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Utah athletic director not ready to pull the plug on football

FILE: A Utah Utes football helmet sits on a table during the Red-White game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 13, 2019. Utah had its second game canceled due to the coronavirus on Friday.
A Utah Utes football helmet sits on a table during the Red-White game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 13, 2019. Utah had its second game canceled due to the coronavirus on Friday.
Silas Walker, Deseret News

After the Utah Utes-UCLA Bruins football game scheduled for Saturday became the Utes’ second in two tries this season to get canceled amid a growing number nationwide around the country this week because of COVID-19, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan was asked Friday if it’s time to shut things down for good in 2020.

Harlan called it “obviously a terribly disappointing day here for the University of Utah athletic department and certainly for our football program,” but said he doesn’t feel it’s time to call the season off just yet.

“I think it’s something that we’re going to try to give these young men every opportunity we can to compete for this university, for this state, all the while keeping their safety is what we’ve done, clearly. I don’t foresee us doing that,” he said.

In the same thought, however, he expressed uncertainty about what the rest of the scheduled season could hold. Saturday’s game will be declared a no-contest.

“I don’t know where college football’s going, guys. I really don’t,” he said during a Zoom meeting with reporters. “It’s been an unbelievable week as it is, all the games that have been canceled.”

The Utes’ latest game cancellation Friday came after Harlan said the team’s practice facility was shut down last weekend, with medical advisers brought in to help reexamine safety procedures there.

When players returned to practice Monday after last weekend’s season opener against Arizona was called off, they began getting daily PCR COVID-19 tests in addition to the daily antigen tests they had been doing (only a weekly PCR test is required by the Pac-12).

There were a few positive tests Monday, Harlan said, but none on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, and it appeared Saturday’s game would be a go. On Friday morning, however, a player on the travel squad tested positive.

That made 17 confirmed positive cases among the Utes’ student-athletes and coaching staff, the school said, with an additional 11 members of the program in quarantine due to contact tracing protocols. That put Utah below the Pac-12’s mandatory threshold of 53 scholarship student-athletes available to play a game.

In a statement, Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham said, “We went into this week knowing it was a day-to-day situation. We have been doing everything we can under the circumstances to prepare for the game and follow all guidelines and protocols. As is always the case, the health and safety of our student-athletes come first.”

Everyone in the program will be tested through the weekend, and a decision will be made Monday about how to proceed for preparation for next weekend’s home game against USC.

“I think what we’ve learned in these last two weeks is there’s no margin of error at all,” Harlan said. “We don’t have a bubble with our student-athletes here at the University of Utah, and I think we just got swept into what is happening here in the county and the state as much as we’ve tried since March to mitigate, and we really have until last week, amazingly so.”

The Utah-UCLA contest was the second cancellation of a Pac-12 game this week after the league canceled the Arizona State-Cal game due to positive COVID-19 results within the Sun Devils program.

The league later announced that UCLA and Cal, instead, will play each other this week. The game will be played at the Rose Bowl on Sunday at 10 a.m. MST, with the contest being televised on Fox Sports 1. As such, UCLA’s game next week at Oregon will be moved back a day, from Friday, Nov. 20 to Saturday, Nov. 21.

So far, four Pac-12 games have been canceled due to positive COVID-19 tests, including the Utah-Arizona and Washington-Cal games last week, when the league opened play.

“The cancellation of this game is very disappointing to our student-athletes and our fans,” the Pac-12 said in a statement. “At the same time it is further indication that our health and safety protocols are working in identifying positive cases and contact tracing cases. While all of us want to see our football student-athletes on the field competing, our number one priority must continue to be the health and safety of all those connected to Pac-12 football programs.”

Harlan said there are some “general assumptions” about where the outbreak within his program may have started, but he didn’t go into more detail. The basketball program was shut down Friday morning because of “a handful” of positive antigen tests, but they’re awaiting PCR tests to confirm the diagnoses.

Harlan said players are regularly reminded what’s at stake, and that most players have been very good about following protocols. He also doesn’t want to play any sort of blame game with particular people.

“We’re in a state of emergency here right now, but that being said, we know decision-making is a big part of this, and we’re going to continue to remind them of that and hope that they can continue to make good decisions,” he said. “Unfortunately we’re learning the lessons the tough way, but we’ve got a lot of really good people on that football team, and I know they’re trying to do the right thing.”

Asked about prohibiting players from leaving campus, Harlan said that’s not possible, although they’ve tried to adjust living arrangements so big groups aren’t together.

“We’re not the NBA. We’re not sitting in Orlando,” he said, referring to the “bubble” at Disney World that allowed the basketball league to finish its 2019-20 season COVID-free. “That’s just not the way our world operates. That being said, we obviously have to really think hard, be thoughtful about the things that we can do to better protect ourselves.”

For now, he said, the plan is to keep moving forward as best they can.

“If we come to a place where they say we just can’t do this anymore, then we’ll have to react to that, but I don’t foresee that,” he said. “I think it’s going to continue to be a day-by-day situation, and I’m sure our league will gather again Monday morning as we always do as athletic directors and assess where we’re at. Gosh, my hope is that we keep pushing forward.”