LARAMIE – It was among the strangest 10 hours or so of University of Wyoming women’s soccer coach Pete Cuadrado’s coaching career. But, given the time frame and circumstances, it sure was fitting.
On the morning of Aug. 10, Cuadrado, an admittedly early riser, was already in his office on campus at 6 a.m. Rumors of the cancellation of fall sports around the country were running rampant. There had reportedly been a meeting among commissioners from the Power Five conferences the previous day about potentially postponing the football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the back of Cuadrado’s mind, the ninth-year UW coach always thought football would happen, and the other fall sports would fall in line. There was too much money in major college football, he thought to himself. Plus, up to that point, UW athletics had not recorded a single positive COVID-19 test among its staff or student-athletes.
But the latest rumors gave Cuadrado pause.
Also in the office that Monday morning was athletics director Tom Burman. Passing in the hallway, Cuadrado asked the (multi)million-dollar question: Were fall sports in the Mountain West off?
“I said, ‘Are we done?’” Cuadrado said. “(Burman) said, ‘Yes, but I want them to hear it from me first.’”
That meeting between Burman and athletes wasn’t scheduled until about 3:30 or 4 p.m., however. And before that fateful meeting, Cuadrado’s team had an intra-squad scrimmage to play.
So, the Cowgirls scrimmaged. And after what was by all accounts an impressive match, Burman broke the news. There were tears.
“I told them, grieve. Lay in bed and cry,” Cuadrado said. “I’m going to, to be honest.”
But Cuadrado kept the secret for a reason other than being sworn to secrecy by his higher-ups. He knew this was going to be one of the last few enjoyable moments for his team for several days, or potentially weeks. Give them a taste of what they’d been working toward, he thought.
“(I said) let the team enjoy it,” Cuadrado said.
While college football has stolen the headlines as conferences around the nation pull the plug on sports this fall, it is the so-called non-revenue sports like women’s soccer, cross-country and volleyball that have endured as much heartache, if not more, in the past two weeks.
The MW, Mid-American Conference, Big Ten and Pac-12 have indefinitely postponed all their fall sports seasons, with the aim of potentially playing them in the spring.
While some conferences are still aiming to play starting in September, Cuadrado’s squad is left thinking what could have been in autumn.
The Cowgirls were coming off of a solid 7-7-5 season in 2019 that was supposed to be a rebuilding project. Cuadrado thought the team had a chance to have a special fall. UW shared the MW title in 2018, and felt like it had a legitimate shot at an outright title.
Now, the Cowgirls will have to wait until at least spring to see the fruits of their labor.
“It does hurt a little more when you know everybody is ready,” Cuadrado said. “It just felt like it was the perfect storm for us to make a run.”
For men’s and women’s cross-country coach Scott Dahlberg, the conversation he had with his athletes was a bit too similar to one they endured just five months earlier with Burman. All of Dahlberg’s runners also compete in outdoor track and field, which saw its season cut short in March when the pandemic started.
Imagine having to have that talk again.
“That’s something that we were really pushing hard this whole summer. … ‘Let’s keep pushing for the fall,’” Dahlberg said. “Now we really don’t know what we’re pushing for.”
Cowgirls volleyball coach Chad Callihan declined to comment for this story.
Among the chief questions non-revenue sports face other than when they will be able to play again is the worry about financials. At the majority of universities, football and/or basketball pay the bills for the school’s other sports. That is no exception at UW, where football and men’s basketball generated about $15.5 million in operating revenue in 2018-19.
Comparatively, UW’s other 15 varsity sports generated about $7.8 million combined and had operating costs of about $10.7 million, according to the school’s own data.
While Burman has told WyoSports there are still no imminent plans to cut any sports, athletic departments nationally continue to hemorrhage money as a lack of revenue forces their collective hands.
The University of Iowa announced Friday it was cutting men’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming and diving and men’s tennis from its varsity programs, the latest in a long string of cuts by schools. Last week, the University of Nevada announced it was cutting 20 non-coaching positions from its athletics staff to help make up an expected deficit of more than $10 million.
Following the MW’s announcement, Burman told WyoSports he expected UW to lose somewhere between $8 million and $15 million in revenue without football in 2020, and that furloughs and salary reductions were possible outcomes, though obviously not preferable.
Dahlberg would be lying if he said the negative possibilities hadn’t passed through his mind on more than one occasion.
“I’m sure it’s crossed everyone’s mind,” he said. “(But) we have amazing administration.”
Cuadrado shared a similar sentiment and made note that there’s only so much he and anyone else can really do anyway.
“It makes everybody a little bit leery,” Cuadrado said. “(But) most coaches, and I think the biggest thing that we’ve all seen through this virus is you control the controllables until the day someone tells me not to.”
The possibility of spring seasons is intriguing for both Dahlberg and Cuadrado, though it could be made difficult for the former. Assuming spring sports go off as anticipated, that would leave cross-country season happening concurrently with track and field, which could create a difficult situation.
Cuadrado is adamant that each of his 29 players would gladly volunteer to play 20 games in the spring and another 20 in the fall. Realistically, the slates would be smaller, but Cuadrado’s point still stands.
“Whatever they throw at us, we’ll take,” he said. “They just want to play.”
There is also the chance that, while the Mountain West sits on the sidelines this fall, the other conferences with plans to compete, such as the Big 12 and SEC, trudge along as currently constructed. That could leave schools like UW behind, and potentially lead to transfers for those athletes wanting to compete this fall.
While the NCAA has canceled all of its fall championships (FBS football is not an NCAA championship), conferences could still hypothetically compete in their sports without a championship at stake.
“I suppose it could be a worry if you let it, but we’re trying to stay within ourselves,” Dahlberg said. “I don’t think we can really worry about it.”
As they await news on when their teams will next be able to compete, Cuadrado and Dahlberg’s squads continue practicing, as the MW permits 20 hours of workouts a week.
After a brief grieving period, Cuadrado’s team hit the field again Wednesday, about 48 hours after getting news that rocked their world. The Cowgirls continue to work, Monday through Friday, as a sort of extended offseason, rather than an ongoing preseason. Some of his players went home for a few days, but all are expected back with the team by Sept. 7, following a mandatory two-week quarantine, Cuadrado said.
Yes, it is strange practicing without an immediate game awaiting. But right now, the light at the end of the tunnel is a spring season. Having a motivating factor in the back of his team’s head is of the utmost importance, Cuadrado said. He and the team are just happy to be busy again after losing several months of practice and bonding due to the pandemic.
There is no moping on the field by UW soccer players at practice right now, despite everything lost in the past few weeks. Instead, Cuadrado sees energy and joy, a group just happy to be out there with one another. There is a sense of purpose, despite the circumstances. You’d be hard-pressed to tell a season had just been decimated.
The Cowgirls know this will pass. It’s just a matter of when. The key is to be ready for whenever it comes.
“If not, what are we working for? None of us knows when the next game is going to be,” Cuadrado said. “You’re always preparing for the next game. It doesn’t matter if it’s Friday or it’s eight months from now. I think that’s what competitors do.
“Hopefully we get to kick everybody’s ass in the spring now.”