Episode 15: Joe D’Antonio, Colonial Athletic Association

Cody Junot (00:02):
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 speaking with college athletic administrators and leaders about a new game day as we get set to return to the field of play. We’ll discuss what the new game day is going to look like, what it’s going to feel like and how athletic leaders and administrators are already adapting to our new world. Our guest today has just completed his fourth year of leading the Colonial Athletic Association. I’m pleased to have CAA commissioner Joe D’Antonio join me. Commissioner, appreciate you taking the time. How is everybody at the Colonial Athletic association?

Joe D’Antonio (00:42):
Well, Cody, first of all, thank you for having me on. It’s a pleasure to be with you this afternoon, and we’re fortunate to report everybody’s doing very well. Thank you.

Cody Junot (00:50):
Yeah, that’s great to hear. And you know, you have a little bit different of a perspective than the ADs that normally joined us here. And I think it’s good to get some insights to what this process has been like from the commissioner’s chair. We often talk about the athletic directors and decisions they have to make working with their presidents and staff and coaches. And you, you know, working with your staff, your presidents and the leaders of all of the institutions of the colonial athletic association, and so, glad to have you joining us here today. Let’s take a step back a little bit and go back to March when this COVID crisis first came to our shores and abruptly ended everything, you know, sports as we know it, right. And we’re still not back there yet.

Cody Junot (01:34):
Take me back through that and through the decision making process then, and then we’ll get to maybe how that varied to where we are today. But if you could walk me back through those decisions and then how you were able to communicate those decisions with your member institutions.

Joe D’Antonio (01:51):
Well, if you go back to March, we were pretty fortunate in that we were kind of right on the edge and getting our men’s basketball tournament played. It was our first year at the new facility in Washington DC, neutral site facility, for our men’s basketball tournament. And while we took the proper precautions at that time, which were really just making sure we had plenty of hand sanitizer on the concourse, people being conscientious as they came into the building, etc. We were fortunate enough to be able to get that tournament in. One day after that tournament, we then pivoted to our women’s tournament, which was scheduled to be held on the campus of Elon in Elon, NC literally the day after our men’s tournament had ended. And we played the first two games or the first round. Everybody went back to their hotel that next night and all, excuse me, that night after those games, they concluded, and that’s when the Rudy Gobert situation with the NBA occurred and the NCAA was certainly meeting to decide what they were going to do at that time surrounding not only spring championships, but more specifically the men’s and women’s basketball NCAA tournament. And I remember sending an email that night. I can’t remember if it was a Wednesday night or a Thursday night – it might’ve been a Wednesday night – to our membership saying, ‘If we run into a situation tomorrow where the NCAA cancels the men’s or women’s basketball tournament, then our women’s basketball tournament will immediately be canceled no matter what spot we’re in.’ And as we moved into that next day, it wasn’t actually the NCAA that started canceling tournaments, but we saw other conferences around the country that were slowly beginning to cancel their tournaments. And we were watching very closely with the ACC was doing because they were playing their men’s tournament literally just down the road from us. And as we saw the information come in, we had a game scheduled to start at noon time, we pulled those teams off the floor, put them back in the locker room, didn’t tell them why, and at that point I was on the phone with our athletic directors and our board, and we decided at that time that it was in our best interest based on what was happening nationally to cancel the women’s tournament. And at that time, the decision was made to simply postpone for the time being the playing of any of our spring championships. And then, obviously, when the NCAA made the decision, I think it was a day later, to cancel both the men’s and women’s basketball tournament, as well as all the other spring championships, that’s when we, as a conference, decided that we would also be canceling our spring championships, as well.

Cody Junot (04:47):
And then you take that and you, you fast forward five months to where we are here today, and you were faced with a very similar situation: what to do about football and what to do about fall sports in general? And, you know, the CAA came out and I believe you were one of the first to come out and offer what I’m going to term as kind of a hybrid model, right, where you are going to cancel all conference play in the fall, but allow institutions to make their own decisions as far as non-conference contest goes. So take me through that process and how that decision came about.

