As the Coronavirus spread last March, we witnessed the United States impose stay-at-home mandates and shut down all non-essential activity. This, of course, included Seton Hall Athletics.
Pirates athletic director Bryan Felt spoke about the 2020 Big East Tournament and the domino effect he witnessed with sports across the country shutting down. He also shared the many ways that the athletics department has implemented protocols to ensure safety as students returned to campus for the Fall 2020 semester.
Matthew Ortiz: To start off with, back in early 2020, when was the first time that you had heard about the COVID-19 pandemic?
Bryan Felt: I was in February 2020. I was traveling a good amount and I tend to usually travel pretty good amount during basketball season. So at that time, I remember hearing about it over in China on the news. In late February, I traveled to Milwaukee and I took my son with me. I have a 16-year-old son and my oldest son came with me to this Seton Hall-Marquette basketball game. We flew out of there early because he’s looking at colleges right now, and we want to look at Marquette. And I remember flying and seeing so many people that were wearing masks. Usually you see one or two, but I was like “wow, I’m seeing more masks than usual.”
MO: And at what point did the potential impact of the virus affect Seton Hall Athletics altogether? Were there meetings, or things of that nature?
BF: A couple days before the Big East tournament was about to start, we started engaging in conversations as there was a conference saying: “Well, you know… We gotta be mindful of some things coming this way, is really any specific precautions we should put in place? You know, let’s be mindful.” But it’s funny, as I think back to it, it really did all happen so fast. Cases started popping up more frequently, and New York City was starting to have some, so there was definitely mindfulness about it. But everybody got to the city. All 10 teams are there, and tournaments are happening across the country.
The first day of the tournament is a Wednesday night. There’s two games, and those games went off without a hitch. That Wednesday night after the games are done, we were in meetings throughout the night saying, “OK, this is now an issue,” because we’re starting to see conferences delay, no fans, no fans. We had actually agreed to do no fans. We said, “Alright, we’re going to make it announcement that the next day is going to be no fans, just essential staff.” And then all of a sudden, within that three-hour span of like noon to 3:00 o’clock, you went from our game cancelled at halftime, to college games across the country just being stopped or cancelled or just ceasing to exist. And then soon after that, (Rudy Golbert) pops, Duke and Kansas say they’re not gonna take part in the tournament, and then maybe through two more hours after that, the NCAA Tournament is cancelled. All within a five-hour window. It was like a tidal wave, you know? There was no stopping it.
— Seton Hall Athletics (@SHUAthletics) February 28, 2021
MO: Was there like a specific moment that the gravity of the situation had started to hit? Like were you in a certain room? Was it somebody talking to you in a meeting?
BF: I go back to Wednesday night. We’re back at the hotel. The President (Joseph E. Nyre), myself, the University’s chief of staff (Pat Lyons), and some of our athletic department administrators, are all huddled up in a private banquet room. When we got to that level, we were having these calls throughout the night making changes and alterations, (and) it was definitely resonating with me that this was gonna be a bigger deal. But we still felt we had a solution. “OK, no fans, we’ll be able to get through this.”
It wasn’t until the Thursday morning that it really kind of hit me like a brick. We’re back on the phones again Thursday morning… In fact, we met in person and then had got on the phone soon after, and it was, “OK. We have to call this game off because so much is now happening, and we’re seeing so many tournaments, cancel or postpone. We got to shut this down.” And even at first, it was like, “Oh, maybe we’ll just shut it down and something will change.” But I think we soon realized that this is not going to change, like we’re cancelling the tournament. I think that’s when it personally hit home, because I was literally in New York City, that was at our team hotel, I was blocks away from the garden, and I knew we were stopping play.
But the funny thing is, you still have that thing in the back of your head: “OK, well there’s still the NCAA tournament”… Which is bizarre, now, to say that we were thinking that way. Because then, of course, in reality, three more hours later, the NCAA tournament was cancelled.
And I actually remember that vividly because I thought we had everything kind of squared away. We sent all of our teams home to our respective campuses, and I was in an Uber on my way home to my house in Jersey, and I get another message saying we have another emergency meeting and there’s rumors that the NCAA might be cancelling the tournament. And I’m like, “No… Oh my god.” I literally walk in my house, said hi to my wife and kids real quick, then get on a zoom call, and the NCAA shut down and I was like, “Wow.”
MO: So the impact of the NCAA tournament shutting down, in terms of how it affected you and the different staff around here, what was that feeling like?
BF: I was incredibly sad. I was so sad for the kids, our student athletes. Our men’s basketball team, specifically, I thought had a very bright future, and a chance to do something that the school doesn’t have a chance to do every day, and that’s making nice run in the NCAA Tournament. I know that’s what they dreamt of doing, so that’s really why I think it depressed me a little bit. But at the end of the day, we kept the central focus, which was their safety; all of our safety.
MO: In terms of the initial quarantine period, so I guess from March to June, were there any type of virtual events or activities that were being held by anything in the athletics department?
BF: Yeah, so our first inclination was, “how can we continue to communicate with our kids and provide them with some type of experience, knowing that this is so crazy?” I remember saying this in a staff meeting: Our student athletes are creatures of habit. Student athletes by nature are very structured. They’re organized because they know they have a lot to juggle; schoolwork, training, watching film, whatever it might be. They’re used to being in this building (the Seton Hall Recreation Center) a few hours every single day. Athletes coming into this building because they think they’re going to get treatment, or going to the lockers, they’ve got practice; whatever it might be, they’re used to it. What can we do to give them that familiarity, knowing that they can’t be on campus?
