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Experts’ Roundtable: Leading Through The Coronavirus

By Sean Frazier, Northern Illinois; Wren Baker, North Texas

With the continuous change and uncertainty that has transpired due to the coronavirus pandemic, AthleticDirectorU sat down with a pair of Athletics Directors to discuss how they are leading their departments, making decisions and effectively communicating to their student-athletes, coaches and staff.


What’s your daily routine right now in terms of gathering information, talking to other leaders on your campus & around the nation to determine the next course of action(s)?


Sean Frazier (Director of Athletics – Northern Illinois): It’s daily, sometimes hourly, depending on the different nuanced issues around health and safety. The daily routine right now is to check in early in the morning, before anything starts, with senior staff, with various units across campus. So we’re talking to units in Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, and then we make sure at the end of the day, that we have a debrief on that. 


At the end of the day, what happens is that we’re really reactionary, to some degree. We understand that health and safety reign supreme. So, we’re making sure we’ve got hand sanitizer and wipes, and we’re taking all kinds of preventative measures. Then we’re reacting again and checking to see if there have been any cases of COVID-19 on the NIU campus, the local community, within the athletics department, etc. We’re then taking that information and making sure we improve our preventative measures. So, we are very reactionary. We’re proactive about what we knew the hour before or the day before, and then we’re reactionary to what we receive from the state, institution, and federal mandates.


Wren Baker (Director of Athletics – North Texas): In the span of one day, we’ll be shifting gears based on new and updated information and what we’re learning from state, local and national authorities and at each individual institution. I’m pretty plugged into social media, so I’ll monitor that, especially throughout the evening. And I stay in touch constantly on a group text with a lot of our ADs in the league and then on a group text with ADs outside of our league. I’ll talk to a couple of guys in the American , the Big 12 and/or the SEC just to find out what their experiences are. 


Then we start every day off with a Conference USA ADs call and update what we’ve done since yesterday and what we’ve learned from other peers. And so it’s like you hit restart every day because everything you did yesterday is out of date. It’s really incredible how quickly that happens, but it’s definitely worth spending a lot of time trying to gather that outside information. Then we share it with our stakeholders, get their input and answer their questions. After that, I make my decisions and issue new updates. 


Of course, Commissioner Judy McLeod sits in on a lot of the national committees and different groups, so she collects our input on things and then she also shares where she thinks the groups are. A lot of times, we’ll do that before the call. For instance, I’ve talked to [Louisiana Tech AD] Tommy McClelland this morning at 7:30 We were basically just sharing updates because I actually made a decision yesterday that we’re closing everything down for all activity. And I think Tommy followed suit with that this morning. 


Also, our coaches are talking. And while they’re very worried about safety and health, they also are also very worried about competitive advantage and disadvantage. Therefore, we’re all trying to work together to make decisions that benefit everybody, but also don’t put each other in tough positions. 


So much has changed in the past several days. Last Tuesday, there were conversations about being able to play these conference tournaments, I’ll be candid and honest: I was fairly dismissive. So often, it seems these virus scares turn out to be exaggerated, and I think all of us to a certain degree felt a bit of indifference. Still, I was fairly defiant, but then we started to see trickle-down effects. First, the Ivy League and the Patriot League canceled their tournaments. Then, you see what happened in the middle of the Jazz-Thunder game. And you start to feel such helplessness and sort of in awe of what was happening. For our kids, they won the conference championship regular season, and when the conference tournament was canceled, we were awarded Conference USA’s bid to the NCAA Tournament. And I’ll never forget, Coach McCasland and I sat on the NIT committee, and so the whole time the NCAA is saying we’re still going to fly you in, we’re going to do our selection. And then on Friday, I believe, we got a call saying they weren’t going to fly us in but rather do the selection via teleconference. 


By the time we got to yesterday, I just said it’s a wrap. Over the weekend, I talked to the international kids. We have a young lady that’s from Egypt, and the airports closed at noon on Thursday. So, she didn’t know when she could get home, and her dad wants her home. And if that was my kid, I would want to know what we’re doing. And so for me, by Monday, I decided we needed to close this down. 


Do you have an established/defined decision-making matrix that you’re using for this situation? If so, is the same/different than the matrix/process you would use for other unexpected developments?


Frazier (Northern Illinois): What we’ve done is taken templates from other plans, such as our crisis management plans and inclement weather plans, and boiled them into a COVID-19 response plan. Each unit on our campus is responsible for putting together a response plan. So, we’re all filling in and making sure the institution is protected as well as the individuals who make up the university. Our plan addresses practices and competitions, spring nontraditional season championships, the weight room, travel, recruiting, athletic medicine, equipment management, facilities — everything that makes up our operations as a part of this response plan with specific actionable items that need to be followed and will be followed to get through this. So we’re supporting the overall institution, the state and all the different things that go into that. 


