By Jill Painter Lopez
IRVINE, Calif. – It was a whirlwind week, March 8-13, for the Big West Conference as the coronavirus pandemic threatened the Big West Basketball Tournament and usual operations for member campuses.
The culmination of conference calls, fact-finding, consultation and ever-changing information led to last Thursday morning's cancellation of the tournament.
"At the end of the day, we understood this situation was far graver than whether athletic events could go on or not," said Big West Commissioner Dennis Farrell. "Once the decisions were made, we were at peace with that. It was a difficult decision. You want to make sure you weigh all the options and connect all the dots and sometimes the dot was moving a little bit on this."
The Big West began to take a proactive approach concerning the conference basketball tournament with conference calls that involved select chief executive officers from member institutions, Farrell, Rob Halvaks, the deputy commissioner, and Erica Monteabaro, the senior associate commissioner/senior woman administrator at 4 p.m. on Sunday.
They were reassessing decisions about the tournament, which started on Tuesday, around-the-clock until Thursday morning, when the decision was made to cancel the tournament.
"The office began to get inquiries from the leadership of the Board of Directors on Sunday afternoon," Halvaks said.
The Board of Directors is comprised of the presidents and chancellors of the conference's nine institutions, and continued calls took place on whether to hold the tournament and if so, under what conditions.
Four options were made to address the concerns of the COVID-19 virus that was spreading in the United States.
"Primarily, Rob laid out all the options, and we laid out four different options, an alert, almost a DEFCON 1, DEFCON 2 and somewhere down the line," Farrell said.
"The first level was to do nothing and maintain the status quo and move forward with the tournament. The second was to try to encourage through social messaging and messaging in the arena for social distancing at the two venues at Long Beach State and the Honda Center and potentially limiting ticket sales.
"The third level was to go fan-less, playing games without spectators and we moved on from that point. The last level for consideration was outright cancellation of the event."
The group decided on that 4 p.m. call Sunday to carry on with the event as scheduled. Additional conference calls ensued and on Monday, decision-making evolved to the next phase, encouraging social distancing. That message was sent out on Big West social media channels at 12:40 p.m.
"On Sunday, we were confident at that time that the Walter Pyramid and Honda Center was able to accommodate fans with social distancing and we were in contact with Tim Ryan (CEO of the Honda Center and officials at Long Beach State," Halvaks said. "The move to go with social distancing and social messaging was with the understanding that there were precautions being taken at those venues as it related to virus prevention and facility cleaning."
That all changed on Tuesday, when the Board of Directors made the decision at about 2:30 p.m. PDT that spectators would not be permitted. The women's tournament began that evening with first round games at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., followed by Wednesday's quarterfinals games at the same time. All four of those games were played at Long Beach State.
The men's and women's tournaments were scheduled to move to Honda Center on Thursday, with a string of four men's quarterfinals games tipping off at noon.
Many families, friends and fans already were in Southern California, having come from Hawai'i and other cities across the country. The fluidity of the situation required adaptability in the decision-making process. When Cal State Fullerton's Taylor Turney called her parents, who were halfway there on their drive from Las Vegas, her mom was crying.
"We got to Tuesday and at the point we were seeing schools across the country starting to close down completely and the Ivy League made its announcement with outright canceling its tournament," Farrell said.
"They were playing the tournament at Harvard and Harvard was closing down. We quickly huddled with the board officers and we felt at that point we had to move on from the second phase. The second question was how far were we going to go? We could go to the third level and play without spectators or move to the fourth level and the outright cancellation.
"After conferring with the full board that day, we made the decision to go to the third level and at that point we were the second conference in the country behind the Ivy League to make the drastic move to playing without spectators. We made that decision and the announcement about 3 1/2 hours before tipoff at the Walter Pyramid.
"We felt we took the necessary precautions. We were continuing to monitor the health and well-being of the participants and we felt by keeping fans out of the arena that we were making a drastic statement that we were concerned about the virus and the virus not spreading."
As one can imagine, Halvaks and Farrell started receiving many e-mails, phone calls and voicemails from some upset fans, many of whom were already in Long Beach and Anaheim.
