Episode 10: Charles McClelland, SWAC Commissioner

Cody Junot (00:01):
Welcome to A New Gameday, powered by Nevco, changing the game with scoreboards, video displays and scoring solutions. I’m your host, Cody Junot and in this podcast series, we’re going to talk with college, athletic administrators and leaders about A New Gameday. We’ll discuss what that new gameday’s going to look like, what it’s going to feel like and how athletic administrators are adapting to our ever-changing world. Pleased to be joined by Southwestern Athletic Conference Commissioner Dr. Charles McClelland. Really appreciate you taking the time, how’s everybody in Birmingham? How’s everybody at the SWAC?

Charles McClelland (00:33):
Everybody’s doing well. Cody, we’re in a hotspot here in Birmingham, but everybody’s doing well.

Cody Junot (00:40):
That’s great to hear. So, throughout this pandemic, Dr. McClelland, how often have the SWAC athletic directors, conference officials, presidents, chancellors been meeting and discussing the different options?

Charles McClelland (00:53):
You know, we’ve zoomed ourselves out as far as communication was concerned. And the irony of it is Cody, we had all types of plans. You know, we had plans to start on time. We had plans to push it back a week or two. We had plans to push it back with a drop dead date of October 17th. And all of these plans have been discussed and solidified. We put our COVID-19 advisory panel together filled with medical experts and individuals on campus on how to reopen. We’ve had weekly calls with all of the conference commissioners around the nation and were just trying to get all of the pertinent information that we possibly could to make an informed decision. And we wanted to strategically wait to a certain period before we made a final decision on what we were going to do. So about two weeks ago, we agreed as a conference to postpone our student-athletes actually coming in for summer conditioning and workouts. So we gave ourselves a little bit of a cushion to be able to make this decision this week by virtue of we had no student-athletes on campus. So again, keeping the health and safety as the number one priority, but also giving us as much time as we could possibly afford to give ourselves to make a logical and competent decision.

Cody Junot (02:16):
Sure. You talk about the multitude of options you listed out there. But when it came specifically to the spring, when did that really start to make more sense? When did it start to pick up more steam that that’s kind of the inevitability of where we were going to be headed?

Charles McClelland (02:34):
About two weeks ago. In our original plan, we talked about October 17th being the drop dead date. So if you do the math and you count backwards-in order for us to get to that October 17th date, that would have meant that we needed to have start our conditioning and practicing somewhere around the third week or the second week in August. So given the amount of time that it would have taken for us to get our student athletes up to par to be able to play and then you count six to seven weeks to October 17th, that meant that we had to be full strength three weeks from now. And it became very clear to us a couple of weeks ago that we were not going to be able to meet that deadline. So again, our plan has been and always was October 17th was our drop dead date.

Charles McClelland (03:23):
And we could not play by October 17th, then we felt like spring was our only option. So about two weeks ago is when this really picked up steam and we started to have very detailed conversations about spring. And then we hurriedly realized that it’s time to enact our spring plan. So our chair of athletic athletic directors, Ashley Robinson kind of led the charge, got all of the athletic directors together. They were able to agree on the plan. And that is what we have ultimately said that we’re going to move forward on six conference games, one non-conference game at the discretion of the institution. Ultimately what we tried to do, Cody was fit it within a spring football concept. So everybody knows that you have spring football. So people talk about the challenges of overlaying fall sports on spring, but we felt like we had a blueprint because we have spring football anyway, they’re practicing although it’s not a full season practice schedule and a full season playing schedule but there were some precedents that were set. We know how to lay that spring football on top of our already existing spring sports. So it seemed to be a workable plan. The athletic directors bought into it, the coaches bought into it and we still have some work to do, but we feel like it’s a viable path forward.

Cody Junot (04:53):
No, and that leads in perfectly to my next question. So you talk about that October date and to your point, as you started looking at the calendar and doing the math and realize that the spring is really the only viable option, what research and groundwork did go into deciding on those dates? You mentioned, it’s going to begin with an eight-week training period in January of 2021. So what does that look like? And then deciding on the six, possibly a seventh playing date outside of trying to fit it into the traditional spring window, which is just 15 practices and it’s spread out over a number of dates. You know, what research kind of went into that, that ultimately, you know, allowed your team to settle on an eight week practice plan leading into the six or seventh game?