Baker (North Texas): We do have a crisis management template that we follow. In all honesty, it’s not as robust as it should be, and I tell this story sometimes when I speak — It was a profound thing that was said to me when I was a deputy [AD] at Memphis. I had a chance to meet with Mike Glenn, who was the executive vice president over at FedEx and oversaw what would kind of be their external areas. Mike has a lot of experience in athletics as well. He, as you know, just chaired the Ole Miss AD search. And so we were talking one time about crisis management. And he said, “You know, if I ask you to come up with everything that could ever happen in athletics that you would deal with from a crisis perspective, could you give me every scenario?” And the answer to that is obvious — no. But he said, “If I got you and your senior leadership team and you could devote your time, effort, energy and bandwidth, could you give me 95%?” And my answer to that was “Probably.” We could probably get in that ballpark. And he said, “If that’s the case, and you could go through that today, and then develop action plans, why would you wait until happens?” It was a very simple thing to say, but really kind of an incredible perspective. So, we kind of utilize that a lot. And so we talk a lot about about crisis and how we’re going to communicate how we’re going to manage. And I think campuses do a better job of that than they’ve ever done. And so while we may not have a pandemic plan, everybody has an active shooter plan. Everybody has a severe weather plan. You have these different plans. And while you can’t take one of those and handle a pandemic, you definitely can take parts and pieces of them, so you’re not reinventing the wheel. 


A lot of institutions are spending their time moving classes online. Luckily for us, this happened as we were starting spring break. Everybody knew this was a possibility, so our campus had been working for a month or so on that. Then we extended spring break by a week, and I think I saw we have 7,000 courses that had been already moved online. Working remotely, while we don’t do it much, is not new to us, so that part has not been that difficult. Most of us are used to used to doing meetings by Zoom or Skype, and the trickle-down effect of that is we have to decide how we’re going to do academic support because we have students that we have in in-person classes for a reason: They matriculate better through that program than they do an online environment. They need the in-class instruction, they need the regular routine. So, we’re having to work through a lot of the contingency support plan now.


In addition, many student-athletes are still developing from a maturity standpoint. And we programmed the vast majority of their time. Now all of a sudden, it’s not programmed, which is concerning. Along those lines, I think everybody’s worried about mental health and emotional well being, so we want to make sure that we’re in contact with those kids. Thirty minutes ago, I sent an email to all of our coaches with directions on how to Zoom and Skype to all of our coaches and told them you can still have team meetings, you can still get your leadership council together to talk about team-building. The more we stay engaged with our student-athletes, the better chance we have for them to be successful academically and emotionally during this time. 


What’s the hierarchy & frequency of communication within your department right now?


Frazier (Northern Illinois): I have a key person that’s helping me facilitate communication and that’s my Executive Associate AD John Cheney. And what we’re doing is that we’re crafting communications. So the institution itself has a crafted response from President Lisa Freeman. She’s our leader, and she’s done a great job. She’s in the mix daily. She’s communicating with other presidents within the state and throughout the country. She’s also taking directives from federal and state officials. Her guidance is then disseminated by each one of our vice presidents that sit around her table, including me. We take that information and put it in a funnel that’s digestible for both our staff and our students. 


Sometimes people read an email and say, ‘Okay, I think this is what they mean.’ But we want to make sure they know. So, there are a lot of painstaking things in communication. We have to over-communicate a lot of these different things that are currently going on. We also have to be nimble because information can change on a dime depending on how this virus is spreading. 


Baker (North Texas): It’s interesting because I read [Iowa State AD] Jamie Pollard’s communication to staff yesterday where he talked about how important it is to be looking ahead and projecting ahead, and I agree with him. But at the same time, so much is changing in the here and now as well. I mean, we’re thinking about revenues, where we may have issues and shortfalls. We’re thinking about eligibility for the student-athletes and how we’re going to afford that. We’re thinking about what if we don’t have spring football and how we’re going to compensate for that. But at the same time, I just went through with you how much things have changed since yesterday, and by tomorrow, I’m 99% sure that we’re going to be teleworking. So, it’s changing in real-time, and each of those changes impacts everyone in our department. Therefore, we have to utilize everything we can to move our student-athletes forward academically, athletically and socially. 


I’ll give you an example. Our strength and conditioning coaches went from last week saying, “Hey, guys, everybody’s in offseason. You’ve got your eight hours a week, go get it done” to “We need to design workouts for student-athletes to do on their own. We’re locking this facility up, so they need workout they can do at home. So, all of that is changing in such real time. So I think you just have to make sure you have to be in constant communication because I have found our head coaches have been unbelievably cooperative, but it’s because we’ve communicated with them in real time. 


Are you cognizant of how your leadership style/approach has changed over the last week, if at all?


