Editor's note: This is a Q&A with ISU Athletic Director Pauline Thiros, who answered questions from the Idaho State Journal and other local media on Bengal sports and the coronavirus pandemic. On March 18, the Big Sky Conference canceled all remaining spring sports games, events and championships, while suspending practices, workouts and training sessions.
1. How did student athletes respond to the cancellation of activities?
Student-athletes were extremely disappointed. They lost something very important to them, whether it was a full season of competition or a training season. They are wired to be working to make gains on a daily basis, and our coaches, facilities and support services are tools they count on to help them do it. They feel a loss of opportunity and a loss of control. But everyone is losing things important to them, and student-athletes are learning the shared responsibility all of us have for public health. It is something they have not seen in their lifetime, and they are responding well. Many of the students who remain in Pocatello have been running errands for those who can’t get out, offering service where they can. I am proud of the way our students are dealing with the adversity.
2. Are student-athletes able to be involved with their teams in any way?
The suspension applies to any required physical training or instruction on campus, and represents a cancellation of all in- or out-of-season competition, as well as use of any facilities or equipment. But we are all remaining engaged together in other ways. A strength program is being delivered to each team through an online platform so student-athletes continue to have the strength staff as a resource. Every team is meeting regularly for team building via Zoom, and every coach is approaching engagement differently. Soccer has been having some fun putting together video clips of each student in their routine at home, others are having sessions on mindfulness or leadership, and others are submitting uplifting letters and photos. I am very impressed by the way students and coaches are staying connected, it is a clear sign that the Bengal roar is as strong as ever.
3. Does the cancellation of spring sports equate to a budget savings for ISU?
The savings is not material to the overall athletics budget for a number of reasons. The two expense categories that make up the largest part of any athletic department operating budget are salaries and scholarships, which are not reduced by the current circumstances. Equipment has all been purchased, and the majority of travel was accomplished before the suspension of activity. Any small savings will be dwarfed by the impact this unprecedented event is having on revenues. And, we are also obligated, with all departments at ISU, to pitch in and make sure that together we meet the needs of all students -- which comes with significant and unforeseen expense.
4. Do you think this will impact fall sports? How?
I don’t think any of us know what the future impact will be or how long this might last. The reality is we are consumed with addressing the current safety and well-being of our student-athletes and the public. The time frame for some return to normalcy remains unclear, and we need to be prepared for a number of possibilities, including the potential impact on fall sports. We do not want to see that happen, but ultimately we are going to do what is right for the health and well-being of our students, and what is in the best interest of public health.
The hope is that we are able to return to normal competition schedules this fall. We are working on a sound strategy to properly prepare student-athletes for a return to play. We are acutely aware of the level of conditioning and preparation required to safely step on a football field, or into any practice or competition regimen. Member institutions are hopeful the NCAA will consider extra time, perhaps an early start, to allow for proper preparation. That too, would involve extra expense.
Right now, our constituents are asking about renewing their season tickets, and are more excited than ever for the return of Bengal athletics as soon as that can safely happen. In spite of the fact that Boosters and fans are facing their own adversity from this situation, their support of Bengal Athletics is incredibly resolute. I could not be more grateful for their efforts and continued investment in the future.
5. How is the decreased NCAA distribution going to impact ISU? How will ISU athletics approach the funding shortage created by this crisis?
Everyone is going to feel the financial impact. The decision has been made to distribute $225 million to member institutions, compared to the originally intended $600 million. The Big Sky Conference distribution was previously $10.7 million, and will now equate to $4.5 million to be distributed across the conference. ISU’s share, typically near $700,000, will be less than half of that. That will affect how we operate. We are evaluating everything we do from a financial standpoint, but we are committed to minimizing the impact on our student-athletes. Our fiscal position has improved dramatically over the last 18 months, and we recently presented a balanced budget. So we have to revisit everything at this point, and across institutions, fiscal responsibility remains critical.
But times of crisis foster ingenuity. This will help the discovery of new revenue streams, and for those willing to get out of their comfort zone, it will result in increased efficiency and teamwork. Our leadership team in Bengal athletics is rising to the challenge, and we are going to be strategic in all of the ways to improve our financial outlook. That is what competitors do. We had already taken steps to reduce our dependence on money games, and that’s a good thing, because even big FBS schools will have a lot less resources to throw around. We are committed to working strategically to improve our situation.
