FAYETTEVILLE – University of Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek admitted Thursday on a Zoom press conference his spring optimism that this college football and other fall sports season would be played has waned to “mediocre” in July.
The coronavirus COVID-19 spikes throughout much of the SEC’s 11 states including Arkansas and especially Florida and Texas.
In the West, Arizona and California are so COVID-19 prevalent that the Pac 12 has joined the Midwest’s and Eastern based Big Ten in dropping nonconference football games and scheduling just within their leagues this fall if they play at all.
“Mediocre,” Yurachek said Thursday when asked to amplify, means “50-50.
“I’ll tell you that a month ago I was probably 70/30,”Yurachek said.
COVID-19 first significantly reported in the U.S. caused the cancellation of all collegiate sports in mid-March.
Nevertheless, under SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey’s instructions off last Monday’s SEC athletic directors meeting in Birmingham, Ala. Yurachek said the Razorbacks and the entire SEC continue preparing like their 2020 schedules will be played though with contingency plans, including a conference only schedule.
“There are several options that are on the table right now,” Yurachek said. “The first option still being a 12-game schedule that for us starts Sept. 5 vs. Nevada followed by a road game Sept. 12 at Notre Dame. We can’t move on to the second option until we eliminate the first option.”
Other than Alabama vs. Southern California at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium and Texas A&M vs. Colorado set for the Aggies’ Kyle Field in College Station, Texas, the SEC had only two games with Pac 12 teams and none against the Big Ten.
Texas A&M losing its home date with Colorado has prompted A&M Athletic Director Russell Bjork lobbying to move the Aggies vs. Arkansas SEC game, Sept. 26 at AT&T Stadium to A&M’s Kyle Stadium in College Station.
Yurachek said he prefers playing as contracted at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium but that if the game is moved he demands the 2021 Arkansas vs. A&M game be played at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
“I wouldn’t want to see Texas A&M get a home game this year and for us not to get that return game next year,” Yurachek said.
Yurachek’s bigger concern is simply playing a fall schedule period that’s safe for athletes, staff and fans, in football likely mainly restricted to the 32,700 season ticket holders and allotted student tickets to maintain social distance at 70,000 plus Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
With athletes back on the UA campus phased in since June 8 voluntary football weightlifting and conditioning and other sports phased in for voluntary condition thereafter, Yurachek said he was pleased with Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson’s decision for a statewide mandate wearing a mask in public trying to curb the virus’ spread.
Yurachek expressed dismay that some consider either wearing or not wearing a mask to be “a political statement.”
“I fully support the Governor and I fully support my good friend Doug McMillon (the Walmart CEO announcing mandatory masks for Walmart shoppers and staff) and the decision they made,”Yurachek said. “It’s a shame, in my opinion, that wearing a mask has become a political decision. To me it’s just the right thing to do from what we’ve heard from medical personnel. It’s the right thing to do not only for yourself, but everyone you come in contact with.”
Masks have been part of the criteria for Razorbacks athletes and their phased by sport return for on campus voluntary strength and conditioning that started with football players returning June 8.
All returned under a plan of sanitizing, facilities monitoring and COVID-19 testing.
“ I can tell you is that I truly believe that plan has worked very, very well,” Yurachek said. “We’ve had less than 10 student-athletes and two staff members who have tested positive for COVID. All but one of those that were infected have returned to their workouts , indoor work, at this time.”
On the basis of contact tracing, with the infected, 20 athletes “are still in some phase of 14-day quarantine, but have not tested positive, Yurachek said.
Testing will increase as the August preseason practices for the fall sports commence and will follow NCAA guidelines of testing participating athletes within 72 hours of their competition.
Yurachek doesn’t mince words of football’s economic impact for UA athletics and the entire UA and the state.
“Financially, football is incredibly important to us at the University of Arkansas and I think my fellow SEC members would say the same thing,” Yurachek said. “For us it generates about $70 million of our approximate $124 million budget. Not to mention the economic impact Razorback Football has across Northwest Arkansas and across our state.”
If football isn’t played, Yurachek said there would be “some challenging decisions” regarding budget cuts including if necessary coaching and administrative salaries but that “approximately $11 million” in athletic scholarships for Arkansas’ 19 men’s and women’s sports would not be pared. “I will tell you the safety and well-being of our student-athletes will always be first and foremost and we will never compromise that,” Yurachek said of the sports set officially to start in September. “If we can find a way to safely play football, soccer, volleyball and cross country this fall that is our No. 1 goal.”