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BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe hugs Football coach Kalani Sitake to celebrate a win at the Boca Raton Bowl. They are wearing black masks and are on a football field.

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Mission impossible: Tom Holmoe and the fight to play sports during a pandemic

Why did it matter that BYU try to run sports programs during a once-in-a-century pandemic? The BYU athletic director had his reasons.

BYU coach Kalani Sitake, right, celebrates the win over the UCF Knights with athletic director Tom Holmoe at the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. BYU won 49-23.
| Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

In about 48 hours last March, everything changed for BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe.

His staff had taken up residence in the press box of LaVell Edwards Stadium just across the street from their offices, which were being remodeled. A conference basketball tournament played on one of the press box’s big-screen TVs. Other such tournaments were happening across the country in various conferences, and they would determine seedings and matchups for the most popular and lucrative college sporting event — March Madness.

“I can’t remember which one it was,” Holmoe said. “And they canceled the tournament. I thought, ‘Wait, what?’ And then, I don’t know if it was the next day or what, but they canceled the NCAA Tournament, and that was the time, that was the moment where I said, ‘Uh, oh, what in the world just happened?’ And then it took not too long after that to realize that the financial ramifications of what that would mean to each school not receiving the (payments) from basketball, because there was going to be no basketball tournament.”

It was a dizzying series of events that changed the sports landscape so significantly that reverberations will be felt, especially among college programs, for years. Through it all, Holmoe has been tasked with the nearly impossible job of keeping people safe, which translates into mitigating the spread of an airborne virus, and finding ways to allow athletes to train and compete.

To some, it seems trivial to fight for ways to hold athletic competition in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic, but for Holmoe, it became a guiding principle. College sports is big business, and while he understands bottom lines matter, Holmoe, who once suited up in royal BYU blue, is still a player at heart.

“I want to be close to the players,” he said. “I want to be close to the coaches. That’s my area of expertise. That’s what I know. I don’t know marketing. I don’t know fundraising. ... I know playing and coaching, so that’s why I have to keep my feet firmly entrenched in the game.”

And fighting for the games became his purpose as he guided the program through a storm no one had ever seen, a challenge no one fully understood.

Everything is canceled

The reality of how COVID-19 would disfigure athletics, from canceled high school seasons to the postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics, had roots to a team from Utah.

The Utah Jazz were in Oklahoma City on March 11 to take on the Oklahoma City Thunder when the game, with thousands of fans in the stands, was first delayed and then canceled. It didn’t take long before officials announced that a Jazz player, later revealed as Rudy Gobert, had tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by a new coronavirus that had been spreading around the globe. Cases were reported in coastal cities like Seattle and New York, but cases were nonexistent or isolated to international travelers in places like Oklahoma and Utah.

Within hours, the NBA postponed the 2020 season, stunning fans, players and the media. The next day, the day Holmoe remembers, the NCAA released a statement around 2:30 p.m. MST canceling all conference tournaments and March Madness tournaments for both men and women.

It was the first time the men’s tournament wouldn’t be held since its inception in 1939.

From his temporary office at the football stadium, Holmoe watched as BYU’s baseball team warmed up for a spring game against Loyola Marymount. It was to be the first of a three-game homestand for the Cougars.

A view of the March Madness logo inside the Dayton Arena, Friday, March 13, 2020, in Dayton, Ohio. The coronavirus outbreak abruptly roused the University of Dayton from its dream of a basketball season — and every other program dreaming of the Big Dance.
AP Photo/Aaron Doster

“We canceled the game,” Holmoe said. “And that was it. From that point forward, it was just one thing after another, realizing this is going to be a really hard and long run. In our lifetime, nothing had ever come up that had stopped games like that.”

Even before the NBA and NCAA took action to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, BYU’s administration formed a “COVID team” to guide the college through unprecedented times and develop “policies and procedures to cope with what was coming.” So on that Thursday afternoon, and in the wake of the NCAA’s decision, Holmoe consulted with both coaches and the university’s COVID team.

“We just decided that we were going to call it off,” he said, noting that from the moment the NBA postponed its season, suddenly instead of unknowns, everyone was scrambling to make decisions based on constant newly released data or opinions.