Joe D’Antonio (05:24):
So, Cody, I think in order to understand the situation and how we arrived at a few decisions, the first thing that you and your listeners need to have a keen understanding of is we’re actually dealing with two separate entities, right? We’re dealing with the CAA football conference, which is comprised of 12 members, and within those 12 members, there are four division one conferences that are represented. There are teams from the CAA, obviously. There’s teams from the Big East. There’s teams from America East and there’s teams from the A10 that comprise the football conference. And then, on the flip side of that, we have the CAA conference, the full member conference that has 10 member institutions. Fve of those schools overlap into both conferences on the CAA side. So I’d like to back you up, if I could, first of all, to just a full member conference and talk about some decisions we had made early on, and those decisions evolved around something that we termed the EFM, the extreme flexibility model, and under the EFM we had put in place and put a press release out on two different scenarios.

Joe D’Antonio (06:34):
One first dealing with regular seasons scheduling in which we said that we were not going to have a conference schedule. We were going to allow each institution to schedule hopefully at least the NCAA minimum number of games and all of those fall sports. And if you played conference games, that was fine. If you didn’t play conference games, that was fine, too. As long as you arrived at that at the NCAA minimum number of contests. And then, we also came out in a follow up to the regular season announcement with a postseason announcemen, in which we talked about how in a time of extreme unknown as it related to what the regular season was gonna look like that we were also going to adopt and extend that flexibility model into our fall championships and even into our spring championships of allowing every single institution in the conference to participate in the conference tournaments.

Joe D’Antonio (07:29):
So, while conferences around the country were saying that they were either not having conference championships or where they were decreasing their field, we went the other way and said, because things are very disjointed, we’re going to allow all of our teams to participate in the conference championship. So that was kind of our planning process. Then, as we arrived at the point of trying to decide if we could even play in the fall or not, which was kind of like the next step, I think it’s safe to say, let’s start on the football side of things. And on the football side, our board of directors voted that we would be suspending football operations and not having a CAA fall season. However, the board also affirmed, and this is noted in our press release, that if there were member institutions that wanted to pursue the possibility of playing an independent schedule, then they certainly had the ability to do so. And at the time we had three institutions on the football side say that they were interested in playing an independent schedule, James Madison, Elon, and Villanova. They’ve all since now said that they are not going to be pursuing an independent schedule and they have opted not to play any contests in the fall. So that was how things ran on the football side.

Joe D’Antonio (08:49):
On the full member side, I’d suggest to you that we really took an approach that was very much in line with EFM, the extreme flexibility model that we had put in place. And we put out a statement, it basically indicated that as a conference, we were allowing institutions to proceed in a manner that they deemed most appropriate for their institution, and also, more specifically, for their student athletes and their communities, both their on and off campus communities surrounding the institution.

Joe D’Antonio (09:22):
And on the day that we released that, that press media release, we had six of our 10 institutions in separate press releases on their own say that they were shutting things down their fall sports and we had four member institutions indicate that they were interested in still pursuing playing their other fall sports in the fall. And those four institutions were James Madison, Elon, College of Charleston and UNCW. Now, they have also since said that they are not going to be playing sports in the fall, so everybody is in the same boat now, but we were in a situation, going back now to your original question, where we did provide that flexibility and options for institutions to make their own decisions. And I personally felt that in a period of great unknown, none of us had ever been through anything like this before, and there were different reasons why different institutions felt that was in the best interest of their institution to make certain decisions at certain times that us having that flexibility was appropriate. I wouldn’t necessarily say that if we were in what I would consider to be normal times because I think in normal times, our conferences should take the approach of very much acting together. But I did feel as though that there was a point in time because this had never happened before. None of us had the right answers. None of us had the wrong answers. And could we have an open mind to analyzing a scenario where you could say, ‘Yeah, you know, for institution A for right now, at this point in time, this is the best way for them to proceed. And for institution B for right now, this is the best way for them to proceed.’ And ultimately that’s where we ended up for a short period of time.

