A moment. That is all it takes. When it comes to sports, a moment can feel like a lifetime. That is what we love about sports. It is also the thing that can make us anguish about fleeting opportunities missed. If just for a second here or there, things could look much differently than they did just a moment ago.
Whether it was the ticks of the clock as Scotty Thurman's three-pointer fell from the heavens to bury Duke in the 1994 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship Game or the handful of seconds it took for Matt Jones' pass to find DeCori Birmingham in the back of the end zone at War Memorial Stadium in the famed Miracle on Markham, history isn't necessarily defined by a specific length of time.
The same can be said off the field as well. After more than three decades working in intercollegiate athletics, I have become accustomed to unexpected changes, the landscape shifting suddenly. As a college junior working in the sports information office, I sat in the room as Jack Crowe participated in his weekly Sunday 2 p.m. press conference following a devastating 1992 opening season loss to The Citadel. By 5 p.m., he was no longer the head football coach at the University of Arkansas.
Add to that countless other moments that have altered our course as Razorbacks, suddenly and drastically. From the tragic deaths of Brandon Burlsworth and Garrett Uekman to the 24 hours of Dana Altman and a motorcycle wreck that will live in infamy, all of these challenging times have shaped who we are and most importantly who we will be.
As the morning turned to afternoon on Wednesday, March 11, the winds of uncertainty began swirling. Earlier in the week, a case of COVID-19 had been discovered near Nashville and there were discussions about how it might impact the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament. Arkansas was scheduled to play Vanderbilt in the opening round and by the time the Hogs and Commodores took the court, both teams knew it would be the last game played with fans. The SEC had made an announcement that all sporting events through March 30, including games in the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament, would be played in front of only required personnel and family members of the student-athletes starting on Thursday.
That decision had come down late in the day, well after the first pitch of the Arkansas-Grand Canyon baseball game at Baum-Walker Stadium. Little did we know that when a bouncing ball ended up as a 5-4-3 double play, it would not only clinch a 10-9 win, but would eventually mark the end of the baseball season. For the moment, Razorback student-athletes and fans celebrated win No. 700 for Coach Dave Van Horn at Arkansas. A touching retrospective video tribute ran on the video board at Baum-Walker Stadium as the team huddled up in shallow left field.
As our minds began to wrap around the idea of playing in empty venues, the 'Shot Heard Around the Sporting World' signaled a new day. Although emanating from the NBA, it was not a dagger three-pointer or a dunk, in fact the stunner came before the game even tipped. First a game was postponed and then came the word, the NBA had a player, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz, that had tested positive for COVID-19. The NBA announced it would shut down immediately. Suddenly, everything we thought we knew was out the window.
Working with contingencies has become a way of life. Even as I hurriedly packed my suitcase on Thursday morning for a trip to Little Rock and then on to Starkville to join the baseball team, I wondered if it was going to be needed. By 9 a.m., it was becoming clear, things were moving, but not in a way that required a suitcase. In Nashville, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey had gathered athletics directors, university presidents and chancellors to discuss the latest developments. With the first game of Thursday's quarterfinal round of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament set for mid-day, a decision by high Noon loomed.
Back home, a group of us gathered in the conference room to discuss contingency plans of our own. At 9 a.m., the discussions were different. Who were essential employees to staff events and how would handle accommodating families? Was it going to be immediate family only allowed into home events or could grandmother or cousins make the cut? Before one question could be fully voiced, another forged ahead and interrupted. An issue discussed a few minutes prior, became a moot point merely 10 minutes later.
Word emerged from Nashville that things were likely to change again. It appeared that athletics competition as we knew it in the SEC was getting ready to stop - at least for the time being. But until it was official, there were things to deal with. Both track and field teams were already in New Mexico for the NCAA Indoor meet and baseball was scheduled to board a plane for Starkville at 2 p.m. Meanwhile Penn State had left campus and was arriving at the airport to fly to Fayetteville for Friday's gymnastics meet. Should they board the plane for Fayetteville?
Finally, it came down. The SEC would suspend all athletics competition until at least until March 30. A charter plane sitting at Drake Field in Fayetteville would carry Razorbacks, but not the baseball team. Instead it headed to Nashville to get the men's basketball team who would be back on campus rather than back on the Bridgestone Arena Court.
In the whirl of activity to get teams home, hotels canceled, and other arrangements made, a stunning announcement from the NCAA came as unexpectedly as a Tsunami during low tide. Some media headlines concealed the punch - NCAA cancels men's and women's basketball tournaments. A major announcement, but underneath that first wave was the harsh reality that all winter and spring sport NCAA championships would not be played for the remainder of the year. Where do you go from here?
By Friday, the answer was abundantly clear. By early afternoon, the SEC announced it had suspended all athletics activities, practice, workouts, games etc., until at least April 15. The following Tuesday, the ending that nobody wanted, but everyone expected came to fruition. The 2019-20 competitive year was over, even as our uncertainty was just beginning.
In hindsight, it would be easy to look back at those 48 hours and say the end result was inevitable. But then again, second guessing is much clearer than discerning things at first glance. The right decisions were made. But even right decisions can hurt.
In the days and weeks to come, many will opine on what the future holds. When will we return to normal? What will be the impact both on and off the field? But just as the events of the past few weeks has reminded us, the future of sports rarely goes by the script.
At some point, we will file back into Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Bud Walton Arena, Baum-Walker Stadium and Bogle Park. We will reminisce about our lost Razorback spring and tell our kids and grandchildren about when social distancing became a thing.
Most of all, we will remember how we rallied together in this defining moment to face this challenge and cheer on the true heroes, the countless medical professionals, public servants and conduits of simple acts of kindness, that not only help save us today, but also helped preserve the memorable moments of tomorrow.