In the face of a global pandemic the academic year of 2020-2021 presented a challenge like no other in the history of collegiate sports and yet the University of Arkansas not only survived it, it thrived. The determination to successfully answer that challenge began as far back as the dark days of a national COVID shutdown when sports were cancelled and athletes sent off campus. Even then there was a belief that there was a way to get those athletes back on campus and competing in time for the fall semester.
“There hasn’t been ounce of conversation between myself and our team about not having a season,” an optimistic Sam Pittman told the media not long after his football players left campus. The Razorbacks head football coach admitted that he didn’t have any details on how the season could be played but he refused to accept that it wouldn’t.
Arkansas Director of Athletics Hunter Yurachek recalled the early motivation to make it happen. “Our student athletes made it clear that if we could find a way to safely play, they wanted to play,” Yurachek revealed. “We did it for those young men and women.”
Slowly, by meeting weekly with an SEC medical task force, SEC athletic directors formulated a plan to play featuring two main components: COVID testing with quick results three times a week and rigid safety procedures inside the various team facilities.
Trish Matysak, Associate Director of Sports Medicine at the University, explained the challenge. “Everybody had to change the way they did things,” she said. “No one could operate normally.”
“We worked out in the indoor (football field facility) on turf,” Linebacker Grant Morgan said of the first conditioning workouts after athletes were allowed to return to campus in July. “We warmed up nowhere near anybody. Then we’d go upstairs and we all had our own weight lifting rack. Then as soon as we finished the next group would have a 45 minute window so the coaches could go through every single aspect of where we were and wipe off everything. Clean off everything.”
Limiting the spread of COVID within the team by identifying and isolating athletes who tested positive was one thing. Finding and quarantining teammates who’d had close contact with them was more difficult.
“We knew we had to tell exactly who we were with,” Morgan recalled. “You would have to tell them exactly what you did from 48 hours on.”
“Obviously you had to spend time explaining the importance of contact tracing to them,” Matysak acknowledged. “It’s for their safety. Contact tracing is only as good as your interviews with the student athlete. Those relationships were strong and they trusted us and we trusted them.”
The final piece of the puzzle involved a 10 game SEC-only schedule. But just before that schedule was announced SEC Commissioner Greg Sanky called Hunter Yurachek with some difficult news. Arkansas’ two extra SEC games would be against the top two teams in the East.
“We drew Georgia and Florida,” Yurachek told Pittman. “I still remember to this day, I said ‘Greg you’ve got to be kidding me.’ “
Razorback fans may have complained but Pittman convinced his players to embrace the challenge of the so called “toughest schedule in the nation.”
As the 2020 college football season approached, players had already been on campus working out and practicing for over two months, successfully using SEC developed protocols designed to limited the spread of COVID. But keeping those players safe in on-campus facilities supervised by coaches, trainers and medical people was not the worry. It was off campus activities that Yurachek and Pittman zeroed in on after problems had developed at other SEC schools like LSU.
“Pittman and Yurachek, they were really telling us how important this was and how one little thing could change the outcome of the season,” Morgan recalled. Those conversations clearly made an impression on the players. “It was something that I bragged about to our coaches and our student athletes throughout the year,” Yurachek stressed. “We were never the cause of any games being cancelled.”
With almost a full roster week-to-week Razorback football had early success, leading No. 4 Georgia at the half, beating Mississippi State on the road and losing to 13th ranked Auburn by just two points with later wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee. Hog football fans were excited and so was the head coach who told reporters at the time, “They’ve done a nice job with this COVID and I’m very proud of the way our players have handled it.”
Arkansas did have issues the week of the LSU game but technically had enough available athletes to play under SEC guidelines. Some of the starters would have to be replaced by players off the bench. Postponement was an option but Pittman passed on it.
“Kudos to him because I think there’s some football coaches across the country that would have cancelled that game,’ Yurachek said of Pittman. “But Sam’s message all the way through the year was, we only need who is on the bus that day to have an opportunity to win the game.”
When the season was over there was one cancelled game. TCU bailed on its bowl game with the Hogs, a huge disappointment. But the Arkansas’ football team had proven that COVID could be beaten. “As we started the fall sports, and they were successful, our winter sports said, ‘Hey, that’s really working.’ The same thing happened with our spring sports,” Yurachek noted.
The final tally on the 2020-2021 academic year featured a national championship in women’s indoor track, an Elite Eight appearance in basketball and NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals hosted by the baseball and softball teams. In all, there were a combined 10 SEC and SEC Tournament championships on the Hill. Every sport but one made it to post season competition.