Cody Junot (11:26):
I think that’s a great jumping off point because the other thing I wanted to talk to you today about was leading; sitting in the commissioner chair through a pandemic. And it sounds like, you know, the flexibility in the model that you just described there was also something that you took into account through your leadership practices, in dealing with the institutions, both the CEOs in the ADs, right, and marrying those thoughts together. So how has that evolved? How have you evolved as a leader throughout this pandemic?

Joe D’Antonio (12:01):
Well, I’ve tried to really just stick to my principles, I think, as a person, right? Try to treat people fair, treat people the right way, continue to work hard and just hope that in the end, things are ultimately going to work out. What I should say is I know that not every decision that I made was looked at in a positive light by everybody. Certainly there were some criticisms of things, but I’ve learned from if there were mistakes made, I’ve been able to learn from those mistakes and how I might do things a little bit differently next time, certainly. I think we ended up in the right spot. Maybe, ultimately how we got there, some of the processes that we use to get to some of those decisions, if I had to do it again, I’d probably changed the way some of those processes ultimately unfolded. But certainly never gave up or gave into what my principles are literally every day, which is work hard and treat people the right way. So, but you know, certainly all of this, I think for many of us has been a learning experience and whether you’re a commissioner, an AD, a president, a professor, a coach, I think we’re all in the same boat of we’ve all learned a lot from this

Cody Junot (13:22):
Moving forward, what options are on the table for winter sports and basketball. And I know we talked a little bit about the spring sports there, but what are the options that are on the table, and ultimately, obviously, the virus is going to dictate how we move forward, but outside of that, are there certain factors or indications, whether it’s advancements in technology and testing that, you know, we’ve seen breakthrough with the saliva testing, but what’s ultimately going to dictate the potential timeline of winter and spring sports as we move forward?

Joe D’Antonio (13:54):
Well, there’s a lot to unpack there, Cody, so let’s try to attack that one. Let me first start by saying that I have been saying personally, since literally the beginning of April, you can go back emails that I had sent to our membership, that this, this is really an issue of cost and complexity. The dealing with the virus, I would suggest to you not only in the sphere that we live in, in college athletics, but really in your own personal life and in many cases in the way that the nation as a whole is dealing with the issue in terms of things getting better really comes down to cost and complexity. And I think we’d all hoped back in, you know, mid-March, beginning of April, that by the time we got to this point, now almost into September, that the cost and complexity associated with dealing with the virus would have significantly mitigated itself.

Joe D’Antonio (14:47):
The problem we’ve run into is not only hasn’t it mitigated itself, in many cases, it’s exacerbated itself and it’s become more complicated to try to deal with the cost and complexity associated with the virus day to day. So the key things for me, as we, as we move towards now, the winter in the spring is number one. We’ve seen the NCAA at least leave the door open for the possibility that fall NCAA championships can be held in the spring. So that’s, that’s a starting point. As you mentioned, I don’t think you can dismiss this fact that, I look at it as you’ve got to jump over certain hurdles. The first hurdle we all have to jump over, whether it’s in college athletics, our personal life, or the wellbeing of the country is we’ve just got to get into a different spot. If we’re in the same spot right now in February, well, it doesn’t matter if you have the greatest people working at your institutions that I work with or the greatest set of ADs, or the greatest set of presidents, if nothing’s changed, we’re probably not going to have athletic competition during that period of time either, but let’s be optimistic for a minute. I like to think I’m an optimistic person. You seem like an optimistic person, as well. So if you’re optimistic that we’re in a different place and we could be in a different place because there’s been a vaccine, we could be in a different place because, as you mentioned, testing is drastically different. I have the utmost confidence in the men and women that work in our conference, both the coaching level, at the administrative level, the CEO level, the AD level, the SWA level, all across the board. I have the utmost confidence in the people in our conference, the folks at the conference office, that those individuals and myself can find a way that we could tackle both fall sports in the spring and winter and spring sports at the time period that didn’t normally play. Will it be a big undertaking? Yes. Can it be done? In my mind, if we can get over that first hurdle, it absolutely can be done in some capacity to give those student athletes an opportunity to compete during the 2021 academic year.

