The NCAA announced on March 12 that it was canceling all championships, including the 2020 men's and women's basketball tournaments, because of the coronavirus outbreak. Since then, there have been questions and speculation around what led to the decision. ESPN contacted commissioners, coaches, players and officials to get their takes on an unprecedented few days in college sports.
Reporting below from ESPN's Andrea Adelson, Jeff Borzello, Heather Dinich, Graham Hays, Paula Lavigne, Ryan McGee, Mark Schlabach and Mechelle Voepel.
IT WAS CLOSING in on the noon tipoff Thursday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and UMass and Virginia Commonwealth were about to kick off the Atlantic 10 men's basketball tournament.
Just 6 miles away at the Marriott Marquis in New York City, A-10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade stepped out of the men's basketball selection committee meeting to call league officials at her conference tournament to assess the situation.
"It felt like a movie," McGlade said. "You're watching a thriller, someone's trying to deactivate the bomb and time is ticking down -- how much time is on the clock? Make the decision right now, otherwise they're tipping and then you've got another set of issues."
McGlade asked one official, "How much time is left on the clock?"
They ran through a few scenarios before McGlade asked again, "How much time is left on the clock?"
By this time, the SEC and Big Ten had decided to cancel their tournaments, setting off a chain reaction that eventually reached every league. McGlade had permission from her university presidents to do the same.
"Stop play," McGlade said.
Across the country, university presidents, conference commissioners, athletic directors and health experts were holding conference calls from hotel rooms, stadium tunnels and, yes, even a restroom, scrambling to answer one question just hours after the World Health Organization characterized the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic and the NBA suspended its season: How can we keep playing?
Conference by conference, reality started to set in. The SEC was the first major conference to cancel its conference basketball tournaments. The American, Big Ten, Atlantic 10, WAC, C-USA, MAC, CAA, ACC and Pac-12 all followed suit within a half hour.
In Katy, Texas, the public address announcer at the Southland women's tournament delivered the news as coaches from New Orleans and Southeastern Louisiana huddled with referees and game officials. They had no time to get to their players first. Players collapsed on the court, weeping.
"It's indescribable the way I felt when I looked in my team's eyes," New Orleans coach Keeshawn Davenport said. "By the time I got to my phone in the locker room, I had 55 text messages because so many people were watching it online and they were, unbeknownst to us, recording all that, so they saw my seniors on the ground. I got so many text messages saying, 'My heart is broken,' so many crying emojis."
And as the college basketball world came to a halt everywhere else, Creighton and St. John's tipped off the Big East tournament with a handful of people watching at Madison Square Garden, the only scheduled noon game that went off on time -- a bizarre scene that perfectly illustrated the sheer uncertainty over what to do and when to act.
One week ago today, no one expected conference tournaments, let alone all college sports through the spring, to be wiped away. Though COVID-19 had reached the United States, only a few games had been impacted. But sports was not immune to the unprecedented scenario facing millions of people across the globe.
For the first time since it began in 1939, the NCAA men's tournament will not be played; neither will the women's tournament, both College World Series, both Frozen Fours or national championship tournaments in other sports, such as swimming and diving, golf, track and field and tennis.
"If you had told me we'd have a year without March Madness, without the College World Series in Omaha or Oklahoma City, I would have laughed," NCAA president Mark Emmert told ESPN. "College sports is such an integral and iconic part of American society, it's just really gut-wrenching to imagine it stopping, even for a short period of time."
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'Lol. What a joke.'
March 10, 11:37 a.m. ET: Ivy League announces it will cancel the men's and women's conference basketball tournaments, awarding its automatic NCAA tournament bids to the regular-season champions.
At first, many within the basketball community laughed at the Ivy League.
"The Ivy League canceled their tournament? Lol. That's so Ivy League," one coach texted ESPN immediately after the decision.
"Lol. What a joke," another coach's text read.
When the Ivy League announced it was canceling its conference tournaments, it didn't seem like a harbinger. It instead raised eyebrows around college basketball. Coaches from other conferences questioned why it couldn't have the tournament without fans or why it couldn't move the tournament (host Harvard announced it was closing and students had to leave campus by the end of the weekend).
Harvard guard Bryce Aiken tweeted it was a "horrible, horrible, horrible decision," while Penn head coach Steve Donahue called it "the most horrific thing I've dealt with as a coach." A petition was started to get the tournament back.
It turned out to be a prescient decision.
Early Wednesday morning, Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA's chief medical officer, presented the recommendation of the organization's COVID-19 advisory panel to the internal leadership team: Play the tournaments with no fans. It soon led to an emergency meeting of the board of governors.