“Going and watching baseball games when we’re sold out ’cause we got the best college baseball pitcher ever, I was proud to wear my Arkansas gear around,” Morgan bragged. “You’ve got to give credit to Mr. Yurachek for what he’s done.”
Razorback athletics had successfully navigated the various pitfalls of COVID in ways not thought possible in the beginning of the pandemic. But there were money issues that had to be tackled. In October of 2020 sixteen long time athletic department employees agreed to take early retirement to help ease the pressure of a $35 million shortfall created by severely limited crowds in football and basketball. Three of those early retirees were women who had served as secretaries to legendary names in Arkansas coaching. Names like Eddie Sutton, Lou Holtz, Nolan Richardson and Ken Hatfield. Together they had served the athletic department for a combined 119 years.
“Through the years it’s just been a big family,” longtime former basketball administrative assistant Terry Mercer said of her job. “Added on every year. Changing from one coach to another.”
“The coaches were different, each one that we had,” former football administrative assistant Clarinda Carr echoed. “You learned to adapt and go with that but we also had great fans that we became friends with.”
Mercer and Carr joked that, if allowed, former Sports Information administrative assistant Mary Lynn Gibson would probably have worked until the day she died. There was a reason why. “I loved the people here,” Gibson gushed. “Through the years we’ve met so many great people. It was fun to have the coaches and the athletes to come into the office.”
The tributes from their former bosses were glowing.
“That woman did every single thing that she could do to help me and my family,” Richardson said of Mercer. “Above, beyond being a secretary at the University.”
Hatfield said Carr provided an air of stability even during turbulent times inside the athletic department. “She and Randy, her husband, were just the greatest supporters,” Hatfield emphasized. “Great family people and when you have large departments like we did it’s so important that people get along well.”
Senior Associate Athletic Director for Public Relations Kevin Trainor, one of five sports information directors who worked with Gibson, said she was well known to the hundreds of fans who call the athletic department in the course of a year. “She was the first person that a lot of our fans would talk to on the phone and she had a way of relating to people in different ways, Trainor acknowledged. “But always carrying that loving spirit about her.”
None of the three were ready to give up the role they played in the day-to-day operations of the athletic department.
“It really kind of shook you a little bit because I wasn’t ready,” Carr recalled when when she learned of the early retirement plan. “I had a new coach. I wanted to help him get established.”
“Things had changed through the years but basically we loved it,” Mercer explained. “Our families, our kids and grandkids, it was just a big part of our lives.”
“I had talked about retirement but as long as I was feeling good, I would continue,” Gibson stressed. “COVID changed everything.”
As much as they regretted leaving (and each did have a choice of remaining) the three of them, along with 13 more of the 25 employees eligible for early retirement, made the decision to do their part to help alleviate the budget crunch. Yurachek, who called the plan one of the most difficult decisions he’s ever had to make, fully understood the sacrifice they were making. “They helped us get through COVID. Not an easy decision for any of them to step away,” he admitted. “They’ve been missed. It’s some history around our department that we don’t have any longer.”
Arkansas’ AD also regrets that he did not know last October of an eventual SEC plan to infuse badly needed revenue into the budgets of each member school. This past spring all 14 received a $23 million advance on future revenues from the conference TV package.
“We may not have made some of the decisions we made in October if we knew that we were gonna have that loan coming in for us but it was a great infusion, ” Yurachek explained. “It allows us to balance our books coming out of this fiscal year and get the next fiscal year off to a really positive start.”
By late May full capacity crowds were returning to Baum-Walker Stadium just in time for the baseball regional and super regional hosted by Arkansas. Yurachek got an early look at what he anticipates for this fall.
“Early projections for football, we’re up over 35,000 season tickets sold to date, Yurachek revealed. “We have 172 of 172 suites sold out for the season.”
The excitement of full capacity crowds has the players fired up. Morgan said summer workouts have been going through the roof. “This is a different team,” he proclaimed. “I’ve never been a part of something like this and I think it’s all because of last year and how it’s transitioned over to this year.”
Morgan also said the players are doing their part to make sure COVID doesn’t disrupt the coming season. “The whole linebacker room, we’ve all got the vaccine,” he stressed. “Some of the other rooms don’t have all the vaccines so they’re still wearing masks. But they found out we’re not and I think, like, in the next two weeks no one will have to wear masks in the building.”
Yurachek pointed out that vaccines are not mandatory but he’s encouraged that close to 80 percent of student athletes at the University are currently vaccinated.
Will the current rise in COVID cases in Arkansas force the athletic department to again limit crowds in 2021-2022? There’s no indication of that by mid summer but whatever happens in the future, Yurachek, his coaches and their athletes have shown that they know how to answer a challenge. They proved that in the year of COVID.