Podcast Transcript: Can College Sports Recover? Interview with Two Top Coaches

What are the long-term effects of the pandemic on college sports? Daniel Barwick interviews Doshia Woods, Heach Coach of the University of Denver’s women’s basketball team, and Kiyoshi Harris, of Netflix’s “Last Chance U” fame and Head Coach of the Independence Community College football team. The following interview has been slightly edited for readability.

Dan:    I’m Dan Barwick. Welcome to the podcast. If the content of this podcast interests you, then you’ll enjoy my new book, Risk and Reward: How Small Colleges Get Better Against the Odds. It’s now available from Amazon in eBook, paperback, and audiobook format. The best way to find it is to head over to my blog, Mortarboardblog.com, and click on the link on the front page. If you have any thoughts about the book, don’t hesitate to send me an email and let me know what you think.

Dan:    Athletics is a major part of higher education. In this week’s podcast, we talk to two coaches who are at the top of their game about the challenges they face during this pandemic. Doshia Woods was recently named the head women’s basketball coach at the University of Denver. She is a Topeka, Kansas native, who spent the last 10 years at Tulane University as the recruiting coordinator for Tulane’s women’s basketball program. A veteran collegiate coach, Wood’s previous stops include the University of Missouri, Oregon State University, New Mexico State, and Western Illinois, assisting with their women’s basketball programs. Coach Woods, thanks so much for joining me.

Woods:           Thank you for having me.

Dan:    Kiyoshi Harris is going into his second year as head football coach at Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas. He led his team to a 2019 Jayhawk Conference championship and his first season as head coach ended with an eight and two record. He was also named Coach of the Year for the 2019 season. The Independence Pirates are coming off one of the best graduating classes in years, with 46 student-athletes signing football scholarships, and 51 graduating this past 2019-2020 school year. Kiyoshi Harris, my friend, welcome to the podcast.

Harris: I appreciate you having me.

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Dan: I’m curious – why don’t we start with Doshia – what kinds of protocols and procedures have you put in place to keep your students safe?

Woods:           Well, that’s actually a good question. I’ve been at the University of Denver for about a month now, coming from Tulane University, and we are actually on the quarter system. So I haven’t had the opportunity to be on the floor with our players, but there’s definitely been a lot of Zoom meetings as we all have experienced during this time. We at the University of Denver start school September 14th, and we just have talked about obviously getting public testing, different protocols in terms of: we won’t have access to our locker room, cleaning the basketballs in between workouts, having small groups. And a lot of what we’re doing is based on recommendations from the State of Colorado, down from the University of Denver, and then, obviously, once we get to athletics, it’s definitely a few steps there. Obviously, our most important piece is just keeping our student-athletes safe and the best ways that we can go about that. It’s a little different here – once we do get on the court, we’ll have to be wearing a mask and six feet away – at Tulane, it was basically, wear a mask and you can still kind of coach and teach, having some distance in there for sure, but you would be allowed to have the full team. So I think it’s a lot of the recommendations that you’ve seen now. What’s been interesting to me is just the differences of not only the universities, but also the state and each university, trying to incorporate the state requirements for what they’re asking us to do in terms of keeping the student-athletes safe.

Dan:    Coach Harris, how about at the two-year level in Independence?

Harris:            You know, it’s a tough time going on right now at not just Independence Community College, but everywhere. And I think our school has gone above and beyond just to kind of bring in a return policy for our kids and a startup policy that kind of separates us from the rest of the community colleges. First of all, every one of our kids who came on campus who reported, whether it be football or regular student who lived in a dorm, they were testing within about 24 hours of them being here. And we got the results within 24. But I think the huge thing is just basically how we as a football staff and administration work together just to take all the different safety precautions by just piling our guys up, if you want to call it; it was a relentless effort between everybody to kind of just keep guys in smaller groups for long periods at times. Like, for instance, certain groups ate together in the cafeteria; certain groups lifted together. Normally we have two lifting groups and we divide that up between offense and defense. Well, we divided it up within about five lifting groups throughout the day. We separated the weight room by hanging a big old curtain, if you want to call it that, to kind of separate the weight room to kind of limit the numbers just in the area in general. The test results came back negative for the majority of our kids. We still quarantined them for a whole week and basically just kinda help give the town a sense of security, but also ourselves at the same time. If a kid did come up within the last month-and-a-half that they’ve been here with any kind of COVID-like symptoms, we quarantine them as well. You know, a lot of our kids when they got here, there were five hotbed States, so we had a quarantine them as well. And it was just a lot of relentless work between our staff and then when the other students and other players and athletes came on campus, the other coaches joined in and it seemed to be working out, knock on wood. Normally as coaches, we’d like to get in and get to the group and start doing things, but, you know, it was just one of the things we had to kind of sit back and reflect and say, this is how it has to be. We have a full schedule, but it kinda worked out and it’s still working out, which is good. You know, we have four kids test positive, and then two kids end up testing negative. And then the other two kids that tested positive are not on campus right now, so, wish the best and hope the best for them, but so far so good. It’s been a good situation.

