A deluge of returned missionaries due to COVID-19 is forcing BYU to adjust its football recruiting, scholarships on the fly

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune BYU head football coach Kalani Sitake takes to his team after BYU's final practice of spring camp, at LaVell Edwards Stadium, Friday, April 1, 2016.

While the NCAA has already granted relief for athletes of spring sports and won’t be extending the same aid to those in winter sports that were still competing in the postseason, the college sports’ ruling body still has more to sort through than adjusting scholarships for spring sports.

In the last few weeks, thousands of missionaries have been returned home due to the coronavirus pandemic. Of the nearly 20,000 missionaries who are U.S. citizens and were returning to the country, about 12,000 of them call Utah home.

The LDS Church announced on Tuesday that it is releasing returning U.S. and Canadian missionaries who were serving in international locations, rather than expecting them to continue as missionaries while waiting reassignment. And they will have two options moving forward: they have until April 30 to decide whether to go back to their original or temporary assignment “as soon as conditions allow” or can return to full-time proselytizing service within 12 to 18 months with a new end date.

Of course, it comes to no surprise that BYU athletics will have to deal with this curveball. According to the BYU website, 66% of its students have served missions. With numbers like that, football — BYU’s largest team sport — will be heavily impacted.

During last week’s teleconference with local reporters who cover the team, BYU coach Kalani Sitake said there are 47 players with ties to the program who were on missions. Of those, 18 were on scholarship when they departed.

So what will happen if they have players that are suddenly available sooner than planned or choose to head out to another mission and don't return to Provo for a few more years?

Sitake said it will most likely turn into a case by case basis and is asking the missionaries who hoped to come back to BYU for some patience and understanding as the situation plays out.

“Keeping that line of communication’s important for us and to see how things are going for them,” Sitake said. “There’s a system where they’re coming home and adjusting with a 14-day [quarantine] period. Many of them are getting reassigned to a different area. So, right now, [we’re] still focused on the present. We’re still dealing with the day to day and then trying to educate them as much as possible and also trying to be upfront and honest with them.”

While the coronavirus adds another layer of difficulty with trying to move around each piece to see what fits best, Sitake is up for the challenge.

“The scholarship numbers are always an issue when you're dealing with missionaries and the timing of returning from missions, but this is just another adjustment we have to make,” Sitake said. “Like I said, we'll work through this as well. It's nothing that's too hard or too difficult for us to overcome.”

When asked about the upcoming season and the probability of it being canceled or postponed, Sitake said it was too early to think about it. Worrying about August in March does him no good.

“When things change so much hourly, it's so hard for us to project and forecast that much,” Sitake said. “So, focusing on the here and now and staying in the present, and then if we do our part as people, I think it'll all work itself out and it'll all be fine.”

It might take a while before Sitake is really able to figure out his complete roster for the fall or even start adjusting rosters and recruiting efforts for the next few years.

Different projections forecast the U.S. will peak in coronavirus cases in mid- to late-April. If that comes to fruition, the amount of cases could taper off by late June or early July.

However, it will be difficult to plan anything — whether it be continuation of missions or moving around roster spots — until everything feels more stable.

Either way, Sitake said he's going to continue to have his compliance department reaching out to the NCAA to see what, if anything, can be done.

“You know, the adjustments the NCAA is making, the things that you look at every day that they’ve been able to produce, I think they’re more mindful of trying to get things done and more things fair and keeping in mind the needs of the student athlete,” Sitake said.

But for now, Sitake is at least doing his part by staying home and self isolating, while also taking a stab at social media (which he generally hates). He’s been taking part in dance challenges alongside his daughters and even using his platform as BYU football coach to share important information.

“I think what we can accomplish right now is more important than dealing with the numbers and dealing with missionaries,” Sitake said. “I think the most important thing for everyone to understand is that human lives matter more than anything right now — than my job, than anybody else’s job and definitely than the sport. So, we’re focused on trying to take care of mankind and be sensitive and be as much supportive as we can to others.

“So, that’s what we’re focused on, that’s the No. 1 thing on our goal and our minds is to do that first and then work out the rest,” he added. "Adjusting the numbers and adjusting the NCAA recommendations, things like that, are all afterwards. We’ll deal with it as it comes.”