“It was like an information dump,” he said. BYU’s response mirrored that of its owner — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Church leaders suspended all in-person worship services and activities on March 12 and began bringing missionaries serving in foreign countries back to the U.S. shortly thereafter. Its semiannual conference was virtual for both April and October sessions.

Businesses of all types closed their doors. When two weeks was extended by another month, panic set in, and positive cases began surging. But Holmoe and his team focused on one thing: How can they keep athletes safe while they continue to do what athletes do — pursue competitive excellence.

“We immediately were working with the county and the state, but we relied heavily on our campus COVID team,” Holmoe said. “We created an athletic COVID response team just to deal with the issues that we were going to have to deal with. There were immediately issues of concern for the health and well-being of our student-athletes, coaches and staff.”

Holmoe understands sports are not just games to competitive athletes. He was once a high school player with big dreams, a college athlete balancing team expectations with academic demands, and he was a professional football player, dependent on the games to earn a living. None of the angst and grief athletes struggled with as seasons were canceled or postponed were abstract to Holmoe or his staff. The questions became how would they adapt to caring for students they couldn’t see or work with everyday?

“Some of our student-athletes took it really hard,” he said of canceling spring sports, including most workouts. “And some of them were like, ‘Oh, we got this.’ ... We just leaned heavily on our coaches to say, coaches, they are not here anymore. You don’t see the whites of their eyes everyday. ... You can’t see the nonverbal cues that you used to see at practice everyday. You can’t go out and put an arm around them. You can’t call them into your office and say, ‘What in the world is wrong with you?’ Now, you’ve got to figure out a way to see those kids virtually.”

Everything grew more complicated.

Before COVID-19, Holmoe’s anxiety revolved around the struggles or issues of individual athletes. Maybe he’d lose sleep over the hiring or firing of a coach, and maybe he’d panic about the fact that wildfire season left the air so toxic, they might have to cancel practices or postpone a game. There was the year he had to wake up the entire athletic department so they could help clear snow off the women’s soccer field so an NCAA tournament game could be played.

“We didn’t really know what lay ahead,” he said. “We didn’t know what the possibilities were.”

‘Learned how to adapt’

Unlike most college athletic directors who have a single conference to consider, BYU competes in a mix of conferences or as an independent. He didn’t just have the NCAA to consider, he had to deal with the West Coast Conference for most sports, including men’s and women’s basketball, but also Mountain Pacific Rim (gymnastics) and Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (men’s volleyball), while considering track and field and football, which compete independent of a conference.

As conference leadership made decisions, BYU followed, but when it came to track and field and football, Holmoe made the decisions about what to cancel or what restrictions to impose with the help of the college’s COVID advisory group.

“It was like a wave that just kept coming,” he said of the issues that arose out of a varied pandemic response across the country. “It just kept coming. It would brush past you, and then it would come back and get you again. We realized the magnitude, maybe not the details, but you realize it’s a pandemic.”

While students didn’t always understand the breadth of what was happening, he said administrators and coaches did.

“And so, you just had to, day by day by day, almost hourly, you learned how to adapt,” he said. “Some weeks, some days were better than others. There were some days when we were like, ‘What in the world are we going to do?’”

Holmoe said what was lost on most people, maybe even some of the school’s athletes, were the financial implications of the cancellations.

“Our first concern was our student-athletes and our staff,” he said. “Are we safe? Does everybody just go home?”

They began trying to buy masks and disinfectants, while canceling travel and trying to find new ways to connect with student-athletes and recruits. Some felt isolated, far from family and cut off from teammates and coaches. They found new ways to offer support, oftentimes through counseling efforts, and it wasn’t just to help student-athletes, it also provided some help and support to staff and coaches.

At every turn, however, Holmoe said they were constantly being blindsided by new issues and changing realities.

“It was like walking at night with a flashlight,” Holmoe said. “You can only see 8 to 10 feet in front of you clearly. And there’s a lot of things that could be coming at you that you couldn’t see. That’s what it felt like. But we just followed that light.”

Reasons to compete

The first few times Holmoe saw the rugby players converging on a field that linked an elementary school to a park near his home, he was shocked.

