With football and fall sports canceled, Utah and the Pac-12 must now deal with the damage

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah football fans have endured rain, snow and scorching heat to watch their Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Now, a new challenge: no football at all, after the Pac-12 canceled all sports until at least Jan. 1.

On July 31, the Pac-12 released an aggressive, albeit optimistic 10-game conference-only football schedule, which was to begin Sept. 26.

That moment two weeks ago may have felt like a new beginning in the face of COVID-19, but in hindsight, the pandemic was already seeing to it that there would be no football on the West Coast this fall.

Roughly two weeks ago, a board of Pac-12 medical advisors, which includes the University of Utah’s team physician, Dr. David Petron, began voicing greater concerns about the virus numbers in Pac-12 markets. Spread of the virus remained prevalent, and new studies were emerging about how COVID-19 could affect the heart.

Pac-12 medical advisors sent a letter to league commissioner Larry Scott on Monday, making a recommendation “to stop contact and competitive activities at this time.”

On Tuesday afternoon, just before the 2 o’clock hour, before the news went nationwide, Utes athletic director Mark Harlan hopped on a Zoom call being run by Kyle Whittingham as the Utah football coach informed his players that there would be no football this fall.

“Delivering that news, by our coaches, by myself and others to our student-athletes ranks right up there with some of the hardest things I’ve ever been involved with as director of athletics,” Harlan said later, less than 24 hours after the Pac-12′s postponement. “This continued effect of this virus on our student-athletes as it relates to their dreams of competing is ongoing.”

Tuesday’s Pac-12 announcement offered some finality after five months worth of contingencies, hypotheticals and semi-educated guessing. Harlan marked what is sure to be the beginning of a long, frustrating fall in Salt Lake City. There will be no football at Rice-Eccles Stadium, no women’s soccer, no women’s volleyball, no cross country.

Fall will give way to winter, and there will be no basketball, at least not immediately. The status of Utah’s 10-game nonconference schedule, which includes five games at the Huntsman Center, is officially TBD.

All Pac-12 sports are off until at least Jan. 1, so one can safely assume that getting some semblance of a conference-only basketball season played is going to take priority over trying to squeeze in a few buy games. As for playing college basketball in a bubble, an idea being bandied about at the highest levels of college athletics, Scott, Harlan and Colorado AD Rick George are all on the record as not being thrilled with the idea.

Football getting played in the spring feels like wishful thinking for now, and questions are abundant pertaining to basketball, but what does seem clear is that the prospect of no football at all puts Utah — and its fellow Pac-12 schools — in what appears to be a dire situation.

Harlan revealed Wednesday that the financial hit to his athletic department with no football is now projected at $50 million to $60 million. He furthered that on Thursday afternoon in a 700 AM interview, stating that shortfall is based upon zero football and “limited basketball.” What “limited” means as it pertains to basketball is unknown, but if games do get played, the Utes will surely have less than the previously prescribed 15 regular-season home games (five nonconference, 10 Pac-12). Whatever home games are played, COVID-19 protocols are unlikely to allow large crowds at the Huntsman Center, which will affect bottom-line figures as far as ticket sales go.

How Utah deals with the financial situation will be an overarching question for a long time. Harlan balked Wednesday at questions pertaining to potential staff cuts, whether that be coaches or internally within the athletic department.

For what it’s worth, in fiscal 2019, which encompassed the 2018-19 academic year, Utah athletics spent $35.6 million in salaries and benefits, nearly half of it coming from football and men’s basketball combined. Harlan, Whittingham, and Larry Krystkowiak were among the high earners already agreeing to salary cuts earlier in the pandemic.

According to a report last week from Jon Wilner of The Mercury News, a Pac-12 loan program in the works would provide a maximum of $83 million for each university at a rate of 3.75% over 10 years. It is unclear if Harlan would seek to use the loan program, let alone request the full $83 million from the Pac-12.

“I’m not going to make any comments about staff cuts or anything like that,” Harlan said. “That’s work that we need to do, and certainly we want to communicate with our own staff before we talk about anything publicly.”

Utah and the Pac-12 have touted the fact that all student-athletes, either opting out of a season due to COVID-19 or now due to postponement, will have their scholarships protected. Furthermore, the NCAA Division I Council and Board of Governors are swiftly pushing through legislation to provide an extension of the five-year eligibility period and an additional season of competition if an athlete participates in 50% or less of the maximum number of competitions allowed.

Utah football, women’s cross country, women’s soccer and women’s volleyball rosters list 30 student-athletes with senior eligibility. Whether or not those sports get played in the spring will be a monthslong question. If they do not get played in the spring and are put off until fall 2021, how many of those 30 athletes opt to return will be another point of fascination.

After the NCAA issued a blanket waiver for spring-sport athletes who had their seasons ended in March when COVID-19 took over, roughly a dozen of Utah’s 32 spring-sport seniors opted to return in 2021.

In terms of eligibility, scholarship allocation and general recruiting, the football program has a lot of questions.

With eligibility clocks getting extended and additional seasons of competition on the table, Harlan believes the NCAA will temporarily raise the FBS scholarship limit of 85 to help alleviate any bottlenecking that may occur between current rosters and incoming recruiting classes.

The Utes had 17 players on their spring roster with senior eligibility. According to 247sports, at this still-early juncture of the current recruiting cycle, Whittingham has eight verbal commitments from the class of 2021, including four-star Mission Viejo (Calif.) quarterback Peter Costelli.

Costelli has been in the news since the Pac-12 announcement. Once the CIF Southern Section announced last month that it would delay its football season until January, Costelli planned to graduate from Mission Viejo early and enroll at Utah.

According to multiple reports out of Southern California, Costelli will reverse course and instead play his senior season this winter, delaying his enrollment at Utah until next summer.