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Former BYU, Utah athletic directors weigh in on risk vs. reward, challenges of 2020 college football season

Utah running back Zack Moss (2) runs the ball near the goal line during the Utah-BYU football game.
Utah running back Zack Moss (2) runs the ball near the goal line during the Utah-BYU football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. On Friday, the Pac-12 announced it would only play conference opponents during the 2020 fall season as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. That canceled the BYU-Utah game, which was set for Sept. 3.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As former athletic directors, Chris Hill and Val Hale helped guide their respective universities, Utah and BYU, through interesting times and some tough challenges.

Neither Hill nor Hale ever had to deal with a predicament as challenging as the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced colleges to make some difficult and controversial decisions since the coronavirus reared its ugly head earlier this year.

The Deseret News reached out to the well-respected former ADs — Hill worked at the U. from 1987-2018, while Hale led BYU’s athletic department from 1999-2004 — for their perspectives on the unusual circumstances colleges now face. (Note: Interviews were conducted before the Pac-12 announced it was canceling nonconference games in football and other fall sports. Some responses were edited for clarity.)

How important is football — to the college and to the community?

Hill: I think it’s an important thing for campus life. It’s a great outlet for the community. People are really anxious to have a release and for sports to come back. It’s the critical area of income for the athletic department. It’s also the main emphasis in a lot of universities — football, in general, around the country. College football has grown so much it’s become a focal part of the athletic departments.

Hale: In some parts of the country, it’s a religion and it is the university. That’s not necessarily the case here in Utah. It’s very important, especially for the students and the alumni. It’s what brings everybody together to support the university.

Most athletic departments are subsidized by the university. In actuality, few departments make money. Those that do make money make money on football and basketball, but primarily football. To not have football would be a huge budget hit to universities.

How difficult of a challenge is this to navigate for athletic directors? Biggest hurdle?

Hale: The biggest hurdle I think is the uncertainty going into the season as to what’s going to happen. I know BYU sent out a survey to season ticket holders — one, if they’re interested in renewing and if not, would they be interested in donating to the department to help or deferring tickets to the next year. The big concern is consumer confidence and confidence of fans knowing if they go they’re going to be safe.

(Now you can only have 6,000 people at an outdoor event.) If things don’t get better, if we continue to have high rates of cases, I don’t think that’s going to change. You could have a 60,000-seat stadium with 6,000 people in it. That would be fine for a social-distance standpoint, but from an economic standpoint it would be very, very difficult. (Schools rely on ticket sales, concessions, parking income, advertising, etc.)

Hill: I just ran into Mark (Harlan) the other day and had a casual conversation. I tell you what, it’s got to be so hard because there’s thousands of questions and as an AD you really don’t have the answers. It’s so hard with the time frame and the rhythm to the year. It’s going to be difficult to navigate that. I feel for him, that’s for sure. I told him the last thing I would want to do is think I have any answers for you because I don’t. I want you to know that I can listen, I can sympathize with you, but I don’t want to walk a mile in your shoes. I just feel for them now. You can plan, you can do this and that, in a lot of ways you’re powerless. You really need to be flexible.

Former University of Utah athletic director Chris Hill in his Salt Lake City home on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020.
FILE: Chris Hill was the athletic director at the University of Utah from 1987-2018.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Do you think we’ll see some type of football season? If so, what kind? If not, why?

Hill: I don’t know how many times people have asked that question. I’m like everybody else. I’d love to have it. Two weeks ago, I was confident we’d have it. Now I’m more skeptical. I’m all over the chart. I’m optimistic. I’m like everybody else, I’m a fan. I feel I may know a little bit more, but I don’t talk to too many people in the business. It’s just a difficult time for rhythm for sure because you just don’t have answers because you’re used to having answers. In sports like everything else, the game starts at 7:07 not 7:03. Now you can tell coaches and fans what you think, but now you feel a little bit powerless. I’m sure the university has all sorts of contingency plans, but there are so many unknowns.

Hale: I think we will see football. I think it will be a version of what we have known in the past at least in terms of what the fans are used to. There’s a big difference in college and professional in the TV contract. Pros can go on and make money — make so much money — from TV contracts.

It’s still going to mean the university is going to take a big hit financially, a big-big hit.

Another thing, BYU has a lot of older fans who sit in the West section. That might affect them. Older people might be hesitant to go out in public and attend games. And a lot of times, older people are the more generous donors as well, so it could have a compound effect.

Is the reward worth the risk?

Hale: I really think it boils down to it’s a financial decision. I think universities can play the games, but is it worth playing the games and incurring the expense of having 6,000 fans in the stands? I think that’s what they need to weigh. If it’s important to do that and to take that kind of loss to field the game, they’ll go ahead and do it.

I think in terms of the coronavirus and social distance, there will always be that challenge in the locker room and in games and practices whether they want to bring the fans in and have a game with fans, cheerleaders and bands and only have 6,000 people there. That’s going to have an expensive endeavor because you’re going to have the normal expenses and not the normal revenues.

I think if they were to require masks and they were able to space the fans out in the stadium and if fans were to be observant, it could be done. The problem is when people go in the public and ignore the proper guidelines.

Hill: We don’t know what the risk is, so when we don’t know what the risk is, it’s hard to say if the reward is going to be worth it. Mostly, you want to be conservative with taking chances with young people.

Hale: I think it’s a risk with the players. I think that risk is primarily in the locker room and in the field when you have a dog pile of people. I’d hope they’d do frequent testing of athletes. If one gets it, there could be an outbreak and it could spread throughout the team in a hurry. I don’t know what precautions they are taking. I’m sure they have procedures and policies in place.

Football is the ultimate unsocial-distance sport. On the field itself, you’re going to have players colliding and sweat flying everywhere. It will be problematic if somebody has COVID-19 and they’re out on the field.

Val Hale, executive director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development, speaks during an event at Red Butte Garden in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 10, 2019, where Crossroads Paper announced it will construct a mill to turn used cardboard boxes and residential mixed paper into new paper. Output from the plant will then be used to make new boxes for manufacturers, farmers and e-commerce companies.
FILE: Val Hale was BYU’s athletic director from 1999-2004.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

What was the biggest challenge you faced as an administrator?

Hill: I think the biggest challenge is making sure you have the right people in the right place and you can deal with the unknown. This particular case is so much more challenging than anything. It’s pervasive. It’s every day. When you had a problem in my time, at least there was an end. It might not turn out well, but you could recover. This is a problem you don’t know where the end is. This one is so different. When you come across a problem, there’s no athletics director manual and there’s definitely no AD manual for this one. This one is worldwide. It’s a whole different approach. It’s so much more complicated. The good news is you have so many people in the same boat. You can draw on others. If there’s a light, at least you can lean on others, and it’s not just a University of Utah challenge. It’s a challenge all over the world. You can lean on others to help make collective decisions.

Hale: I always viewed my role as an AD as needing to provide resources to the coaches to be successful. I always thought coaches would take care of recruiting and everything else. My job was fundraising, getting the funding that the programs needed, that was my biggest challenge, keeping up with the arms race that is intercollegiate athletics, especially Division I intercollegiate athletics. (For example: If another school hired an expert or assistant coach, he’d feel the pressure to hire one, too.) It’s such an arms race keeping up with those resource demands and upgrading facilities.