"Not only was it a unanimous decision, but it was, 'Let's get this decision out this afternoon because we really need to make a statement, and it's a statement about public health,'" he said.
Throughout the rest of Wednesday, however, the situation became more dire, as information continued to come out about the projected impact of the coronavirus.
Hoiberg appears ill on the sideline
Nebraska head coach Fred Hoiberg, who felt sick before the game, appears to be suffering from an illness while on the sideline.
"It really became clear that if the United States didn't go into a very aggressive behavioral risk mitigation, and possibly even containment strategy, there could very easily be a minimum of 500,000 deaths," Hainline said. "[When I presented the advisory panel's results] to the senior management team, their jaws dropped wide open, kind of like, 'Are you kidding me?' ... I just showed the data, showed the charts, showed the mathematical modeling and the projections. They just sort of nodded. No one pushed back, but jaws did hit the floor."
The NCAA faced another dilemma when colleges started to cancel classes and more conferences canceled their tournaments. NCAA leaders debated a shortened format in a "sterile" environment, but aside from the logistical challenges and the issue of fairness, Hainline said, "You can't assume anyone is negative."
As Wednesday evening approached, the NCAA faced a more limited number of alternatives.
"We saw a number of decisions being made or being considered at the state level around what we could and couldn't do to host events in terms of the size of gatherings," Emmert said. "It started to become clear that we may not be able to use all of the sites we'd intended, and we might have to have some alternatives."
The greater Seattle area, Ohio and parts of New York were locking down because of the outbreak. "We [were] completely convinced at 4 p.m. on Wednesday that we could conduct the championships without fans by controlling the sites effectively," Emmert said. "We thought we could control the perimeters and control the environment, and, as best as possible, travel because it's mostly charter travel and buses one way or another. We felt really confident about it. We were feeling really, really good."
Wednesday, March 11: The night that changed everything
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Michigan State guard Cassius Winston reacts to the NCAA tournament being canceled, ending his career with the Spartans.
Fred Hoiberg mentioned to his wife and daughter at dinner on Tuesday night that it was the first season he's gone through without being sick. The long winter months, the stress of the postseason -- it usually takes its toll on Hoiberg down the stretch, but he made it through the 2019-20 campaign without much hindrance.
Twenty-four hours later, a three-second video clip of the Nebraska men's basketball head coach was one of two events that sent the sports world into panic on Wednesday night.
Hoiberg woke up Wednesday morning with symptoms of a mild cold and decided to visit the on-site doctor at the Big Ten tournament. The doctor ran tests on Hoiberg's lungs and checked his vitals and said he was fine.
"The decision was made there I was clear to coach," Hoiberg said. "If he had any shred of doubt that I was putting people in danger, I would've never gone out there on the sidelines."
Midway through the Cornhuskers' game against Indiana that night, cameras showed Hoiberg's face in his arms as he appeared ill. The same clip showed assistant coach Armon Gates rubbing his hands with Purell. With three minutes left, Hoiberg went to the locker room and was then taken to the hospital.
Nebraska's team remained in the locker room for more than an hour after the game ended as uncertainty over its coach's diagnosis remained before Hoiberg was released from the hospital a couple of hours later and diagnosed with influenza-A.
College coaches wondered if it was the last straw for the NCAA tournaments. What had happened that night in the NBA pretty much removed any remaining doubts.
Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, leading to the last-minute cancellation of his team's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the suspension of the NBA season.
"The theory became the reality at that point," North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham said. "Now all of a sudden, it was an athlete, it was Tom Hanks, it became personalized. We started looking at, 'What's the science telling us?' The scientists have been telling us this for a while, but it didn't strike us until the reality of an individual we could identify with became the person that was the carrier."
"In my mind, when Rudy Gobert tested positive, that changed the entire dynamic for all of sports," Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack said.
Gobert's positive test "reinforced where we were going, but we were going there anyway," Hainline said. "It already was a given that there was absolutely no way March Madness could exist. ... Wednesday night, we came to that realization."
Other NCAA officials believed the same, even if tournament games went on that night.
"That was really, in my opinion, a seminal moment in everybody's mindset about how impractical and possibly not responsible it would be at that point to go forward with trying to hold these national championships," said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA's vice president of men's college basketball.
Added Emmert: "It was like an exclamation point. It was like, 'Yeah, this is real.'"
What could have been
Despite Gobert's diagnosis and Hoiberg's scare, Wildhack went to bed thinking his team was playing Thursday.
Things changed quickly that morning.
