It was two weeks ago that University of Tulsa Director of Athletics Derrick Gragg boarded for a bus trip that started with the hopes of an American Athletic Conference men’s basketball championship and concluded with no basketball being played at all.
Gragg met with media via video teleconference Wednesday for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic paused the sports world for at least the rest of the academic year.
“It’s been an incredible time,” Gragg said. “The word we’ve been using — and you’ve probably heard it a lot — is unprecedented, because a lot of us have been in this business — and you’ve been in your business for a long time — but we’ve never encountered or seen anything like this.”
On March 11, Gragg left a meeting with TU athletics staff about how they could still continue the spring sports season after the university announced the day before that all classes would be online for the rest of the semester because of COVID-19 precautions. He left the meeting with plans of still playing spring sports, but without fans at home competitions.
At 2 p.m. that day, Gragg boarded the Golden Hurricane men’s basketball team’s bus to travel about 300 miles to Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, where the American Athletic Conference Tournament was scheduled to start Thursday. The day before departure, Gragg celebrated TU’s regular-season AAC title and cut down the nets at the Reynolds Center with the basketball team.
Before the team made it to Fort Worth to try to capture another conference title, “SportsCenter” playing on the bus TVs alerted Gragg and everyone else onboard that the NCAA Tournament was still scheduled to be played, but with no fans in attendance.
“We’re all trying to adjust on the fly,” Gragg recalled. “Just from hearing that, and decided, ‘Hey, obviously, the safety is most important. If that’s what the NCAA has decided, then that’s what we’ll do.’
“At that time, we felt like we did need to do a little bit more work in the conference tournament. We felt like we needed to win one game. We were actually hoping that we’d get a chance to play Memphis because they were higher ranked and higher regarded, and if we can beat them, then we’d be in the NCAA Tournament, so we were already fast forwarding to, ‘Hey, we’re going to get into this tournament, we’re not going to play with no fans.’”
TU never tipped off a postseason game, though. On the morning of March 12, AAC commissioner Michael Aresco met with conference officials and university athletic directors in the bowels of Dickies Arena and ultimately decided to cancel the tournament, as was the NCAA Tournament. TU’s stay in Fort Worth was less than 24 hours, as the team quickly headed back to Tulsa without Gragg, who stayed to attend more meetings.
“I just feel bad for the student-athletes because all the time that they put into this thing,” Gragg said. “Basketball, in particular, as you know, is a very long season. And then for our two seniors, they had never been to postseason play before. We knew we were going to make postseason play. I think we were definitely a lock for the NIT, and again, we thought we needed to do some work in the conference tournament.”
During the two weeks since, all spring sports have been canceled across the country. Monday, TU announced the cancellation of its spring football game scheduled for April 4, as well as its remaining 11 spring practices.
“We have to just keep things in perspective,” Gragg said. “It’s harder for younger people to do that, but at the end of the day, we’re very concerned about them and their health, and the best decisions were made along those lines.”