Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
UA coaches react to season shutdown
Head coach of the University of Arkansas women's basketball team Mike Neighbors is pictured November 8, 2019 during his teams 82-52 victory of New Orleans.
FAYETTEVILLE The spring of 2020 will be remembered most for coronavirus, but for some University of Arkansas coaches and athletes it will also be remembered for what might have been.
The NCAA’s decision to cancel all of its championship events, coupled with the SEC’s decision to ban all competition through April 15 either ended or postponed the seasons for 14 of the Razorbacks’ 19 programs, including several that were having strong campaigns.
Only the UA’s fall sports - football, soccer, volleyball and cross country - have not had an interruption to their seasons, although football and soccer have had spring practices postponed as result of the SEC’s decision Friday to cancel all team activities through at least April 15.
Arkansas’ men’s and women’s track teams were in Albuquerque, N.M., on Thursday when they received word this weekend’s NCAA indoor track and field championship had been canceled, ending their season. Also gearing up for the NCAA postseason was the Razorbacks’ women’s basketball team, ranked No. 24 by The Associated Press and a perceived lock to play in its first NCAA Tournament in five years.
“This team worked so hard to get to this point,” women’s coach Mike Neighbors said in a statement, “and an NCAA berth meant so much to this program this year.”
With records of 11-5 and 18-6, respectively, Arkansas’ baseball and softball teams were ranked in the top 25 nationally at the time of the shutdown. The outdoor track and field season, during which the Razorbacks are a perennial contender on the conference and national levels, had yet to begin.
And while Arkansas’ men’s basketball team was considered a long shot to make the NCAA Tournament, its 20th win of the season over Vanderbilt in the first round of the SEC Tournament on Wednesday kept its hopes alive.
“My heart particularly breaks for our seniors Adrio Bailey, Jamario Bell, Jeantal Cylla and Jimmy Whitt,” first-year men’s basketball coach Eric Musselman said in a statement. “Those guys helped us establish a culture for our program that will help us in numerous ways moving forward so we thank them from the bottom of our hearts.”
Reports Friday stated the NCAA was prepared to provide an extra year of eligibility for players in spring sports such as baseball and softball, but has yet to decide whether players in winter sports - which at Arkansas include basketball, gymnastics, indoor track and swimming and diving - would be afforded the same opportunity. Most spring sports were in the first half of their regular seasons, while winter sports had completed their regular seasons.
The shutdown’s impact on seniors was on the mind of UA athletics director Hunter Yurachek on Friday afternoon when he met with reporters.
“You had some seniors that were prepared to compete for Southeastern Conference championships, some that had trained very hard to compete for national championships, and that’s been taken away from them,” Yurachek said.
“I’m not sure as I walked around the Jones Center today, that it’s sunk in for most of our student-athletes yet, that realism that their careers, especially if you’re a senior, may have come to an abrupt ending.”
While the SEC has yet to cancel the seasons for all sports, as most other conferences have done, most spring seasons at Arkansas are already finished. The SEC men’s and women’s tennis championships were scheduled for April 15, as was the league’s women’s golf tournament. The men’s golf tournament was scheduled for April 22.
“I am devastated for our team,” women’s golf coach Shauna Taylor said in a statement. “You work so hard to put yourself in a position to compete during the season, and to have that taken away is heartbreaking.”
The likely end of all sports at Arkansas until the fall semester could have an economic effect on the Razorbacks’ head coaches, who have competitive bonuses included in their contracts that won’t be accessible to some this year. Most UA coaches also have language in their contracts that would trigger a one-year contract extension.
For women’s track coach Lance Harter, a top-10 finish at the NCAA indoor meet would have extended his contract through 2025, while Neighbors was in line to receive at least a $25,000 bonus for his team playing in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.
“I think it was very evident to all of us that our women’s basketball team would receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament, so Coach Neighbors and his staff that was eligible for bonuses, (and) we’ll proceed with those,” Yurachek said. “Then we’ll address the others on a case-by-case basis.”
Yurachek met with his head coaches Friday and said all were “in shock but I think they’re very understanding of what we’re going through as a country and really as a world right with the coronavirus.
"So I think they’re very understanding, but obviously they’re disappointed as well. They’re disappointed for our student-athletes because they know how hard they’ve pushed them, how hard our student-athletes have trained, and what this means to them to not have the opportunity to continue to compete.”
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