Dan:    Those are a lot of steps that you’re taking. And I’m sure this is sort of a big departure for the students in terms of what they do. How do you get any sense of how it has affected their morale?

Woods:           You know, I said, this once the pandemic started, that if we’re looking for a silver lining and we’re trying to be positive about what’s happening, the fact that it’s happened in 2020 and that we have the technology, the way that we do that, we’re able to Zoom time, Instagram video messaging, facetime are a lot of different ways that we can stay connected that way. So I think the morale, it’s been ebb and flow, honestly, and I know that although basketball is considered a winter sport, we definitely still have a lot of enthusiasm for the season. But they also have empathy for their brothers and sisters who are in fall sports as well, and see what’s happening there. So I think from a basketball perspective, we’re still pretty positive. You know, everything’s changing, we’re having this conversation now and next week it could be something different, but our morale, and again, especially at the University of Denver, I haven’t been here that long, so we all are still in the getting-to-know phase. And for us, we really have just taken the approach that this has given us a chance to build our relationships and not be so stressed about basketball. But it’s ebb and flow. And I think, the empathy towards their brothers and sisters that are in fall sports, but knowing that we’re also a winter sport and there’s still a lot of basketball for us to play, knock on wood.

Kiyoshi:          I think it affected the coaches more than it did the players – realistically, there were no summer classes. They went to classes online. So, it was one of those things where our coaches who normally get a little breather, get a little break, cause the kids are in classes and they’re able to meet and so on. Now you’re adding to their plate, you’re adding a couple more weight lifting sessions, you add a smaller group, you have cafeteria checks at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it’s just a full day and agenda for an assistant coach, and it’s tough. Luckily, I have a great staff, so just to kind of keep their morale up, it wasn’t hard, you know, they’re good guys and they’re in the profession and they understand that the time that we’re in. But I think it affected the coaches more than it affects the players.

Dan:    Well, we’ve been facing this pandemic in one form or another for, I guess, over a half a year now. So looking back, how have the restrictions and concerns that we’ve had affected recruitment, donor relations, and athletic revenue, in your experience?

Woods:                       Wow. I’ll start with the recruiting piece. That’s basically the title that I’ve held the majority of my career until they named a head women’s basketball coach at Denver. And what I saw in recruiting is just a lot of for lack of a better word, “panic,” you’re recruiting some young ladies that made decisions quicker than what they would have. And what I enjoyed about my time at Tulane is we were able to take our time. Coach Stockton, the head coach there, wasn’t really big on throwing out a lot of offers. And, and in my ten years there, we had one transfer, so no one really left. But because we had the chance to be patient in our recruiting and I think that’s been affected, not just how she likes to recruit, how she taught me how to recruit, and how I want to implement it here at the University of Denver, as you feel the pressure – you want a commitment right now. And I think the players feel that too. So from a recruiting standpoint, I feel like they’ve been super-effective because of the unknown. And on top of that, when you’re dealing with young girls, teenage girls, as college coaches, I tell some of my colleagues, we can put a lot of pressure on them and they don’t even know what they’re wearing a prom next week. And in this case, they don’t even know if they’re going to have a prom. [Laughs] And, they’re asking to make these big life decisions that I think sometimes my colleagues, when we can be a little bit more patient, a little bit more understanding. But I think the pressure to make sure that they have something in hand has gotten not only to the athletes, but also some coaches as well. From the donor perspective, and just those type of relationships, it’s the unknown, I think the unknown is really starting to, I wouldn’t say “take a toll,” but people are really trying to figure out what that means for them. If you are a die-hard basketball fan or football fan, how is that going to look for you if that’s something that you enjoyed? And I think that part the university is really doing a great job of trying to keep fans engaged, trying to keep donors engaged, talking about the possibilities, ‘cause like everything, this too shall pass. And I think we just have to be ready for when it does, and make sure that we’re all still in a position to hit the ground running. So doing our part again and utilizing social media, utilizing technology that we have, to keep everybody engaged, so that even though we’re not competing right now per se, we will be ready when it’s time to compete. And these are the things that we’re doing.