Charles McClelland (05:42):
Well, we took a lot of information and a lot of guidance from the NCAA, clearly COVID-19 is going to dictate how this plan actually lays itself out and whether or not we’re going to be able to do everything that we said we want to do, but we wanted first of all, to make sure that our players have requisite amount of time to get themselves into football playing shape. Now, keep in mind we are anticipating all 10 of our member institutions to open for the fall semester and have students and student-athletes on campus. So we’re hoping that they utilize that time to get themselves back into playing condition from a strength and conditioning process. And again, a lot of that data and information about the timing of it came from Dr. Brian Hainline and the NCAA as it related to what they felt a requisite amount of time.

Charles McClelland (06:41):
And, you know, there was from the NCA legislation passed even for the fall, this fall, that extended that six week timeframe to eight week timeframe. So we kind of use the eight weeks as a basis but it also gives us an opportunity to get significantly deep into our basketball schedule. In the SWAC we have a very robust basketball league and we wanted to make sure that we did not overlay football on top of the height of basketball. There’s actually in that plan a bye-week for all schools and there’s actually a week off for the basketball championship our tournament. So there are dates in there that will allow our school resources to be focused primarily and specifically on basketball. So we knew that the practice dates did not line up perfectly with an overall playing, but as you know, you have those 15 days most coaches don’t go 15 days straight. Obviously they’ll go a day here a day there and almost every Saturday you have a scrimmage on one of those 15 days.

Charles McClelland (07:46):
So we were looking at those Saturdays and what the human resource and the capital that it would take to pull off. So obviously having a full out football game takes more resources than just, you know, a spring scrimmage, but the principles and the philosophies were the same. And again, it gave us a blueprint on how to move forward. So we did a considerable amount of research some anecdotical research as well to make sure that we at least had a path forward. I’m not saying that there’s not going to be bumps in the road and we’re not going to have to make adjustments, but we all feel comfortable that this was a viable plan forward, and we will adjust as necessary as challenges arise throughout this process.

Cody Junot (08:30):
Speaking of adjusting to your point earlier that ultimately it’s going to be the virus that dictates this plan and getting your student athletes back on campus in the fall, giving them an opportunity to work out and condition leading up to that, that eight week period. It sounds like you’re going to start basketball on time. I guess as we, as we sit here today in, in late July that’s the plan, you mentioned a couple of bi-week built in for basketball specifically to help, you know, as to your point institutions have to put on these events. And all of the manpower and infrastructure that goes into those, do you have dates built in, are you able to extend this timeframe should say, instead of being able to start that eight week period in the beginning of January, it happens in the middle of January or late January?

Charles McClelland (09:22):
Absolutely. The plan is fluid. And again, we understand that a lot has to happen between now and the 1st of January with COVID-19, but it definitely gives us a, a path forward, you know, and again, talking to some of the medical experts and tying in with the NCAA as they have daily communication with the CDC and the World Health Organization, you know, we’re extremely hopeful that the vaccine and the trials that are currently undergoing will have a significant boost. And, you know, we could not put all of our marbles in the vaccine basket the same way we could not put all of our marbles in the coronavirus is going to subside basket, but we felt like with it being July now that if we could start conditioning in January, given an eight week time period, you’re theoretically talking about the last week in February, that gives us a considerable amount of time for all of the experts to do what they do.

Charles McClelland (10:25):
And we have a considerable amount of respect and a considerable amount of confidence in our medical professionals and we know that they’ve been working hard. And I think ever since this pandemic started, I think it was reported and it’s been clear to me that it was an 18 month process in order for them to be able to go from, start to finish. This kind of pushes our timeframe out to a 12 month process and with the vast improvements and technology and all of that that’s been reported about us being able to make some improvements and coming up with a vaccine a little quicker than the 18 months. We felt again that this gave us the best option, but the plan is fluid. If we have to push it back a week, if we have to push it back two weeks, we’ll have the same spring plan as we had in the fall. We will create some dates. We’ll create some drop dead dates. I don’t think as a conference, we want to be playing football in the month of May. So we’ll have to see coronavirus will dictate a lot of this, but our plan is fluid and it’s definitely up for change. One thing

Cody Junot (11:32):
One thing the plan calls for is, the four divisional games two cross over games and then the option for one non-conference game. And so my question to you is have you had conversations with others other conference commissioners, presidents, chancellors, athletic directors, do you expect be there to be more leagues to join the SWAC and putting an actual plan together to play in the spring?