6. Will the impact be similar at other Big Sky Schools? Are Big Sky schools working together to address this crisis?
Every Big Sky school will have an equal distribution, equal to about 40% of what has been the norm. We do not know how, or if, the conference will be in a position to extend special assistance.
The Big Sky has been very responsive, and member institutions have been extremely collegial in our approach to this problem. Presidents, athletic directors, conference staff and senior woman administrators have been meeting regularly to discuss a collective approach to finding our way through this situation. We are fortunate in the positive relationships we have with each other, and it has been good to feel the spirit of collaboration and support across the membership. We are competitors, but in the end we all care most about the good things that college sports achieve for our student-athletes. Together we want to deliver those things to as many students as we can, as well as we can, across the conference. Right now we are working together to do that in the proper way.
7. How are coaches responding to the downtime?
They are concerned about their students, and they are using this time to stay engaged with their teams as much as possible. They are also diving in to professional development, honing their skills and exploring different approaches to what they do. We meet weekly, all of the head coaches and sports administrators together on one Zoom call, and we talk about the ways we can improve. We share what is working in terms of reaching our students, what our struggles are, and what approaches work best to address the weeks ahead. Adversity reveals the health of a team, and our team of professionals is remarkable to me. I feel very fortunate in our organizational culture, it is making this event easier to not only endure, but in ways to enhance our efforts and create a stronger team. This mirrors what we have experienced across Idaho State University, the leadership team is truly focused on making sure we can deliver education to students, keep them on track to a degree, and keep them safe. I am very proud of our university.
8. An increased number of players have entered the transfer portal across the country this spring. Do you think that is related to COVID-19?
Partly yes. Uncertainty has moved some student-athletes to enter the portal. At Idaho State we have had conversations with every team about the status of their future, and are working to get scholarship renewals completed much earlier than usual. The portal itself is relatively new, and even in normal times institutions and student-athletes are learning to navigate the transfer environment. For me the keys remain recruiting the right students to ISU, and providing them with a great experience and education. Performing those functions at a high level is key to retention in any situation.
9. What are your biggest concerns relative to COVID-19 and how it will affect Bengal athletics?
My primary and immediate concern, beyond the health of our students, is that we see our student-athletes through the successful completion of their academic semester. We cannot allow this crisis to impact their academic progress, that is the reason we exist and we will not fail at that mission. The ISU faculty have done an extraordinary job of getting ready to deliver the full curriculum via distance-based methods. It is amazing that in a situation such as this we have the ability to ensure that education is not interrupted. Our academic support services will be fully operational through virtual sessions, and our staff will be vigilant in tracking the academic progress of every team. No matter what happens to practice and competition, the delivery of higher education to our students is our foremost concern.
10. Without competition or training, what functions are being undertaken by athletics right now?
We have been consumed in recent weeks by transitioning to distance delivery of everything possible. Academic support, compliance functions, strength and conditioning, athletic training services -- all have developed ways to interact with and support student-athletes across the miles. We have been focused upon providing for the immediate needs and safety of students unable to leave campus. Along with facilities and operations staff, we have undertaken the effort of deep-cleaning all equipment and spaces. As we master some of these functions now, we have developed work plans to implement new policies and procedures, are moving many of our paper processes to electronic ones, and are evaluating much of our infrastructure to make improvements if we can. We are doing some coach development, and taking time to make sure we are getting it right. We have to make progress, even during a crisis, and I love the way our team and university are pulling together. It has been a busy time, a challenging time, but a productive time as well.
11. How long do you think it will take to recover from these unprecedented events?
Who can say? It is very unclear the course this will take in the United States. I am optimistic about the measures being taken, and the responsibility people are showing to look out for each other. If we can abide by the recommendations, the hope is we will recover quickly and return to normal functions.
12. What is the impact of the NCAA imposed recruiting dead period?
Editor's note: On Wednesday, the NCAA extended the recruiting dead period through May 31.
Right now it is not adversely affecting ISU. Coaches remain able to have a dialogue with prospective student-athletes, but cannot evaluate or host official or unofficial visits. It may extend, and in that case it will begin to affect the busy time for coaches to be out evaluating, but right now, there is nothing to evaluate. I do hope the NCAA will allow a short window during which prospective student-athletes who have verbally committed can sign their National letters of Intent. I feel for those who have made decisions but are not able to receive or make an official NLI commitment. It is a stressful time for prospects who have not yet signed.