Dan:    Coach Harris?

Harris: Well, we all had high hopes, but we all were basically being realistic about things that. With the season, once some of the four-year schools started canceling their season, the NCAA, you know, we knew it probably wouldn’t be long, California JUCOs canceled their season – pushed it back, I should say, pushed it back. All we did is basically flip our spring ball and our season. Our spring ball is now our fall ball, and our fall football season’s now our spring football season. So some of the kids, thought that, you know, why be here? So they kind of took off, but as far as recruitment, it kind of gave us an opportunity to evaluate our kids a little bit more this summer. And it allowed us to bring in a few extra guys that, we were still kinda in limbo in certain positions, so that wasn’t a bad thing at all. And we still have an opportunity to kind of bring in a few more guys. As far as donor relationships, all around town, people are asking me the same question. Now, most everybody knows basically that we’re playing in the spring, but we still have the community and the town support, which is good. The athletic revenue, it’s a whole different story; normally, we make our money when we’re playing, and so we’ll see. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that we actually even play in the spring. That’s the one thing that I’m hoping; I think people understand, they’re reading, they’re watching TV, and they’re seeing what’s going on around Kansas. And they’re seeing that, like Wichita just canceled their high school football, and different places at different schools are remote learning. So our kids are positive. They understand. We’re losing quite a few of them to graduation in December so that right then and there, we had to kind of go back to recruiting. It’s kind of like we had to start all over, we’re losing, I think we counted eight potential starters there, who were going to be pretty good for us. And they’re all graduating in December and they’re all taking division one big-time offers. So we had to start recruiting again to replace those guys. And so that kind of was something that, we weren’t expecting. So, like I said, there’s good and the bad, you just got to try to take the good out of it.

Barwick:         I agree – this too shall pass. When it does pass, there may be more or less permanent impacts that still affect people – psychologically, or there may be financial impacts. I wonder if you could look ahead and, say, in the short-term, one to three years, what changes, if any, do you see in athletics in terms of funding or attendance? For example, at events, recruitment, the popularity of athletics, and what might your staffing levels be? I know that’s a big question, but I’m trying to think of, what kinds of permanent changes do you envision when we come out on the other side of this?

Woods:           Honestly, Dan, all of that you just mentioned, I think you know, we’re used to having people in the stands, especially a bigger venue of something like football or obviously basketball too, and you’re in close quarters. So I think that’s going to be affected and, and, and a lot in part, because people don’t know, how the virus is going to affect them if they get it physically or if they are asymptomatic and pass it on to someone else? So I think it’s one to three years if they’re used to kind of sellouts and high attendance, and might be a little selective because even though, hopefully, a vaccine’s coming soon, people still aren’t unsure. So I think we’re still going to experience a lot of social distancing. Maybe if the arena holds, 5,000, they’re going to maybe try to get a max of 2000 in there, or whatever the case may be. So I think that way we’ll still see some changes. In addition to, as you mentioned with the staff changes, I think coming from Tulane, where there’s football and a little bit bigger athletic department, and then coming here to the University of Denver, but both programs had already seen some kind of staff adjustments and staff changes in part because of COVID. And I think that’s going to be part of it as well – the staff, I always joke when you see a team picture and try to really calculate what everybody does, everybody that’s in the suits, like, what do you do? What do you do? [Laughs].

Dan:    [Laughs] I know that feeling.

Woods:           So I think we’ll learn how to manage, and I think we’ve gotten honestly spoiled in some ways, or you’ve been able to have a lot of different roles on your staff. I think what we’re also learning is we’re capable of doing much more than we give ourselves credit for sometimes. And we think we need extra bodies and something like that. And I do think that us as coaches, and just being flexible for what that change is in athletics, I think provides a great resource to universities. You know, a lot of different ways, whether it’s to drive attendance and excitement on a national level, if we have a program that can do so. But we also know that it costs money as well. And so we’re going to have to be ready to kind of make some sacrifices so we can make sure that as a whole, we all can keep moving forward.