Charles McClelland (12:01):
To be very honest with you, there have already been a couple of leagues that have announced that they’re going to play in the spring. I haven’t seen any of their specific plans, but our thought process is we needed to create a plan that was going to be best for the Southwestern Athletic Conference, but leave some flexibility. So let’s just say from a hypothetical standpoint, our model does not match up with anybody else’s model. We still will have three teams that with within our league, that our membership could opt to play and keep in mind, you have divisional play and then we said two games, cross divisions. If you look at some of our teams, they are very closely aligned. We have teams in the East division and the West division that theoretically are separated by a hundred miles or less. So there are a lot of rivalries that are already built in.

Charles McClelland (12:53):
So if there are no other teams to play, there are still teams within our conference that we can play that will give them that game if they choose to play it and also a significant crowd. As you know, we’ve led FCS attendance, 42 of the last 43 years. The only year that we did not lead FCS attendance is when Hurricane Katrina hit. Obviously a lot of our teams were not able to play or those games or they we’re pushed back while the rest of the nation was really able to go on business as usual, so our fan base is robust. We can do this within our own Southwestern Athletic Conference footprint, but we wanted to leave options in case there were opportunities for others to go outside of our footprint and create some additional games that might be available as time goes on.

Cody Junot (13:44):
Talking about the environment, the fan base, the attendance, the tailgating, the bands, the pageantry that goes into not only college football, but specifically football in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, did that at all factor in any of the decisions to push back? And, you know, when we look at the dates, start playing in early March the ability to maybe have fans in attendance to have some of those tailgates, although probably still at a much smaller scale, how important was it to potentially have that game day environment that quite frankly wouldn’t have been an option had you have played in the fall?

Charles McClelland (14:27):
It definitely was a part of the consideration. Our model that we have within the Southwestern Athletic Conference includes all of those things that you’re talking about. I recall in my younger days at Prairie View A&M University the band had an altercation with another band and the conference had suspended Prairie View’s band from going to the State Fair Classic where they played Grambling and that suspension created a frenzy and a significant amount of individuals were deciding not to go to the game. That decision was so important for Prairie View A&M University that the president then, Charles Heinz, decided that he would very well take whatever punishment that the conference had to issue out because it was so important for the band to be at that football game. And I think that’s a microcosmic of how important our bands are, how important our fans are, how important the tailgating experience is to our overall experience.

Charles McClelland (15:30):
When you talk about black college football, you know, it’s that entire package and the bands are such a significant part. So when you’re talking about bands, not traveling, which was the direction that we were heading, we already had some bands that said that they were not even going to participate at home games, not even get on the field. We had already instituted a no travel policy for our bands within the Southwestern Athletic Conference. When you look at some of the sizes of our stadiums, you know, we have some memory institutions that have a 60,000 seat stadium. We have some that have a 5,000 seat stadium, if you social distance and do a 30% on a 5,000 seat stadium, you’re talking 1500 people, you know, you have significantly impacted that game day environment. So they were pieces of the puzzle that we had to figure out, but absolutely no question about it.

Charles McClelland (16:22):
We want a full, robust football season, and we felt like the spring was the opportunity to do it. So again, the health and safety of all of our constituents, not just the student-athletes and the coaches, but the fans alike, you know, you had to take into consideration the officials. A lot of our officials are, you know, within that high risk population from an age standpoint. So that was going to pose another issue for us. You know, you throw in the testing protocols that need to happen. If you don’t have your own machines or access to a hospital that can put you at the top of the list, which some of our programs do not, a lot of them are in rural communities. And let’s just say you had a significant outbreak. There was not enough medical professionals and or hospitals in that area to be able to deal with a massive outbreak. So all of those factors came into play for us just to say, you know what, it’s probably best for us to pull the plug a little earlier than what we normally would have. We were kind of designed to wait until the end of July. Again, we talked about that plan and backing it up, they really called for us to have some kind of decision made in July. But all of those factors led to us just to say, now is the time, and let’s just move forward with our spring plans.