So that was immediately what we went to action on. We started doing virtual strength and conditioning classes; so they could go on Zoom and take a yoga class, they could take strength or weightlifting if they were able to do that at home, things like that. And we made them public so that everybody could view them. In fact, we did some on Instagram live. We did zoom sessions where they could get on with their academic advisors. The coaches all held team meetings on zoom right away. And then we did a couple different virtual programs. We did our virtual student athlete award ceremony in April on Zoom. We had a couple career counseling sessions. Everything we could possibly think of, we were trying to do it. We were trying to give them some kind of connection. We needed them. It was important.
MO: So after the remote spring semester, at one point did serious talks come in terms of sports returning?
BF: By early June, we were getting prepared to come back for the fall, knowing that the school was going to be trying to do this hybrid situation. Almost two or three times a week, I was on conference calls with the Big East about what every institution was doing.
The men came back in mid-July, and women came back late-July. And we looked at, “OK. Here’s what we can do testing-wise when they arrive. Here’s how we prepare.” We had put up all this wayfinding signage, we put up all these sanitation stations, like “here’s what we’re going to do. This will be a great dry run, if you will, with about 30 kids total between the two teams.” So we did that. The school worked so great with us on that; really helped us because they wanted to get ready in their own way too for the fall, so we were kind of a test run for that. We brought all of our student athletes back around the same time as our general students. And it was following those same practices and going about everything we learned in July and early August with basketball to see how we would conduct this stuff, how we run the building, and do all these kinds of things. And this staff met nonstop throughout the summer trying to prepare for that.
What is a better way to celebrate 12 conference wins, a 3rd place finish and a 1,000 point scorer all in one night?? 💦💦 pic.twitter.com/HbuxbmnOap
— Seton Hall Women’s Basketball (@SHUWBB) March 2, 2021
MO: In terms of some of the biggest challenges when it comes to sports coming back in the fall, was there anything that stood out to you in particular?
Bryan Felt: Well, the biggest thing was: “How can we make sure we do this safely?” And if we’re going to try and compete. Now we didn’t compete in the fall, in anything. The Big East decided to not do fall sports. So knowing that, we said, “OK, well that’s great. How can we provide training to all of our athletes to prepare for their winter and spring seasons, and do so in a safe manner?” And I’d like to say, I thought we did an exceptional job. We did some training, we did physicals with the kids when they got here, they went through testing, we made sure that the building was as safe of an environment as we could provide. But it wasn’t just teams, it was also general students that we had to make sure we were providing all of the fitness for in a safe way.
MO: Now that we’re officially a year into this pandemic, is there any specific lesson that you’ve learned amidst just trying to keep the ship together here, in terms everything regarding the sports department?
BF: I tell you what, you realize the importance of communication with people when they have these kinds of things happen. It’s more beneficial to get as many people in the loop as possible on some of these kinds of issues because it helps. For example, I gotta be honest with you, I have a senior staff. It’s about seven people that are the senior staff of this department, and I made every decision together with them. And I actually thought that was something I learned as being pretty important, because I felt like this was something we hadn’t done before. I mean, I could make every decision myself, but it was actually a benefit for me to hear their feedback and have them be part of these decisions. And our trainers needed to be included, so it was important to make sure you include the right people for these decisions because it was something so unique.
MO: And specifically talking for March of 2021 now, the COVID vaccinations. Now, millions of Americans are finally being able to get them. But are there any protocols that are going to come in place in terms of making vaccinations mandatory? Whether it’s for staff or students when we’re eventually able to get them?
BF: So that’s a great question. That’s what we’re talking about right now on the conference level of, you know, “how are we going to be moving forward? Are vaccinations going to be mandatory to start playing the fall?” I don’t know. We’ve told all of our student athletes: “If you can get vaccinated, get vaccinated.” We’ve also told our staff. Essex County and New Jersey have been very active in making sure that Essex County employees are vaccinated if they can, so we’ve done it. We’ve tried to really push that to all of our folks, saying “if you can get vaccinated, get vaccinated.” That’s going to be on each of those people to do so.
And we’re still trying to get through these spring seasons, right now. I mean we have 12 teams playing right now. Twelve sports are going on at one time, never happens. When both basketball teams were going, we had 14 sports happening at one time. Very unique and unusual, and tons of challenges with that. I think we’re trying to get through that, and then figure out what the future looks like.
MO: Last question. So correct me if my math is wrong here, but you’ve now been the Seton Hall athletic director amidst a pandemic longer than pre-covid.
BF: (Laughs) So I think I’ve been here like a year and a half? Yeah, and a year of that has been pandemic. Yeah, it’s been awful. (Laughs)
MO: (Laughs) Yeah so does that have any impact on you in realizing that?
BF: Oh I think about all the time. It’s funny because I’m a Seton Hall person. I went to Seton Hall, I worked here before, so there was so much excitement in coming back. And quite frankly, I was having a great first six months back. I was really enjoying it. And then to have this happen…
You know what, part of me also says that there’s no place else I’d rather be if this situation had to happen. I feel very home here. I know the people here, I have relationships with people here. In a sense, I’m almost like, “If this pandemic was happening, I’m fortunate that I was here in a place that I feel very comfortable.”
But at the same time, I would have done anything to not have a pandemic, obviously. But it’s unique to think that this was how I get off the ground in my career back here at Seton Hall in this position. But you know what, it’s one I will never forget.