The University of Hawaii’s 2020 football season is the latest victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Citing health and safety concerns, the Mountain West Conference, of which UH is a football-only member, announced on Monday the postponement of its fall-sports schedule. The 12-school league kept open the possibility of playing the football season during the spring semester, although re-starting conditions have yet to be determined.
“Sad day,” said UH athletic director David Matlin, whose Rainbow Warriors were scheduled to open the abbreviated football season against Robert Morris University on Sept. 26.
Head coach Todd Graham, who relayed the news to his players on Monday morning, said: “My heart goes out to them today. This is tough.”
But Graham offered a hopeful outlook, saying, “It’s how you respond to these things. You’re going to have setbacks. You’re going to get knocked down. You have to keep getting back up. It was a tough call, but at the same hand, we’ve got to do what’s best for our players.”
The Mountain West decision appeared to be inevitable.Two weeks ago, the Division II PacWest Conference, of which three Hawaii schools are members, postponed its fall-sports seasons. Last week, Connecticut, which competes as a Division I independent, opted to cancel its football season. Early Monday, there were reports two Power Five conferences — the Big Ten and Pac-12 — were prepared to postpone fall competition.
The Mountain West’s postponement comes without the Warriors having conducted a single helmeted practice under Graham, who was hired as Nick Rolovich’s successor in January. The Warriors had six weeks of strength/conditioning workouts through March, when spring training and the annual spring game were canceled because of the pandemic.
The Warriors resumed NCAA-approved workouts in early July. The Warriors were set to open training camp on July 31. But that start was postponed three times — the last delay announced a week ago when the Mountain West decided to limit each team’s regular- season schedule to eight league and two nonconference opponents. With cancellations by the first four nonconference opponents, the Warriors were prepared to open against Robert Morris.
The Warriors appeared to be ready to meet conditions to play. Matlin said there were proposals to use private donations and UH’s medical school to help defray the costs of weekly COVID testing for each player. The Warriors also looked into different seating models for games at Aloha Stadium, ranging from empty stands to full capacity.
But the presidents of the Mountain West schools, citing spikes in coronavirus cases and stricter government guidelines to contain infections, decided it would be better not to play football this fall. UH President David Lassner said it was a “collective decision by Mountain West presidents focused on the health and well being of our campuses.”
When — or if — the season resumes will depend largely on such factors as availability of therapeutic treatments, travel safety, advances in testing and government guidelines, according to Lassner.
Matlin said UH included an opt-out option in its contract with FCS member Robert Morris, which was signed as a replacement for Fordham. Matlin said he has had favorable discussions with New Mexico State, a nonconference opponent that is signed to a multiyear series with the Warriors.
Matlin said there is no timetable as to when the Warriors can resume conditioning drills.
“We’re going to take a breath right now and look at what our next best steps are,” Matlin said. “We do know that we want to engage with our student- athletes. We’re going to take a little bit of time this week to formulate what our best plan is. We have to look at guidance from the Mountain West and the NCAA and our medical experts. I believe there are activities we can do that are safe and healthy for them.”
The postponement might affect the athletic department’s bottom line. According to the figures from the fiscal year ending in June 2019, the last audited budget, the football program earned nearly $10 million in direct revenue, such as ticket sales, guarantees and promotional sales. The UH athletic department’s annual budget is about $50 million.
Lassner indicated financial concerns of two primary sources — state funding and tuition — might hinder the university’s ability to supplement revenue shortfalls caused by the postponement.
But Lassner maintained UH will not increase tuition, insisting such a move “isn’t remotely on the table.”
UH also will assess the refund amount for the so-called sports fee. Each student pays $50 each semester in exchange for access to sporting events. UH still might have some activities during the fall semester. The Big West has not decided if its winter sports — which include the two UH basketball teams — would start the season on time in November.