By Michael Kinney
After skating through the first couple of months of the semester without having any major COVID-19 outbreaks, the University of Oklahoma Athletic Department got hit hard last week. The athletic department felt the need to postpone one football game and cancel three men’s and women’s basketball games all due to COVID-19.
It wasn’t until Monday evening that the public began to get a better understanding of exactly why when the university’s athletic department released its weekly COVID-19 test numbers. Out of 250 student-athletes and 201 athletic staff members, 35 individuals across all sports tested positive for COVID-19 between Nov. 22-28. That’s 27 more than the prior week.
“I would say it’s affected all parts of our program,” OU football coach Lincoln Riley said Tuesday. “Staff, support staff — we have one branch of our support staff that’s pretty much been wiped out. We had to bring in some outside help. The players, obviously. It’s hit us all a little bit. Whether it’s an equipment manager, a trainer, a coach, you have to have plans, you have to have backup plans in case those things happen. We’ve had those.”
That backup plan for the Riley included enlisting the help of former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. He has stepped in to assist his protégé this week.
“We brought Coach Stoops out of retirement today,” Riley said. “It’s been kind of in our hip pocket this whole time, if we had any staff member that fell off, we got a Hall of Famer sitting on the bench. It was great to have him out there today. I think he had some fun as well.”
The cancelations started Nov. 25. The OU women were in the middle of their season opener against Houston when the university sent out a statement announcing the cancelation of the men’s season opener, which was scheduled for that night, due to positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing
Later that same day, university officials informed the public that the Sooners football game scheduled Nov. 28 at West Virginia was also being postponed due to COVID-19 test and contact tracing as well.
“In accordance with Big 12 Conference football game interruption guidelines, the Oklahoma at West Virginia game scheduled for Nov. 28 has been postponed,” Oklahoma said in a statement. “The game will be rescheduled on Dec. 12. The time and television designation will be announced when available. The Oklahoma football program has temporarily paused organized team activities due to recent positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing.”
One day after losing to Houston, the OU women announced their trip to South Dakota for the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic was canceled. The Sooners were scheduled to face Gonzaga, South Carolina and South Dakota over the three-day event.
It wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon when Riley spoke after practice that a coach or official from OU spoke to the media.
Of the 35 positive tests, there is no way to know for sure which ones are athletes or even which team they are on. The university made the decision when the semester started to keep those breakdowns in-house.
However, according to OU, the positivity rate for student-athletes in the latest tests hit nine percent. That ties the mark the athletic department set in the first week of testing three months ago. After the second week, it had never been higher than two percent until now.
Riley said he was not one of the staff members who tested positive. But even as diligent as he is in wearing his masks, he still has apprehension when taking his daily swab test for COVID-19.
“We had one staff member that was positive in August and then up until 7-8-9 days ago, we hadn’t had one the entire time. It’s quite a few people. I don’t know if I had as much anxiety when we were having all of that success but now seeing all the coaches across the country test positive – several that I know and have talked to – and I think several of them are like I’ve tried to do,” Riley said. “The only time I don’t have a mask on is when I’m eating or when I go to sleep. I know a lot of these other guys have done the same thing and still gotten the virus. Do I have anxiety when I take it? Yeah. Absolutely.”
After pausing activities for a few days, the entire athletic program is looking to get back into their schedule of games. As of Dec. 1, the Oklahoma men’s basketball team will finally start its season Thursday with a rescheduled matchup with UTSA. Saturday the women’s basketball team will be in Athens, Ga. for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
But all of those games are dependent on whether there is another outbreak among the Sooners or their opponents this week.
While all of this was going on at OU, Mayor Breea Clark and the Norman City Council announced it was putting in new COVID-19 restrictions that could affect the Sooners going forward.
Clark enacted a proclamation Monday that will severely limit the number of fans at indoor sporting events. Until further notice, no more than one spectator per athlete is allowed in gyms or arenas for games.
Also, temperature checks are now required and all coaches, game officials, staff, and spectators must wear a mask at all times.
“I’m hoping other mayors will follow suit and make some changes as well because the current path we’re on is clearly not sustainable if we actually care about trying to slow the spread,” Clark said.
However, according the Oklahoma, it will continue to follow its own attendance policy. It currently calls for 25 percent maximum capacity at indoor games.
Yet, Dr. Dale Bratzler, the University of Oklahoma’s Chief COVID Officer, agreed with new restrictions put in place.
“With the marked increase in COVID case counts over the past three weeks and the surge of hospital admissions, there is a need to move from strategies that rely on “containment,” such as contact tracing and isolation, to “mitigation strategies” that force social distancing and compliance with mask ordinances,” Bratzler said. “Until we have a broadly distributed vaccine to prevent COVID-19, the risk of virus transmission in places where there are large indoor gatherings, including parties, conferences, religious events and sporting events, and in settings where patrons routinely remove their masks, such as restaurants and bars, remains high.”
The OU football team is scheduled to return to the gridiron Saturday when they will host Baylor in their final home game of the season. There is no word on if Stoops will be back on the sideline for the game.
“When Lincoln (Riley) asked me if I’d be willing to help in a coaching role while he was a little short-handed I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Certainly I’m happy to do anything I can to assist the team for however long I’m asked to. But obviously with me being away from the day-to-day activities of the program for a while now, my input will be minimal,” Stoops said. “If I can add some enthusiasm or positive energy for these players — and I do know most of them — that’s a good thing. But let’s not get carried away. The people that will influence this game and the rest of our games this season will be Coach Riley, his staff and the players. I’m just going to do my best to help out however I can while keeping a low profile.”
Michael Kinney Media