LARAMIE – Given that he had roughly 10 minutes to prepare himself for what would inevitably be among the toughest moments of his coaching career, it was probably for the best Mark Branch didn’t have time to prepare a speech.
Branch has been the University of Wyoming’s head wrestling coach for 12 years. He’s seen it all, both in his time as a coach and as a national championship wrestler at Oklahoma State. He and five of his wrestlers were set to head to the NCAA championships Tuesday, an annual rite of passage for the best athletes in the sport.
But last Thursday, in a day that will forever be etched in everyone’s memory, the NCAA made the decision to cancel all of its spring sports and championships — wrestling included — due to the fear of the spread of COVID-19.
The day started with news that the NCAA tournament, affectionately known as March Madness, would be held without fans. A few hours later, it was canceled altogether. Branch, while optimistic, was aware it was possible his beloved sport could be impacted.
At 2:30 p.m. that day, Branch received the message: the NCAA was effectively shutting down for the school year. The Mountain West followed suit, initially suspending sports before shutting down all competition. Branch called a meeting with his team for 2:40 p.m.; the team had a practice scheduled for 3 p.m. in preparation for the championships.
Walking down from his office, Branch had no idea what he would say. What could he possibly prepare, anyway? Following a trying season where the Cowboys went 8-10 overall, the championships were something for his wrestlers to look forward to, having prepared almost exactly a year for that very moment. And, in a matter of hours, that opportunity was gone.
“It’s been quite a journey to get to nowhere. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Branch told WyoSports. “It was pretty emotional. For a room full of tough guys, there were more than enough tears being shed. … I didn’t have anything prepared. I didn’t have anything motivational. I tried to think of any way that I could use it as a learning lesson.”
While much of the attention on the coronavirus’ NCAA impact has been focused on the always profitable March Madness, non-revenue sports, and, specifically, the people behind them, have been hit just as hard. Sports at UW affected by the NCAA’s decision included wrestling, softball, swimming and diving, track and field, golf and tennis.
Telling a group of young men or women that their season has ended at its most important juncture is brutal. Telling them it’s finished before it ever really got started is just as bad, as UW women’s tennis coach Dean Clower can attest to.
While individual tennis season is in the fall, the spring season is when team play begins. The Cowgirls’ home opener against Eastern Washington was scheduled to take place March 13, one day after the NCAA shut down sports for the spring. Following a road matchup at Denver that Wednesday, Clower told the team there was a chance the season would be suspended. When athletic director Tom Burman walked into Clower’s office to tell him the season was completely canceled? Nothing could prepare him for that.
“I’ve never, ever thought this could happen. It’s been a whirlwind … It’s kind of like ‘The Twilight Zone,’” Clower said. “You could hear a pin drop for about a minute. … The whole team (cried). This is a tight-knit group, and probably the hardest working team I’ve ever had. The whole team was in tears.”
As the world as a whole navigates uncharted territory, with COVID-19 containment plans constantly evolving, the sports world has come to somewhat of a halt. All pro sports have been suspended, and collegiate athletics have been canceled. But inside college athletic departments, there is still work to be done, even if it isn’t in the form of practice. The Mountain West has banned all athletic activities for the time being. Once they return from spring break, UW students will transition to online courses for the remainder of the semester.
UW also announced Wednesday that spring football practice, scheduled to begin March 24, is postponed indefinitely.
The impact of the global pandemic can be felt at the very top of the food chain in Laramie, where athletic director Tom Burman wasn’t able to do as many face-to-face meetings as he normally would in his recent search for a head men’s basketball coach. UW hired Northern Colorado’s Jeff Linder Tuesday morning.
“There are so many unknowns ... the only known is that the world is changing,” Burman said. “It had an impact, there’s no doubt ... I did some travel, but I would have done more travel in a different environment.”
Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Branch said he had already cleaned his house 10 times since the announcement that his team’s season was over. He’s also attempted to go ice fishing and shovel four feet worth of snow at his home; both endeavors were unsuccessful, he admitted.