“They’d get together, 20 to 30 people and play rugby, night after night,” said Holmoe, who first noticed the pickup games while taking work calls on his back porch. “At first, I saw them, and I thought, ‘What in the world are these folks doing? Don’t they know we’re in a pandemic?”

He wondered if they knew what precautions should be taken. Where were their masks? It was impossible to social distance, and so why risk one’s health for a pickup game?

“After a while, I noticed, they’re laughing, they’re having fun, they’re together,” he said. “I don’t know if any of them caught COVID, and I would hope they would have worn masks, but what I learned, and what I saw from that, is they were happy and it was good. They did it for months.”

What it crystalized for Holmoe is that sports are not peripheral for some people. They bring joy and connectedness, they bring fulfillment and opportunities. Most college athletes have worked most of their lives for the opportunities college sports offer. Sometimes those collegiate careers open other doors; sometimes they are the pinnacle of an athlete’s effort. Regardless of the reason or the sport, Holmoe realized he had to try and find a way to balance safety with providing some semblance of opportunity to the athletes under his watch.

“I did pull from that, ‘Gosh, if we can do this safely, if we can get together and be safe, we’re going to be that much closer to recovery’,” he said. “I was on phone calls with other ADs, and they were saying, ‘You’re crazy. How are you going to do this?’”

Much of Holmoe’s confidence came from the science being shared with him through BYU’s COVID team and local and state health departments.

“I don’t think we took a shot in the dark,” he said. “We based our protocols on what they were telling us we needed to do.”

Doing so meant almost everything was different. Everyone wore masks and equipment was cleaned almost constantly. Group meetings were either virtual or appropriately social distanced. Staff from all areas of the school volunteered to take on new duties, like cleaning barbells in the weight room or setting up weekly testing areas.

“We had the decals on the floor ‘This is what 6 feet is,’” he said laughing. “We had little spray bottles (of hand sanitizer) in our pockets. ... We were lucky to have good advice so early.”

As BYU brought athletes back to campus for summer workouts, no one knew if or when they’d be able to compete. Holmoe’s advice to them was simple — work hard and be ready to play.

“All we can do is the best we can do,” he said. “I wasn’t pleading with them, but I was just stating to them, ‘If we do this together, it’s going to work out.’”

Shifting realities

“Early on, you’re thinking, ‘We’ve got to protect everybody,’” Holmoe said. “And then you get to a point where you realize, you can’t protect everybody. Because you don’t live in a bubble. ... We just had really deep, long conversations with risk management, our medical staff, our president’s leadership council, the board of trustees, the county and the state, and they said, ‘Take reasonable steps.’ And so that’s what we did.”

That’s not to say he didn’t have moments when he second-guessed himself.

“Every once in a while I’d think, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’” he said, noting there were always a variety of opinions to consider. “So we just tried to keep moving. Maybe not fast, but we kept trying to take steps.”

As Holmoe and his staff were crafting new safety protocols and envisioning new ways to keep student-athletes whose seasons were postponed motivated and engaged, he was also trying to find games for a football schedule that disintegrated when conferences either opted not to play (a decision both the Big Ten and Pac-12 later reversed) or chose to play conference-only games. Without a conference, BYU had no guaranteed games.

But what looked like a disadvantage turned out to be the reason BYU could play 12 football games this season.

“Now that I look back, it was easier to get through this season being independent,” Holmoe said. “Because we’re not part of a conference; we didn’t have a set of rules we had to adhere to.”

He said some conferences took a very conservative stance, canceling their seasons in August, only to reconsider after other teams successfully played games.

“We were able to stay fluid,” he said. “We could move, change, adapt. We had good partners that we played.”

Everything is more complex when conference considerations come into play, oftentimes because it involves other state and local government mandates. Most of BYU’s athletic programs compete in the West Coast Conference, which includes schools in California, Oregon and Washington. Because that region of the country, especially California, was hit particularly hard by COVID-19, it was not a surprise that the league opted to postpone all fall sports.

Currently, officials are working on a plan to play volleyball and soccer in the spring, but California is still in lockdown, and nothing is certain. The San Francisco 49ers had to relocate to Arizona for the final three weeks of the NFL season after Santa Clara County restrictions forbid team practices or contact sports. If those restrictions stay in place, at least some of the West Coast Conference games could be in jeopardy.