Cody Junot (17:42):
Talking about trying to have a football season that’s as normal as possible and moving to the spring gives you that best option. The Celebration Bowl, how did it factor in if at all, did it have any say? Was it brought into these plans and what, what does the end of the regular season look like? Is there an opportunity to play the Celebration Bowl? If not the Celebration Bowl itself, a bowl game like that at the end of this spring season?

Charles McClelland (18:13):
We certainly hope so. We are the only FCS Conference that hosts a SWAC football championship, our Cricket Wireless SWAC Football Championship Game will be our season ending conference game. I have not had an opportunity to speak with the officials from the MEAC-SWAC Challenge or the Celebration Bowl, but I plan on having those discussions. We would very well liked to be able to have the Celebration Bowl, and we will be able to make adjustments and our plans, if that opportunity and possibility becomes a reality. But at this point, our decision making did not include any plans from a Celebration Bowl standpoint, other than we wanted to leave flexibility, to be able to make those adjustments. You know when the Mideastern Athletic Conference announced last week, that they were not going to have a fall season, ultimately that led to the Celebration Bowl saying that they were going to have to pull plans for the Celebration Bowl. So, you know, from our planning perspective and our conversation that we had on yesterday, the Celebration Bowl really did not have a lot of talking points in the room related to spring. Other than the fact let’s leave options open for us to be able to participate in a Celebration Bowl or some bowl of some sort, if the opportunity arises.

Cody Junot (19:42):
We’ve spent much of our time talking about football. It’s the largest, highest profile sport here in the fall but other sports are impacted as well, you know, that play in the fall, cross country, soccer, volleyball do plan to play those in the spring as well?

Charles McClelland (19:59):
Yes, we do. We are formalizing our volleyball plans, as well as our soccer plans. You know, we’ll have to get with our coaches group. We want them to have some input. We do have some preliminary scheduling plans already down for them. And as we talked about it, we are going to release our football schedules, soccer and volleyball schedules here, hopefully within the next two weeks, still some more work to do on all three of those. We’ll have an interesting conversation with cross country. That’s probably the most problematic, at least in my mind, because you’re already in the midst of indoor track at that particular time. So not quite sure what we will do with cross country, it’s a lot of work to do with that. So we’ll get back with the coaches groups and then we will hopefully be announcing somewhere within the next week or two, what those fall schedules will look like

Cody Junot (20:53):
Last thing for you Dr. McClelland we normally wrap up this podcast by asking, what’s the one message that athletic directors, you know, when they’re talking with their constituents or student-athletes, their coaches, what’s the one message that they’re driving home as we head towards a fall and now a spring with so many unknowns. So, I’ll ask you what’s the one message you’re constantly driving home, whether it’s ADs you’re speaking with, its fans, it’s the presidents and chancellors of the SWAC institutions. What’s the one message you’re constantly driving home?

Charles McClelland (21:24):
Well, I think the best message that I can summarize and Cody, I like to tell a lot of stories. So I’ve done this on our athletics directors call, you know, quite often. I have two college age sons, one plays basketball for Jackson State University, and one plays basketball for Texas Southern University. And as much as I want them to have an enjoyable experience, as much as it pains us to, you know, disrupt their season, as a parent, there’s absolutely no way that I’m going to let my child go out and play in an environment that’s not conducive for him to be healthy and have a great experience. So, as a commissioner and as an athletic director, we all need to look at each and every student-athlete as our children, I’m going to protect my two children and I have the same responsibility of protecting everybody else. Our decision making will be driven by that one philosophy. And I think we’ve said that from day one. And I think this decision proves that we are true to our word and making sure that we want everybody to be safe.

Cody Junot (22:33):
Indeed, Dr. McClelland appreciate you taking the time, giving us some insights onto what went into the planning process that led to the SWAC making the decision and putting a plan in place to play, hopefully sports in the spring, as you’ve pointed out it’s all ultimately going to be up to the virus. So again, we thank you for taking the time here this morning to join us on A New Gameday.