Dan:    Coach Harris, what do you see when you look ahead?

Harris: It’s kind of like when you’re just talking about football in general, it’s still up in the air. I believe there’s a lot of questions and what-ifs that still have to be answered and asked coming from the NCAA and so on, because you got half the NCAA playing, half the NCAA not playing as far as division one levels. So what’s going to happen. You know, are you talking about the championship games, national championships, are you talking about, just get kids getting drafted? It’s a lot deeper than what most people are thinking about. I heard [University of Alabama head football coach] Nick Saban the other day say something when he was being interviewed, that if we play in the spring it’s gonna be like being a JV team, basically, ‘cause all his kids are going to graduate and be gone, and get drafted. So that being said, it’s very similar to what we’re experiencing at the same time. A lot of kids are kind of like, okay, should I graduate in December? Do I still have an opportunity to play? You know, do I need some more film? What’s going on? Is it, having fall ball? Is that going to be enough? You know, there’s so many what-ifs now there’s rumors going out there that right now that the NCAA’s looking at possibly eliminating ACT and SAT scores for another year for 2021 graduates. That affects junior college football, of course. We lost probably about four or five guys, impact guys, from the 2020 class that were able to take their division one scholarships just because they didn’t have to have the SAT scores this past year. So there’s a lot of things, Dan, that you know, we have to look at and we’re just waiting. We’re like playing the waiting game right now because a lot of it has to do with the NCAA. I see some schools looking at this as an opportunity to kind of eliminate football, sports in general. You know, some schools, some California schools, I think that they might be in some trouble because you’re looking at a population of probably like 20,000 students that go to school. You know, it’d be easy for them to eliminate football. I think the Jayhawk and the Midwest schools, the Kansas schools, are a little bit different. I think they’re going to need the athletics to kind of like, keep, not really keep the doors open, but to survive with enrollment. I think the Kansas schools will be okay. Community colleges would be okay. As far as attendance, that’s another thing that’s still up in the air. You have some conferences at the division, one level saying they’re gonna allow spectators and fans, and other conferences saying that they’re going to eliminate or only allow a certain amount, a certain percent of fans. I think it kind of a lot of has to do with the state right now. I think they’re using the high schools kind of as the guinea pigs right now to kind of see, how that’s gonna end up working out. And so I think hopefully with a few more months underneath our belt – we don’t play to the end of March – that our fans will be secure about coming, watching us play, depending on where we’re at in this country with the pandemic. But it’s still – lots in the air still, Dan. I can’t even tell you, there’s still a lot of people in this country, including myself, that are worried. You talk to different people, and they had the coronavirus and it’s one of those things that, of course knock on wood, I don’t want. And then you hear about all the scary stories, about basically the venues and the different concerts, and you know what I’m saying, going to the bars and the gyms, and probably the sports activities are going to be added to that too at the same time. So what it does for community college football, it could be scary, just because some schools don’t need football and that’s the sad part about it. We already lost the Arizona schools and, we can’t afford to lose any more schools, just in community college football in general. But, hopefully, the Jayhawk schools and the Kansas community colleges, they kind of stick together and realize that, we just got to kind of get past this and we’ll get back to the norm.

Dan:    My guests have been Doshia Woods, head women’s basketball coach at the University of Denver, and Kiyoshi Harris, head football coach at Independence Community College. Coach Woods, thanks for that perspective. I wish you the best in the upcoming year.

Woods:           Thank you so much for having me, Dan. I appreciate it. Thank you.

Dan:    Kiyoshi Harris, thanks for providing the two-year college perspective. I really appreciate your being here.

Harris: I appreciate you, Dan.

Dan:    Thanks for joining me. Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, or suggestions for content that you’d like to hear about. You can reach me at mortarboardpodcast@gmail.com. Consider stopping by my blog, Mortarboard blog.com. The blog contains links to stories that I think will interest you, podcast transcripts, and articles I’ve written. You can also like me on Facebook at Dr. Daniel Barwick, or follow me on Twitter @DanielBarwick. Looking forward to talking with you in the next episode.