While most undergraduate students at Washington State met a grim reality on Thursday when the school decided to close the Pullman campus for in-person instruction, there still might be a silver lining for Cougar athletes.
Up until Friday, WSU’s athletic department hadn’t released new coronavirus-testing results due to university policy, but athletic director Pat Chun provided the school’s first update in more than a month, reporting only three positive COVID-19 tests — of 216 total — since teams returned for voluntary workouts in early June.
Two of the three positive tests came from student-athletes that were re-entering campus, while the third contracted the virus from a roommate, Chun told reporters on a conference call Friday afternoon.
“Depending on their arrival, most if not all of our student-athletes have been tested multiple times,” Chun said, “so our positive rate is below 1%.”
So far, the university’s transition to a distance-learning approach this fall has not impacted athletics and Chun expressed confidence that the Cougars would be able to begin fall-sports seasons, presuming WSU doesn’t see a drastic change in COVID-19 testing numbers.
“We’re working towards the fall semester here and fall sports, with our Pac-12 colleagues,” Chun said. “The rate we’re headed in Pullman right now, we feel food about our chances to get fall sports going sometime in September. As many of us know, this is a day-to-day, week-to-week type of environment.”
WSU also benefits from being “isolated,” Chun said, and the AD noted Whitman County has recorded only 78 positive tests — easily the lowest number in the conference.
“I think everyone is doing their best, I think the numbers in our league are actually pretty good when you see across the board with the 12 schools and how they’re managing testing,” Chun said. “We’re cautiously optimistic, but we just know how dynamic this environment is and how things change quickly. … We feel great about our chances of getting ready for all of our fall sports.”
If conditions allow the Cougars and their Pac-12 Conference peers to play football this fall, games will tentatively start on Sept. 19 according to a Thursday report from the San Jose Mercury-News. Using that schedule as a template, WSU would therefore begin preseason camp — its first under new coach Nick Rolovich — sometime in mid-August.
It’s unclear if Whitman County would need to move into Phase Four of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopen strategy in order to hold full-contact football activities, and Chun said the school would first follow guidance from the Pac-12 before getting clearance from area health officials.
“I guess the first step is just working through the Pac-12 to decide when is the appropriate time to start those types of activities,” Chun said. “It’s well-documented every state is in a different phase. I think we’ve been more focused on what is the uniform date in which we could start, and then once we get those dates identified, then we’ll start working with local and state health officials to make sure we’re compliant with everything.”
The football scheduling model reported Thursday by Mercury-News columnist Jon Wilner gives the conference flexibility to delay the start of the season, or shift dates if necessary, but the conference hasn’t determined when it would need to pull the plug on the season if the situation worsened.
Because Pac-12 teams would only play 10 regular-season games, with two bye weeks, and because the conference has the option to move its title game to the third week of December, season openers could theoretically take place in October.
“Time is probably the most important variable we have,” Chun said. “The schedule, the models we are looking at does provide us some time as well as the decision to delay the start of fall sports. So, when is the exact time? What is the date that we have to decide by? I don’t have that answer for you, just because this environment changes day to day, it feels like.”
Chun also addressed the conundrum of fan attendance during his conference call, assuring “today we don’t have anything to put forward” when asked how many fans the Cougars would allow for home games inside Martin Stadium.
“We’ve done some modeling,” he said, “but really we’ll err on the side of caution wherever we end up.”
Supplementing Wilner’s report that the Pac-12 would follow a 10-game conference-only schedule, Stadium’s Brett McMurphy reported who each team would play in its additional game. According to McMurphy, WSU would meet USC, one of the two Pac-12 South teams it wasn’t originally scheduled to play.
Because the Cougars have five home games already scheduled and the Trojans just four, it’s likely WSU would be traveling to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for its 10th game of the season.