PROVO — It’s a well-worn cliche among coaches and players, who love to say they’re taking it “a day at a time.”
But in this Year of the Pandemic, it rings true.
BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe has had to be more resourceful than ever considering the tenuous nature of college football with game postponements due to COVID-19. It’s an unprecedented period. Typically, schedules are set years and years in advance. This year, he’s working on the 2020 schedule during the season.
“If there is ever a year where you take it a day at a time, this is the year,” Holmoe told David James and Patrick Kinahan of 1280 the Zone Monday morning.
Holmoe discussed the unpredictability of his job, and this season, with 1280 the Zone. He addressed a number of topics, including the 2020 schedule, which is continuing to develop; bowl possibilities; the athletic department’s financial situation; and the possibility of fans returning to games at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Over the summer, 10 of BYU’s original 12 football opponents dropped off the schedule when conferences decided to play league-only schedules or not play at all. But now the major conferences are returning to play later this fall. Holmoe scheduled nine games with three open dates in November — and he’s working to add more.
“But the way I thought I might add is different now. A couple of months ago before we started the season, we were scrambling to try to get anybody to play,” Holmoe said. “And now, you can see a situation that has arisen where there’s possible open games depending on missed games and postponed games.
“We have those three games sitting at the end of the schedule in November … where they’re open. Instead of trying to find anybody, I’m thinking right now that it’s possible that there could be games that people might just want to play later. Instead of trying to grab them right now, it’s probably better just to wait and see what games might be available at that time.”
Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson said last Friday that Boise State and BYU could play — they were originally slated to meet on Nov. 6 and the Cougars currently have an opening that week — because Air Force is playing rivals Army and Navy, creating possibilities for some out-of-conference matchups.
”It’s not that it’s a BYU thing. It’s a Mountain West Conference thing,” Holmoe said. “Everybody would know that our attitude about playing these games is we want to play the games and we’ll try to play them if it’s feasible. If there’s an open discussion about this, we’d like to get in the mix.”
BYU and Army were scheduled to play on Sept. 19 but it was postponed due to coronavirus cases at BYU. Is there a chance it still could be played in late November, when both teams have open dates?
“We’ll keep talking about that because it could be a game that could be like that, where as the season progresses, and they might say, ‘Let’s see if we can get that one done.’ But it depends on what games they continue to have and which games we keep,” Holmoe said. “This is a scenario right now where you play week to week. Anybody that thinks otherwise is crazy.
“You really have to think about your COVID testing, you have to think about the other team, and all the situations with the various counties and states across the country. You have the election coming up. You really have no idea when somebody’s going to call you up and say, ‘We’re not going to be able to play this week.’”
Holmoe said the football program is testing players and staff three times a week for the coronavirus.
“But you don’t know until you get the test result. As you see with the Army game, some people want to make more of it than what it is,” Holmoe said. “With contact tracing, we had too many of our players that weren’t able to put together a game.”
Many fans are buzzing about the possibility of the Cougars, who are 2-0 and ranked No. 22 in the country, filling out the schedule with Power Five opponents. Holmoe said people are suggesting that BYU schedule a game with No. 16 Mississippi State, which upset defending national champion Louisiana State on the road last weekend.
“It’s hard to imagine that any P5 games would all of the sudden pop up. They’re all playing conference games,” Holmoe said. “They’re playing conference-only schedules. So the way that would happen is not possible right now. It could be possible later down the road.”
As for the bowl situation, as an independent, BYU isn’t locked in with a certain bowl. But with ESPN as a partner, the Cougars are assured of a bid somewhere.
“This is another situation this year where it’s different than it’s ever been. Once again, it’s always nice to have ESPN as a partner because right now, there’s a lot of bowls that are wondering if they were even going to play,” Holmoe said. “The fact that the Big Ten and the Pac-12 are back now, and everybody’s playing, the fact that it’s happening now will save a lot of bowls.
“You could imagine when you have the No. 7 team from one conference playing the No. 6 team from another conference and those conferences aren’t playing, that leaves a lot of vacant bowls … For BYU, we’re waiting with ESPN to see how it all unfolds and how it plays out, what bowls are going to be available. Now it looks like there’s going to be more than there were. With all of those games being open, there were some intriguing possibilities. But I’ll step away from that at this point of the season.”
What’s going to happen with games that were scheduled with teams like Michigan State, Missouri, Minnesota and Arizona State that dropped off the schedule? Will they be re-scheduled at some point? Holmoe said there have been conversations with those programs.
“They were very sorry that they had to postpone them because we all thought they were going to be great series,” Holmoe said. “But in initial calls, we’ve penciled them in. Unfortunately, they go out quite a ways. The earliest ones of those games are 2025, 2026 and some of them go out to 2030. Those were the only spots where you could find open slots between the two teams that made sense.”
A few weeks ago, BYU announced that 6,000 fans would be allowed to attend last Saturday’s game against Troy and this Friday’s game against Louisiana Tech. But then the week of the game, state officials and BYU announced that no fans would be allowed to attend.
Will fans be able to attend future games?
“We’ve worked on it all year, to make sure that we could make games available to our fans. But this is another situation where you can’t go to the playbook from the last time we didn’t have fans in the stadium. It’s so unique. We’re working week to week with the state,” Holmoe said. “I feel like the state has worked very well with us. We’ve had incredible conversations and they’ve been a great partner. But in the end, it’s not a decision that I make. It’s a decision that comes down to the health officials in the state and in the county and our school and the board of trustees.
“We are doing everything we possibly can to get fans in. Whether it’s friends and family, or a limited number, or that number increases, that will all be predicated on what the situation looks like in the community. … We might not have fans in the stands as we have planned out. But we do have a plan to have a lot of fans in the stands. If we can get to that point, we will put them in.”
Schools like Utah have had to furlough employees. BYU hasn’t had to resort to those measures, Holmoe said.
“Not at this point in time. Like every school in the country, we’re looking at your revenue and expenses at the present time and the future. Those are conversations that are ongoing with our university leaders on campus to try to determine how we can be strong in the future while doing the right thing in the present time.”
While Holmoe has been praised for his handling of the scheduling during the pandemic, he wants to point out that putting a game together these days is “an incredible collaborative effort” between many people.
“I have a lot of partners out there that made this happen for BYU. I get a lot of attention for it but I couldn’t have done it without a ton of other ADs across the country and other people at ESPN, Dave Brown and we all got together and said, ‘Let’s try to make this work.’ We got knocked down, we got slapped in the head,” Holmoe said. “There’s so many things that have happened. But yet we’re playing. I’m glad now that a lot of our fans have figured out that this is a very tentative situation. It does go week to week. “It’s an incredible collaborative effort to put together a game now. ... It’s not just a game, it’s an event.”
Holmoe knows the situation changes from one day to the next.
“You actually have personalities involved and you know the people that are coming from the various schools because you’ve had to work with them or else it wouldn’t have ever come to pass,” he said. “We have Louisiana Tech coming up on Friday. There will be so much work that will go into that game being played and it won’t come out in the papers at all because it’s about, can we get from Monday to Tuesday? And can Louisiana Tech? And if we can get to Tuesday, we get the right to go to Wednesday. If we can play a game on Friday night, we’ve done a good thing.”