Thursday will forever be remembered in this area as one of the darkest days in college sports history — the day the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments were not just postponed, but called off in a span of a few hours.
Kansas’ Bill Self, a 57-year-old Hall of Famer who has been a head basketball coach for 27 years — 17 at KU — chose the words “a strange day,” to describe March 12, 2020 in a phone interview with The Star.
For posterity’s sake, let Self offer a recap of the day that coronavirus concerns ended March Madness three days before Selection Sunday.
The No. 1 ranked Jayhawks, who were to meet Oklahoma State in a Big 12 quarterfinal at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Sprint Center, “met as a team” Thursday morning in a conference room at the Kansas City Marriott Downtown, blocks away from the arena.
“We did scouting report,” Self told The Star. “After that, when the guys were getting ready to go to the game, we let them all know the tournament has been canceled.”
Indeed, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby held a news conference at the Sprint Center after the Texas Longhorns and Texas Tech Red Raiders warmed up for their 11:30 a.m. quarterfinal — a game that would have preceded KU-OSU.
Bowlsby said the Big 12’s show simply couldn’t go on, even with no fans in the stands, because of a national response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
“We said to the players, ‘OK, we’re going to leave at 1 o’clock. There’s no reason to rush out of here,’’’ Self said.
The KU players, coaches and other staff members did indeed board the bus back to Lawrence about 1 p.m., in front of the Marriott.
“We were riding the bus home. There was a misreport on TV saying we’d pulled out of the (NCAA) Tournament,” Self said. “Our guys were all going nuts saying, ‘We’re out?’ I tried to find out what’s going on, let them know that was not an accurate report at all (that) we’re still hanging in there in the same boat as everybody else.”
It seems the misreport stemmed from some national reporters misinterpreting a statement of Kansas athletic director Jeff Long that read: “Our highest priority at Kansas Athletics is to ensure the safety and well-being of our student-athletes, coaches and staff. Based on the recommendation of our medical professionals, we have canceled all athletic travel indefinitely. In addition, all home and away athletic events have been suspended indefinitely. We will continue to monitor the situation and determine the next appropriate steps based on advice from our medical team.”
Long’s statement did not mean KU would refuse to play in the NCAAs if they were to be held as scheduled or say, in mid-April or May.
Self spoke with ESPN’s Dick Vitale and some other national reporters, asking them to clear up the misconception that KU had dropped out of the NCAAs.
“(Self) made it clear Kansas is strictly like everyone else and in a holding pattern from the NCAA and there is no validity that they have said they would not play,” Vitale wrote on Twitter.
The Jayhawks’ bus arrived back in Lawrence after 2 p.m.
“We get home and we talked to the players about, ‘OK guys do you want to practice today? Do you want to have an intrasquad scrimmage or wait until tomorrow (Friday)?’ They said, ‘Coach we’ll take the rest of the day off. We’ll practice tomorrow.’ That’s the way it was left with us,” Self said.
“At that time, the word I got from my inside sources,” Self added, “was the (NCAA) tournament could possibly be postponed and could be condensed to maybe even one location. These were all hypotheticals. I was, ‘Well, at least they are talking about it.’
“Then with no notice whatsoever it comes out publicly that the NCAA Tournament has been canceled for the men and women. Our guys found out watching TV or on Twitter.”
So Self called a team meeting for Thursday night.
“We had a meeting to go over all the things … there’s a lot to go over. Campus is changing. Everything is moving (to) online classes. Can you go home? Can you travel? Can you get back if you go home? Are you quarantined? What will you eat? There was a lot to discuss. We discussed it all,” Self said.
Self said his players were “crushed” as well as “heartbroken, sad” about the sudden end of the 2019-20 season. Self told them they would not begin individual drills or lift weights for the immediate future as he looked into NCAA guidelines for what’s allowed at this time. The Big 12 on Friday canceled all sports competition through the end of the semester.
He told The Star most of the Jayhawks would remain on campus with only the local players headed to see their parents at this time.
Of course he said that all could change with the virus situation seemingly changing hour by hour, day by day.
“I’m sure being hurt, crushed, sad are understatements compared to the time, energy and effort athletes put forth to put themselves in position to play for the highest stakes, whatever that was relative to where they were,” Self said, as saddened as anybody else about the fact there would be no postseason games for his Big 12 champion Jayhawks, who finished 28-3.
He said his plans were to report to work every day … or as long as he was allowed to do that according to rules regarding the containment of coronavirus.
“Everybody has to be concerned, but smart too,” Self said. “This is one time where we all think the rules are good for everybody else but not so good for me. Everybody needs to agree the rules are right. Whatever we’re told to do we should do.”
Eligibility rule to change?
Self was asked by The Star if he was in favor of the NCAA awarding another year of eligibility to seniors whose final season of college had been cut short.
Self said he’d need to further consider/study the issue of winter sports athletes before offering an opinion. After all, players on some teams in Division I had already had their seasons come to an end in conference tournaments that had been completed.
He said “yes,” regarding spring sports seniors receiving another year of eligibility considering their final seasons of competition had just begun.
“I am always in favor of doing things in the best interest of student-athletes,” Self told The Star on Friday. “As far as me understanding and studying everything, I really don’t know. I have no comment on that (winter sports athletes). As far as athletes that had their spring season taken away I would hope there’d be something done to make up for that.”