Frazier (Northern Illinois): It has definitely tested my resolve. I’ve had a lot of a lot of mentors that have taught me a lot of different things, the most recent being Barry Alvarez. He always used to say, “You have to talk from your experience and don’t flinch.” So these are definitely times where folks will flinch because this is something that’s really about people’s lives. So it’s okay to be afraid, and it’s okay to be fearful. But it’s also okay to exact leadership in a way that is decisive, and we also have to be nimble and there’s no such thing as standing still. I say that a lot either moving forward or moving back and on the decisions that have to do with safety and health. Because if you don’t do certain things in a timely manner, it could be someone’s life you’re talking about. So we’ve got to be a lot more intentional about the decisions that happen right now and how it affects us weeks or months down the line. This is something that quite frankly, from a leadership standpoint, is “game on.” 


Baker (North Texas): I definitely feel like in general — and I think my staff would back me up on this; we all have blind spots that we don’t see — but I think I think in regards to this, I’m fairly collaborative. And so I do not come in and try and dictate decisions. Generally, I want to hear every viewpoint; I want people to give me very plus and minus they can think of. I often ask my executive team and/or senior staff how they would handle a decision if it was theirs in a vacuum. And when I propose a solution, I usually will allow people to shoot holes in it or bring up their concerns. 


Now, I’ve never backed down from having to make the decision when it has to be made. That comes with a title and the position, but where I’ve probably evolved in the last week more is to just listen to the experts. Our team doctor was the medical director for the Conference USA tournament because we were 40 minutes down the road. Commissioner McCloud called him in and he advised moving forward with the tournament without fans, which was not what we were talking about two days ago. But even for medical professionals, this thing was changing in a hurry, and I’ve heard that from that exact same story from a lot of different colleagues. 


So, where I’ve learned a lesson — because it’s not in my core to want to cancel and telework — but I think all of us get to a point where you realize I’m not an expert. However, there are people who are experts who are gravely concerned, and we needed this listen. I’ve always felt like I was a good listener, but I’ve become a better listener


How are your sport administrators & coaches planning to move forward without full clarity on how their respective sport will be impacted?


Frazier (Northern Illinois): The most devastating that I’ve done in my over 30 years career as a coach, student-athlete and AD was to terminate a season or terminate an opportunity competition. So as I talked to my coaches and sport administrators, I go back to that and tell them that we’re going to have some serious mental health issues relative to abandonment. It’s always about sports and competition and young people in higher education. We’ve done a lot in the MAC about mental health, specifically around making sure that we take care of our young people understanding that young adults are particularly susceptible to suicide and self-injurious behavior. So understanding that, we sit down with our coaches and student-athletes and provide options to connect them to professionals that can help them with their mental health. 


And one of the biggest things you can do is take care of yourself. Because if you’re not okay, there’s no way you’re gonna be able to take care of someone else.


Baker (North Texas): We haven’t put anything on paper yet, but we’re going to have to get there. Because what if there is an abbreviated football season? What does that look like? We have shut everything down through April 5, and if we were to open April 6, we would need to give student-athletes who have already returned home a few days’ notice. But let’s say we open up on April 12 and we have a student-athlete who isn’t comfortable being here because undoubtedly that will happen. But right now, we don’t have any kind of a guess on the timeline of when we would open back up. 


I agree with what Jamie Pollard that we need to be looking at short-, mid- and long-term problems and trying to find solutions, and we’re doing that. At the same time, this is so new to us that if we spend too much time on that, then we’re not dealing with the here and now. So, we’ll deal with our April 5 deadline first, and then we’ll start to talk about those other solutions. 


In addition to logistical and other issues, I just spoke with our CFO who explained that we need to develop important buckets to put expenses in because we could be facing significant revenue problems. And I don’t want to send everybody in our department in a panic, but we have to start thinking about those things because we could be faced with those decisions. For instance, we don’t know what’s going to happen with NACDA in June, but if we think we’re going to be facing a significant revenue shortfall, do we really need to spend $30K or $40K to send people regardless? Can we sacrifice that if it means we’re able to deliver nutrition and that kind of stuff to our student-athletes. I think most people in the AD chair right now — and they’re probably on the early side because it’s been, “Let’s put the fire out first” — but now that the fire is out, they are asking these questions. Do we need the full Dish Network package or can we cut back a little bit? Normally for a coach, if there’s money in an area in their budget, they consider it their life’s mission to spend that before the end of the fiscal year. But now we’re telling them, “Hey, we need to sweep all of that we can in the reserves.” These are conversations that people are going to have to start having in short order because so many non-Power 5 institutions are reliant on student fees or a university subsidy, which is going to be hit hard if this thing drags on because enrollment is going to tank, particularly international enrollment. And then for the Power 5 schools and the non-Power 5 schools, it’s hard to imagine that fall sport revenues are not going to take a hit.