Cody Junot (17:05):
Let’s continue that train of thought and let’s continue down the road of getting to a spot in the 2021 academic year where we’re playing competitions. Game day is certainly going to look different. We know that right. Very much as 9/11 changed the way, from a security standpoint, we enter stadiums, we inner venues, there’s no doubt that the coronavirus is going to have the same impact. You mentioned back in March doing the bare minimum of having hand sanitizer available and just washing your hands and all of those things. So as we progress and you start to hold not only events on campus, but at the conference level, having those conference tournaments, game day is ertainly going to look a little bit differently. You know, what, if anything, have you guys started to look at from a conference perspective on ways to keep the essence of the game day whole and the same, yet while embracing these new changes?

Joe D’Antonio (18:03):
Well, I think the first thing that we’ve focused on is we know that by the time we get to the point of running conference championship, things are going to have to be different. So, you know, we’ve had some internal discussions about what could, and I stress the word could, testing protocols possibly look like? What could venue and arena signage potentially look like? What could our broadcast capabilities potentially look like? You know, all of those things while I would say, while at the beginning of the conversations, certainly those conversations indeed have been had. You know, as I said, if you go back to our planning model, that will maintain itself through the spring. So, you know, we’ve already looked at venues that would put our member institutions in a better position as it relates to travel expenses. How can we cut down on some of those travel expenses, whether it be keeping folks out of hotels for extended period of time, keeping people on buses instead of planes? So we we’ve already made some planning inroads as it relates to those kinds of scenarios. So, you know, there’s going to be a bunch of different things to look at, but I’ll be honest with you. Some of the planning that we’ve done is ultimately going to coincide with what’s happening at that moment in time. And what I mean by that is, you know, while we’ve planned for certain testing protocols internally, those could potentially change if testing is different. While we’ve planned for certain things from the venue standpoint, depending on where states and municipalities might be on rules and regulations associated with contests and games, we may need to pivot from those things, as well.

Joe D’Antonio (19:52):
So, that, Cody, has been some of the angst I think that all of us have dealt with in this process as you can plan plan, plan, plan, but, you know, the reality is that as we move into these scenarios, we need to be focused on what’s happening at that moment in time and ultimately make the best decision at that moment in time for all of us.

Cody Junot (20:19):
You know, the last thing I want to touch on is we’ve talked about how you develop plans and the communications you’ve had with your member institutions and with the presidents and the ADs. But what’s the one message that you’re driving home? You’ve talked about being optimistic, an optimistic person. What’s the one message that you’re driving home when you’re speaking with, whether it’s your league CEOs and presidents or ADs as we look to move forward here?

Joe D’Antonio (20:47):
Well, I think the biggest thing that I’ve tried to impress upon folks is obviously the safety of our student athletes, our coaches, our administrators, and our fans is certainly of the top priority of all the decisions that we’re making. Once we’ve gone over that hurdle, you know, we’re making the best decisions, and hopefully have made the best decisions, that are best for our conference and our member institutions as a whole, while taking into consideration and working very closely with the views of our medical personnel on our campuses, as well as our athletic directors and presidents. I think we all hold on to the reality that we can be stronger and better on the other side of all this. Certainly it’s going to take some planning and preparation to do that, but we will get back to a point in time where hopefully things do return to a little bit of a normal situation, and we need to be prepared coming out of that to hit the ground running and be ready to go. So, we continue to hope that this is an anomaly this one year. We know the financial constraints and those situations could be with us for years to come, but we can overcome those and find new ways to do things if need be, but to maintain that incredible opportunity that our student athletes have to compete with CAA, just making sure that we’re doing it in a safe environment and keeping everybody’s safety and welfare is our top priority as we make those decisions.

Cody Junot (22:18):
Well said. Commissioner D’Antonio, I really appreciate your time here today. Appreciate you taking us through how the CAA arrived at its decisions and where we hope to be at tomorrow. Again, really appreciate it.

Joe D’Antonio (22:33):
Well, thanks Cody. I certainly appreciate you having me on. It means a lot, so thank you.