LAWRENCE — The coronavirus has thrust the sports world into a state of indefinite uncertainty, and that reality hits home locally at the University of Kansas.
A near four-decade veteran in collegiate athletics administration, Jeff Long can only recall two events that carried a similar impact — Magic Johnson’s HIV diagnosis in 1991 and 9/11 — though the Jayhawk athletic director believes neither of those world-changing moments reached the scale of the current pandemic in terms of effect on the sports community.
"It’s going to change athletics. It’s going to change education, the higher education systems in the United States," Long said Monday. "It’s going to change so much that we can’t even predict."
Those words came as part of a video news conference, part of the new norm for the second-year AD who has been tasked with guiding the KU athletic department through an unexpected period of both competitive and financial uncertainty.
Long, who as recently as a week ago had never participated in a video conference call, is now hosting at least two a day with his executive staff. He oversaw the March 15 closure of the Jayhawk athletic department offices, and through that, Long has stressed the importance of continued communication between coaches, trainers, staff members and mental health professionals and the student-athletes they serve.
Long said approximately 75 student-athletes remain in Lawrence in on- and off-campus housing, though lines remain open through the recent implementation of a mobile app called Teamworks.
Douglas County, like most of the Kansas City metro area, will implement a stay-at-home order beginning at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, with only essential trips permitted. That policy will last through April 23.
"I would tell you in the second week we’re starting to develop a routine," Long said, "but this last I would say 10, 12 days has been herky-jerky as we bring online the new technologies."
Only "one or two" athletes have been tested for coronavirus, Long said, and to his knowledge both of those tests came back negative. Long added he’s not aware of any staff or coaches who have tested positive nor anyone being monitored, though he noted the virus can take up to 14 days to show symptoms.
Long canceled all athletic travel indefinitely and suspended all home and away competitions on March 12, just hours before the cancellation of the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. The Big 12 canceled all spring conference and nonconference competitions the following day.
It is a "big blow" to the KU football program and second-year head coach Les Miles, Long said, with all parties hopeful for nationwide spring practices in June, an extension of the preseason in August or other measures that would make up for lost time.
"Certainly there’s some question about the September football season starting off," Long said. "Again, we’ll have to adjust to that. We all know competitively and preparing our student-athletes is very important, so we’ll be working to get some extension of time that our coaches can practice with student-athletes prior to next season."
While the health and well-being of everyone within the KU athletic department is at the forefront of Long’s mind, it’s impossible not to acknowledge the financial ramifications of the lost NCAA Tournament run and spring sports slate as well as the indefinite grounding of all fundraising personnel.
KU has extended all part-time and graduate employees and its event workers through the remainder of this academic year, guaranteeing those salaries. However, Long said the department is looking at potential cuts, exploring what 10-20% reductions in operations would look like, if needed.
"Again, most of that is determined on how far and how long this crisis lasts," he said.
Long has also extended season ticket deadlines and directed his staff to be innovative with payment plans in attempts to ease the financial burden put on Jayhawk supporters in the dipping economic climate.
"Yes, there is concern, but I would tell you our fans have been great," Long said. "They’ve stuck with us through thick and thin over the years, through economic downturns. So are we concerned? Yes. Are we confident, though, our fans and supporters will be there for us? We are."
If nothing else, this has all been an admittedly awkward experience for the extroverted Long.
"I’m a high-energy person … (and) I’m used to bounding across the hall back and forth to coaches’ offices, staff offices," Long said. "Now I’m sitting in front of this computer or I’m on these phones and I’m texting and I’m doing whatever, and it’s different. It’s a different stress level. It’s a different management challenge, one that is awkward and uncomfortable, because we’re driven by the people around us. We get energy from those coaches and student-athletes."