Utah Utes hope the Pac-12 opens athletic facilities June 1 — with limits

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Workers with Layton Construction and Mountain Crane began dismantling the 2002 Winter Olympic Cauldron located on the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium complex, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. As part of the stadium's expansion project, the 19-year old cauldron will be restored to its former brilliance and re-installed on the grounds of Rice-Eccles Stadium, north of the ticket office, in 2021.

A major step toward regaining some semblance of normalcy in college athletics may be coming this week, at least in the Pac-12.

The Power Five conference, whose footprint includes six states with varying stay-at-home and social-distancing guidelines, is expected to announce this week an update to its March 30 mandate of no organized, in-person team activities of any kind through May 31.

The Pac-12 could merely extend its ban, but there has been growing optimism at the University of Utah that an opening of its athletic facilities in a limited capacity could begin June 1 for students living locally.

“I think that my focus and our team focus here has really been about our next steps at the University of Utah, which really center around a June 1 date,” Utah Athletic Director Mark Harlan said in an ESPN700 interview Thursday. “That is really approaching fast, which we’re hoping will allow us to open our athletic facilities for our students that are here locally that want to get back into the gymnasiums and the weight rooms in a very safe, limited manner that follows the guidelines of the state.”

“I am optimistic and our staff of doctors, medical people, facility people have all been way out in front of this,” Utes men’s basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak told The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday as part of a wide-ranging interview. “I think our conference is leading the charge in some ways, too. Everybody has a pretty good plan, we’re ready to roll and I’m optimistic that in small numbers, we might be able to get rolling in early June.”

If the Pac-12 allows facilities to open June 1, Utah’s soft rollout would begin with local athletes, but if there are no issues, Harlan offered a scenario where out-of-state athletes could return on a limited basis two or three weeks later.

At that point in mid or late June, firm decisions on how or when to play the 2020 season would either be made or be very close to being made. But the coaches are saying all aspects of how to move forward remain up for discussion.

“That’s still a pretty fluid situation,” Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham said on a Pac-12 coaches webinar last week. “We don’t have any definitive answers, but there is some talk about June 1, maybe introducing small groups back into the weight room. We’ll see if that comes to fruition, but right now, there’s nothing concrete.

“We’re just playing it by ear each day, getting the updates each day. If we are able to get back in the weight room on June 1, even on a limited basis, that would be great, but that remains to be seen.”

If June 1 is a go, how it will affect different Pac-12 programs in different states will warrant attention.

Utah’s athletic department would be ready to go in a state without a stay-at-home directive, while California, with four Pac-12 schools spread across three counties, has been among the most-aggressive in terms of stay-at-home guidelines. Although, as the NBA grapples with whether or not to restart its season, the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo reopened Saturday, while the Clippers’ facility in Playa Vista was slated to open Monday, both under strict guidelines and with permission of local health officials.

On Monday afternoon, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced pro sports could be allowed to return in early June without spectators, but with modifications and extensive measures to ensure safety.

Gov. Doug Ducey did the same in Arizona, allowing pro sports to resume in his state without fans beginning May 16. With that, if Arizona and Arizona State wanted to open their facilities beginning June 1 with Pac-12 permission, they likely would not find much pushback.

“Within the Pac-12 Conference, there is a general feeling that should be allowed, even though some schools will not be able to do that based on their footprint, but also knowing to block another schools’ ability to do that if they’re able doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Harlan said. “That’s a big one that’s coming that might seem small potatoes to everybody, but for our coaches and for our students, it’s a really big deal.”

“We’ve always been certain that everybody has the same amount of time to prepare and some states are well ahead,” Krystkowiak said. “Some states are well ahead and some regions of the country are ahead. If a state like Utah, and I do think we’re in a good spot, if we can get some advanced testing, I think we’re in as good a position as anybody. That’s a positive thing for us and I think we have to figure out a plan.

“As it stands right now, the other member institutions are fine with that. They’re not raising their hands and saying wait a minute, we can’t get back in the gym yet. This is a little bit bigger than that.”