Sitting in his office last Friday afternoon, when he should have been glossing over scouting reports for the matchup with Eastern Washington, Clower found himself recruiting instead. That has been limited, too, however, as no travel or in-person recruiting is currently permitted. To an extent, neither man knows what to do with himself.
“When you have that kind of a routine for so many years, the last few days, I’ve literally felt lost. Like ‘Gosh, what do I do?’” Branch said. “I’m (at the office) right now. But I’ll lose my mind if I’m here for very long.”
When it comes down to it, coaches need to coach. Without the ability to do so, Branch and Clower are in unknown waters. For instance, after the NCAA championships, Branch’s team usually reports back immediately and would prepare for Olympic trials, he said. Following that fateful meeting last Thursday, Branch sent his athletes home for at least the next two weeks. It sounds dramatic, but that’s by far the longest stretch that Branch goes without seeing his wrestlers, as many are around campus almost all year. There isn’t much he can do with his athletes hundreds of miles away.
“That is unprecedented. There is so much distance,” Branch said. “Right now, it’s weird because we’re not going to have face-to-face. ... I have my young guys that probably need the most mentorship, and they can’t even come back to their dorms.”
During these tough times, Clower sees himself as a father figure to his tennis players. He is in constant communication with his athletes, referring to himself as “a shoulder to cry on.” If nothing else, the whole situation has been the best possible preparation for life.
“We have to show them there’s more than just tennis matches,” Clower said. “We’re still teaching them their goals in life. I’m still trying to teach them about life and get them prepared to graduate.”
While both coaches agree that canceling the rest of the season was the correct move, it didn’t always appear that way, specifically for Branch. With the end of the race so close, it was difficult to let go of the fact that the goal his wrestlers had aimed for was suddenly gone. Why not wrestle in front of empty arenas? Even postponing it would be OK. But, in the heat of the moment, full cancellation took Branch’s breath away.
Nearly a week after the news initially dropped, Branch has come to terms with the reality and gravity of the situation.
“I have this selfishness. I know firsthand what my guys have been through over the last nine months, so I selfishly want to put that over everything,” Branch said. “(But) people’s health is at risk. I think it’s a little easier over the last few days ... This is more important than wrestling.”
According to multiple reports, the NCAA has tentatively agreed to allow seniors in 2020 spring sports to have an extra year of eligibility, though the specifics have yet to be nailed down. That helps Clower, who has one senior on his current roster in Ana Royo. That does not help winter sports, though Branch did not have any seniors qualify for the NCAA championships this season; his veterans already knew their careers had come to an end.
But if nothing else, Branch wants his wrestlers to take one thing away from all of this: take nothing for granted. Sure, wrestlers like Montorie Bridges are likely to be contenders for NCAA titles in 2021. This likely wasn’t his last chance. But tomorrow is never guaranteed, Branch said, and you need to appreciate the moment as best you can.
“I hope it makes them recognize those things a little more. Because some of those things ... when you’re a man and you’re 18-23, a lot of times you feel invincible a little bit ... you are in control of everything. It takes a sense of maturity (to say) ‘I’m not in control, I don’t know what tomorrow brings. I have to get up every day and be grateful,’” Branch said. “We’re not guaranteed anything. Hopefully it does give them a little different view and maybe change their point of view. Because I think that’s an invaluable lesson.”
Never one to sit around, Branch is finding ways to keep himself busy at the moment. He’s hopeful that, weather permitting, he can ride the horses as his ranch. He also recently got a new chainsaw and is looking forward to the accompanying adventures in nature. Nothing can fill the void of wrestling, and he’s fully aware of that. The competitor in him will always long to be with his group of young men. For now and indefinitely, however, he’ll have to made do.
“I definitely have hobbies, but I’m very competitive. I want us to be the best we can be. I can’t completely get my mind off wrestling,” Branch said. “(But) I got a new chainsaw … I might just cut trees down.”