When it came to football, however, Holmoe didn’t have to consult with conference officials. The decisions belonged to him, his administration and any opponents they might engage.

It’s the reason BYU was able to give the country its first taste of college football. The Cougars played Navy at Annapolis, Maryland, on Sept. 7.

“When we beat Navy, I went, ‘Oh, my gosh, we got to play a game’,” he said. “Then we got another, then another, and I was like, ‘Guys, this is gravy!’ There were a lot of teams that aren’t playing, so just be grateful that we get to be together everyday and play.”

There were issues, including positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing quarantines that led to the cancelation of the second scheduled football game of the season against Army.

“We knew it could happen,” Holmoe said. “And then it did. I think it was actually a blessing in disguise. Because right away people went, ‘What? We can’t play a game!’ ... Then all of a sudden your protocols start to tighten up.”

Family and friends of BYU players sit among cutout fans in a nearly empty LaVell Edwards Stadium before the Cougars game against North Alabama in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.
Family and friends of BYU players sit among cutout fans in a nearly empty LaVell Edwards Stadium before the Cougars game against North Alabama in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Those social gatherings, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, stopped; what the players wanted more than to hang out with friends was to play a few more football games.

“Did we have positive tests? Yes,” he said. “Almost every week.”

But what he also learned pretty quickly is that athletes, especially those associated with a team, had a much lower positive rate than the general public because “they had a reason” to follow public health protocols.

Financial challenges

As the athletic staff scrambled to adjust to new realities, Holmoe said the financial implications became devastatingly clear. Everyone was going to hemorrhage money, and some said their programs wouldn’t recover. Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin’s athletic director, wrote a letter to fans projecting losses of $60 or $70 million if his school was forced to play only Big Ten games.

Old Dominion, UConn, Boise State, Stanford and George Washington were among schools who announced they were cutting certain sports programs because of financial shortfalls suffered because of COVID-19 cancellations.

“We didn’t know right away football wasn’t going to play,” Holmoe said. “But like, all of a sudden, we start realizing what if we can’t have fans in the stands? Now you start doing the math, and whoa, this is gonna be rough. What if you have to lose sponsors? What if you can’t play? What if there’s no TV money? You know, what if? What if? What if?”

The pandemic created new costs with health and safety protocols, while, at the same time, the shutdowns made raising revenue almost impossible.

“As we started putting pen to paper and started looking at all the ramifications, it was grim,” he said. “But we went into COVID with no debt. Zero. ... I don’t know if there is another school in the country, at least Division I, that can say that.”

BYU will not emerge from the COVID-19 era unscathed.

“At the end of the school year, we’re going to be $20 million in debt,” he said. “But it’s not $100 million (referring to what other schools have projected). And I’m going to say, out of all the D-I schools that might be the least amount of debt.”

He said they’ll have to “tighten belts” and “make cuts” — some of which already happened as they laid off a number of athletic department staff in November.

“We’re going to have to cut a lot of things,” he said. “But let’s start the journey back. ... We’ll take it one step at a time.”

The last nine months has been a roller coaster, but Holmoe is one who enjoys a good ride. He’s learned from the low points and relished the high ones.

“I think a low point was the cancellation of the seasons, just the kids not being able to play,” he said. “And just knowing them and watching them look into the future and go, what now.

“The high point was probably being in the locker room after Navy,” he said choking back emotion. “Just the joy. We did it. We played a game, man.”

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (1) celebrates the win over the UCF Knights with athletic director Tom Holmoe after the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. BYU won 49-23.
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson celebrates the win over the UCF Knights with athletic director Tom Holmoe after the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. BYU won 49-23.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

After the stress of trying to navigate safety protocols, going through weekly testing and worrying about results, just taking the field each week felt like a victory.

“That’s what team sports is all about,” he said. “You get a group of people working together on a common goal, and when you succeed, it’s beautiful. That’s it. That’s why it’s my high point.”

And because Holmoe is an unapologetic optimist and 2020 needs more high points, he offers another.

“My second high point is how much joy people have had watching our teams,” he said. “That’s amazing to me. ... That’s cool.”

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