Hainline scrambled to communicate with advisory board members through phone calls and texts, and held key calls with Carlos Del Rio (Chair of the Hubert Department of Global Health at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health), Colleen Kraft (associate chief medical officer at Emory) and Vivek Murthy (the former U.S. Surgeon General who served under the Obama administration).
According to Hainline, Murthy and Del Rio spoke with Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. They wondered what the institute would think of the NCAA's decision to cancel the tournaments.
"Fauci said not only would he back us up, but this was the right thing to do and he believed that all sports should be making a similar call," Hainline recalled. Hainline said Kraft and Del Rio also spoke with CDC director Robert Redfield and deputy director for infectious diseases Jay Butler, "and they both said they would completely back us."
While the NCAA had yet to make any formal announcements about the NCAA winter and spring tournaments, there was confusion among the conferences. Conferences usually won't work in conjunction with one another, so there was little direction. All the decision-making was left in the hands of individual commissioners, after consultations with presidents and athletic directors.
"[Many of us] found out about the cancellation exactly how [the public] did, when the tweet and the email went out from the NCAA about spring sports and championships," said Kathryn Morrison, executive director of CWS of Omaha Inc., which organizes the men's College World Series. "We had been in touch with our NCAA partners. I think a great many of them didn't have a lot of information either.
"Everything was happening so fast and it was all so fluid that they could really only tell us to 'prepare to be prepared,' because they wouldn't have a chance to give much of a heads-up if something changed. And they were right, there was no heads-up."
ACC commissioner John Swofford held a news conference after 10:30 a.m., announcing the ACC planned to keep playing without fans.
"The NBA made the decision when one of their players contracted the virus," he said. "What we have to look at, I think, is should you make that decision before one of your players contracts the virus? I don't know the answer to that right now."
Around the same time, Clemson loaded up its bus from the team hotel. Men's head coach Brad Brownell turned to his deputy athletic director and asked, "Are we really playing? Is this going to happen?" He was told yes, but with a caveat: There was going to be another meeting and "something could happen."
"I was surprised a little bit that it hadn't been canceled," Brownell said. "I pulled a couple of guys aside on the bus, I asked them if anybody on the team didn't want to play, or was there any talk among the players if they were uncomfortable. They both said, 'Everybody was fine, they all want to play,' which is what you would expect them to say."
A little more than an hour later, after the Big Ten and SEC had already canceled their tournaments, the ACC followed suit. Big East officials, meanwhile, left their 11 a.m. meeting of athletic directors and school presidents committed to pressing on while acknowledging how tenuous the situation was.
"Everybody in the room felt like we were just holding on," St. John's athletic director Mike Cragg said.
With about six minutes remaining in the first half between Creighton and St. John's, Cragg received a message from the Big East office that they were going to end the tournament at halftime. Cragg told coach Mike Anderson's wife, and Anderson was informed by one of the referees with about a minute left in the half. The final half of the 2019-20 college basketball season ended with St. John's leading Creighton by three points. It was just shy of 1 p.m.
Inside the men's selection committee room that afternoon, the mood was somber. Eight of the 10 committee members were a part of conferences that canceled their tournaments that day, and the inevitability the NCAA tournaments would soon be canceled weighed on everybody in the room. All they could do was wait on the decision by the NCAA board of governors. They had no say in the matter.
"You're shocked, you're saddened, you're angered and then you think, 'How in the world are we going to go without March Madness?'" Southland commissioner Tom Burnett said. "It's part of our lives, and for the first time ever, it's not going to happen. We happen to be the people in the room when it's not happening. That's pretty heavy and remains that way. This is going to stick with us for a while, but bigger issues are at play."
Defending women's champion Baylor was on the tarmac waiting to fly to the Big 12 tournament when it got word the conference championship was canceled. Seniors Lauren Cox, the Big 12 player of the year, and Juicy Landrum started to cry, sensing more bad news would be coming.
At roughly 4:16 p.m., the NCAA announced both the men's and women's tournaments were canceled, along with all spring championships. In total, 27 different sports would not host a championship event for the 2019-20 academic year.
"We really believed that if this statement were made [to cancel the tournaments], it would be a major wake-up call to our country that we are in a very serious crisis, and we weren't getting those calls from the national leadership," Hainline said. "This sent a seismic shock wave."
East Tennessee State senior Tray Boyd, whose team earned an automatic bid by winning the Southern Conference, was looking to help the Bucs win their first March Madness game since 1992.
