In the event of football being postponed or outright cancelled in the 2020 season, there will not be layoffs or budget cuts in order to “save” the athletic department — which has been discussed at various Division I institutes — at Slippery Rock University, according to SRU Director of Athletics Paul Lueken.
“Division I football at the Power Five level is such a money generator, it’s the lifeblood of their athletic programs in a lot of places, where at our Division II level, yeah, we generate some revenue, it would hurt us in some areas if we couldn’t play — more so the parking revenue and ticket sales since that money goes back to athletic scholarships — but we could survive it,” Lueken said. “We wouldn’t have to make any drastic cuts like some of those schools at the Division I level are taking. We wouldn’t be looking at eliminating any sports.”
While the athletic staff and coaches do not have to worry about being laid off or furloughed, and there is no imminent threat to “smaller” sports being cut altogether, that does not mean the athletic department is not facing big changes.
If the NCAA decides to postpone the college football season or extend the suspension of spring sports this semester, Slippery Rock would follow suit with the NCAA guidelines, Lueken said.
The only way that would change, in regard to football, would be in the event that the NCAA postpones the season through January or February.
“Playing football games in January in Slippery Rock just doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Lueken said.
Still reminiscing on Slippery Rock’s December playoff game against Minnesota State, Lueken had the sight of swirling snow and biting winds in mind. While the football team has the ability to play outdoors late into the winter, most teams at SRU do not have the facilities or the ability to run late into the winter months.
“[Football] could do it, we’d be fine — our facilities’ folks are good at clearing the field — and we have brand new turf, but I don’t know if people want to sit out in the cold,” Lueken said.
While the fall season is still wildly uncertain, and not likely to be decided for some time, the coaches — of all sports — have continued to work from home. In a way, the coaches are in the same boat as the students.
“We’ve put together a plan, and the coaches have all been really good at developing that plan for each of their sports,” Lueken said. “We hadn’t totally been taken off campus yet, and I already had the coaches working on what we’re calling a plan of operation plan for the spring.”
Lueken said the coaches have each submitted a report to him, focusing on four topics: fundraising, student support in academics and welfare, reviewing strength and conditioning and recruiting.
With the forced time off from physical recruiting and actually being in-season, Lueken said the coaches have been working on revising strength and conditioning plans to come back stronger in the fall — since there likely won’t be scheduled team activity once summer rolls around.
Additionally, coaches have continued to build recruiting databases, work on non-conference schedules and finalize budgeting with the Slippery Rock Student Government Association.
Like SRU students reporting to their professors, the coaches report back to Lueken on what they have been doing.
“Everyone is working remotely, using Zoom to connect with student-athletes, and doing well,” Lueken said. “Each Friday, they give me a report on the four areas and anything else they’re working on.”
While coaches can not physically interact with their athletes, they have been finding virtual ways to stay connected and in the loop.
“They’re zooming and video chatting, texting and emailing their student-athletes,” Lueken said. “We’re allowing eight hours a week of countable athletic related activity, but no physical activities. The workouts are on their own, and they can’t report that back.”
With two hours of film a week, Lueken said the teams have used Hudl to watch film and Zoom to interact while watching. It’s been a way to keep Zoom speeds higher while still regularly communicating throughout the week.
With long-time field hockey coach Julie Swiney stepping down at the end of May, Lueken said the nationwide search has continued through Zoom.
“We Zoom interviewed four candidates, and we had a session for our student-athletes on the field hockey team with each candidate,” Lueken said. “We surveyed them and got feedback from them. Right now, the committee is reviewing background checks for candidates.”
With coaches working from home, the only access to the facilities has been Travis Wunsch and Noah Hastings, the facilities team at Slippery Rock.
Lueken said the two have been coming in periodically, at different times to ensure social distancing, to check on facilities, equipment rooms, taking inventory and making sure everything is running without incident.
But with the lack of a presence at the facilities, Lueken said stronger precautions have had to be enforced.
“We’ve had to secure some of our facilities a little tighter than we normally would,” Lueken said. “People sometimes like to help themselves. It’s a challenge, especially our stadium. We’re doing some work on the one end, and there was an opening in the fence, but we closed that Thursday.”
The borough police have been helping to ensure that people have not been trespassing in athletic facilities on campus, but for the large part, the community has been cooperating during the unprecedented times.
Lueken said he is incredibly grateful for that, but you can not keep everyone away.
“We had to put a padlock on the lights in the field house to stop people from helping themselves to the indoor track,” Lueken said. “The doors are locked, but people always find a way.”
Lueken stressed that Old Thompson Field remains open to the public, and he encouraged people to continue going and practicing social distancing.
With the disappointment of a cancelled spring season, Lueken lamented the loss of some promising sports.
“I was disappointed for spring sports,” Lueken said. “We were excited about lacrosse. They got the brand new turf, they got to practice on it but didn’t get a chance to play a game on it. Baseball was getting a new facility, and softball was done last year.”
Despite not being able to take the field at Jack Critchfield Park, Lueken said the park was a week from opening when the workers were forced to shut down. The warning track and turf on the outfield and the fair territory on the third base side needs to be finished, but Lueken praised the beautiful facility.
Of course, no one knows when the park will finally be opened for games, as Slippery Rock recently announced the cancellation of all face-to-face activities on campus until at least July 31.
As no teams actually report back to campus until the second week of August, Lueken was just hopeful that Rock athletics will be able to return to its normal schedule.
With the hazy schedule, a theme for literally everyone in the United States, Lueken said student-athletes will need to do a good job conditioning away from the team. With veteran teams across most of the varsity sports, teams will know what to do.
For Lueken, a 25 — almost 26– year veteran as an AD, the only thing that comes to mind in terms of sheer shock and magnitude of shutdowns is 9/11.
That weekend, everything was shut down for a time of mourning,” Lueken said. But even then, he acknowledged that leagues started back up rather quickly.
The fastest way back to the fields, courts, pitches, in Lueken’s eyes, lies in listening to those who know best.
“We gotta do what our medical professionals and leaders are telling us to do,” Lueken said. “Stay home and social distance.”
While the cancellation of athletics this season has been hard on Lueken, it has only been temporary. Thankfully, no sports have had to be cut, which is all he can ask for.
“It’s up there,” Lueken said. “It’s not the top one, though, in 2006, when we dropped those sports, that was a tough decision. That was the toughest thing I ever had to experience in my athletic career.”