Farrell said he and Halvaks returned each message to explain the nature of the decision.
Farrell said he talked to one fan - who already had arrived from Hawai'i - who was shocked he returned his phone call. Farrell said he explained the decision and the man was thankful for that.
Farrell also told him he would refund his ticket cost but that there was obviously nothing he could do about the hotel and flight fees.
"He was understanding to say the least," Farrell said.
On Wednesday night, during the first quarterfinal game between Cal Poly and UC Irvine, news began to spread about the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City game being canceled just before tipoff after Rudy Gobert tested positive for Coronavirus. Shortly after that, while many NBA games were being played, the NBA decided to suspend the season effective immediately.
That meant the Board of Directors needed to discuss the situation again, especially because a basketball player had contracted the virus.
"That triggered another conversation with the board officers, which led to the unanimous endorsement of our full board to move to the fourth level, which was the cancellation of the event. That's where we were at (Thursday) morning," Farrell said.
"By the time we were able to get on board with this there were conferences across the country starting to shut down tournaments completely. That made our decision that much easier. It was unanimous at that point."
Mike Villamor, the Big West's assistant commissioner of communications, was at Honda Center at 5:30 a.m. on Thursday. News of the Power 5 Conferences canceling their tournaments would start to trickle in early that day.
Four men's quarterfinals games were scheduled that day, with the first beginning at noon and the last around 8:30 p.m. There was no word yet on whether the Big West would play, but with all the cancellations and the NBA suspending its season, the probability was that the tournament wouldn't go on.
"There were so many moving parts, but we had to go with business as usual," Villamor said. "If we didn't, and the show went on, we would've been woefully unprepared with our setup. Even though you weren't sure of the tenor of the discussions, you knew there was the possibility that we wouldn't have the basketball tournament. But you had to do your best to not let it distract you. We still had a job to do. We still had to maintain a certain sense of focus."
Villamor was out on the Honda Center court, which was laid down immediately following the Anaheim Ducks game against the St. Louis Blues the night before. Under normal circumstances, the Big West would've had all day Wednesday to prepare the Honda Center. But the NHL teams had a makeup game that day, continuing the suspended game from Feb. 11 when Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester had a cardiac episode.
Arena workers began the changeover from ice to the basketball floor that night, getting it ready for when officials and volunteers arrived.
Villamor and an intern started setting up at 5:30 a.m. By 7 a.m., when the teams were able to start their shootarounds, most of the preparations around the floor and back-of-house were close to completion.
And remember, the tournament would have no fans, so there was a lot less to worry about.
The first two teams declined their shootaround slots, so a few players from UC Riverside came in during its shootaround, then Long Beach State and finally, UC Irvine. Those were three of only four teams that went to the Honda Center that day.
Villamor was doing media seating assignments courtside when he got the call from Farrell, at about 8:50 a.m., that the tournament would be canceled.
"Suddenly you get the news and you're not saying anything until there's an official release," Villamor said. "You couldn't say anything to the teams right then and there. I walked off the court, went back to my computer and the next thing I know I'm crafting a release and putting it on our website and distributing through our social media channels. We came out with that within a half hour. Then all the people inside the arena were alerted. It happened really quickly."
Chris Hargraves, the assistant director of championships and communications, was at the arena and had to start telling folks in person and calling others to deliver the official news. Alex Penewell, the assistant commissioner for championships and sport administration, was also there and among her duties, telling teams of the news as well.
Most people were expecting it. Hargraves was with the regular season champion UC Irvine Anteaters, who were favored to win the tournament, on the basketball court after the news became official.
"They were all remarkably upbeat for 18-23 year-olds for their season ending in that fashion. I was pretty impressed with them," Hargraves said. "It stems from their leadership preparing them that it could happen. I was talking to (senior guard) Evan Leonard for a little bit.
Obviously, he was shocked they canceled it but he understood why they had to cancel. Being out there on the floor with everyone kind of helped them get through the initial shock. They took a positive approach. (UC Irvine coach) Russ (Turner) prepared them for it. He told them that 'no matter what happens, if you're not comfortable playing, I have your back with whatever you decide. Let's keep this shootaround upbeat and let's have fun.' They were pretty positive."
