look and make sure that when those decisions need to be made, we have all the information available at that time.”