"It's crazy what could have been, with the amazing season we had," Boyd said. "It's just a memory now. What could have been. Playing in the NCAA tournament is a big deal, but it's not as big as losing our life. So they did the right thing by canceling. It just sucks. You dream your whole life to play in it. ... We missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
Forrest and Florida State were still in the team hotel in Greensboro when they saw the news scroll on ESPN. The Seminoles had a historic season of their own, winning their first regular-season ACC title.
"You feel sad, mad, but a little bit feels happy because of what we were able to accomplish in the time we had," FSU's Forrest said. "We made history with our team, so I'm trying to look at some of the positives too."
Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens, who had been busy preparing Matthew Knight Arena to host the first round of the women's NCAA tournament, said he called coach Kelly Graves and said, "I'm so sorry."
The No. 2 Ducks and All-America superstar Sabrina Ionescu, who passed up on a chance at being the first pick in last year's WNBA draft to try to win a title as a senior, saw her remarkable college career come to an end via news release.
"It's hard to win a championship, there's no guarantees, but ... we had three superstars that spent three years together," Mullens said. "That's hard to find in this day and age in college basketball, and we have been on this magical journey, building toward something, not just this year."
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This year has been the toughest year of my life, and I wasn't expecting to have to end my senior year like this. Very saddened but whole heartedly understand. To my teammates, coaches, fans, and the University of Oregon, thank you for providing me with the best 4 years of my life. Although our unfinished business will remain just that, I have been blessed to be a part of this journey. Thank you for all the memories, that I will forever hold close to my heart. DUCK NATION, THANK YOU!! 🐥 20, out🙏🏼
Fallout, far and wide
By Wednesday night, Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins sensed spring sports wouldn't be spared from the NCAA's eventual decision.
The Wolverines continued preparing for a weekend series against Ball State, but Hutchins and the rest of the school's coaches had a call with the athletic director at 3 p.m. She quietly slipped away from practice and learned of the NCAA's planned announcement. No Big Ten tournament. No Women's College World Series.
For a few minutes, the coach who began this season with more wins than anyone in NCAA history waited alone in the locker room. She wasn't sure she could find the right words if she went back outside. When she eventually did, she held back the news as her team went through drills.
"I sat in the stands and watched for a while," Hutchins said. "Our AD said, 'When you go back out, you need to go stop your practices,' pull the plug basically. But I watched for 20 minutes, then went out and ran the last drill. ... I was like, 'This is our last day together, the only thing they're going to get to remember.' And I wanted to enjoy it myself, I guess."
Head coach Paul Mainieri and the LSU baseball team were on a bus about to head to Oxford, Mississippi, when his AD called.
"Stop the bus, don't leave. I need to talk to you."
Word had made it through the ranks that SEC commissioner Greg Sankey would suspend the season. Mainieri told his players to digest the news but be ready to return to practice Monday. It wasn't long after when the NCAA's final decision became public.
"I told my players today, the most important word you can learn about today is perspective. 'Keep everything in perspective,'" Mainieri said. "You think things are bad for you because baseball is canceled. There's a bigger problem going on with humanity right now that has to come under control. We all need to remind ourselves about keeping things in perspective and what's really important. We all have loved ones, and we need to make sure that people are safe and healthy.
"If this is the way it has to be, then I trust the people in charge to do the right thing."
The emotions have been wide-ranging for those in every sport that was affected by the NCAA's decision, but the initial refrain from many who are directly involved with spring sports was: Our sports are much later than the winter sports and NCAA basketball tournaments. Why are we cut out as well?
According to Emmert, it was about the safety of the athletes and staff.
"It was almost surreal to say, 'We're going to cancel our tournaments.' It's almost impossible for all of us to imagine doing that and what it meant and what it was going to feel like for these coaches and these kids," Emmert said. "We had so many great stories in men's basketball alone. But it was all of our tournaments, the Frozen Four and gymnastics and everything. It was just awful, there's no getting around it. It was an awful circumstance."
The NCAA considered postponement of the tournaments, but with any proposal thrown out to the group, the problems became self-evident, according to Emmert.
"The projections coming out of the medical community increasingly became that the virus was going to grow, and the best projections that our medical teams have seen is that May and June will be epicenter time, not diminished time, as this gets spread around the country."
That working timetable raised other issues, like schools not holding classes at that point, the graduation of seniors and some of those seniors wanting to go professional.
"I think the general public said like, 'Wow, what do they know that we don't know? This has to be serious,'" Hainline said. "When sport behaved that way and they got really out in front of that situation, I like to really believe it was part of a wake-up call. Organizations and people make decisions often before the government does."
Hainline believes the NCAA's decision will "have an impact of dramatically lessening the number of people [who contract the virus]. I believe [the decision will save lives], I really do."