And then, something very cool and impromptu happened. There was a ladder on the court because arena employees were still doing work on the backboard.
And UC Irvine's athletic trainer had scissors.
So they cut down the nets.
Senior forward Tommy Rutherford was the last to cut down the final pieces of net. They were favored to win the conference tournament and if they had, like they did one year earlier, they would've made the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year. It wasn't to be, but they left the court with a spirited shootaround and a post-championship celebration that they had envisioned doing Saturday night.
"It seemed they were happy to be around each other and in a place, that's been such a happy place for that program," Hargraves said. "If there was a team built for that moment and hearing that news, it would probably be Irvine."
It was quiet outside the UC Davis locker room, as the Aggies were just about to take the floor for their shootaround when they got the news. Most of the teams never went to Honda Center and found out at their hotels.
The Big West then made the decision later Thursday morning to indefinitely suspend its spring sports. Ultimately, that evolved into Friday's decision to cancel all spring sports and their conference championships.
These types of difficult decisions were made across the country the last few days. Farrell has been with the Big West for 40 years and this was his 40th and final conference tournament as he's retiring at the end of June.
"I've told a number of people during the course of the week that in my 40 years with the conference, this is the gravest decision I've had to wrestle with and the only other one that comes close to that was the aftermath of 9-11," Farrell said.
"The difference was that 9-11 was a catastrophic event that put us all into shock. There were a few hours of uncertainty until the planes were grounded. We had competitions that were coming up that weekend and teams were traveling. But it was early in the season and it wasn't affecting any championships. This happened to be occurring during the week of our marquee event and everything was changing. It was so fluid that what you knew one minute was old news 15 minutes later.
"That was certainly an emotional roller coaster. The decision to cancel our marquee event and the spring sports and knowing the impact that has on our student athletes and coaches and fans but also the workers of these venues. We got emails from concession people at Honda Center and parking lot attendants and people were having their livelihood affected and that was extremely emotional. It was certainly something that had to be done but it wasn't easy."
Halvaks is in nearly the same situation as Farrell. Halvaks has been with the Big West for 28 years, 18 as its deputy commissioner. It was an emotional decision for him as well, considering all of those involved.
"I've been fortunate enough to teach a graduate school class at USF in their sports management program the last 20 years and one of the lessons I've said every year for 20 years was that leadership is about making the right decision at the right time for the right reasons," Halvaks said.
"There were a lot of emotional folks at the institutional level. The consequences were clear that we were cutting the heart out of the careers for seniors and for all our spring sports. Our role as leaders is to understand that it's also the dynamics with which you have to make those hard decisions."
Farrell said he'll need time to process the emotions of his tenure as commissioner ending on this note. But that for now, he and Halvaks will need to establish a different kind of leadership.
There may not be any sports right now, but there's plenty of work to do.
"The week before this week, Dennis and I were having conversations about going through the spring and spring championships, working collectively to have the proper handoff to whoever is coming in next," Halvaks said.
"Clearly, the focus now is to put the pieces back together and help prepare the next leadership team for what's to come."
Farrell and Halvaks have been a wonderful duo as the top executives of the Big West. They certainly didn't plan on heading into retirement dealing with this kind of crisis.
"Rob and I, between the two of us, have almost 70 years of experience in the conference office," Farrell said.
"We're focused on leading the conference through this extremely difficult time. I haven't had enough time to digest the impact on my career. (On Thursday) I was on a call with my fellow commissioners and we were giving updates on how each conference was dealing with this issue.
"The commissioners group joked that this was a heckuva way for me to go out. It certainly wasn't what I anticipated. In terms of sadness, I haven't had time to assess that. As Rob said, we're focused on doing our job the next 3 1/2 months and keeping the Big West out there in terms of our supporters and setting the stage for the transition to the next commissioner."
Jill Painter Lopez is a is a freelance sideline and features reporter. She has conducted live interviews for Fox Sports West and also is an award-winning writer and columnist who has contributed stories for the New York Times, Associated Press, the Southern California Golf Association and MLB Network.