Conference USA basketball championship cancelled

Western Kentucky athletic director Todd Stewart speaks on the phone after the Conference USA basketball tournaments cancellation announcement on March 12 at the Omni Hotel in Frisco, Texas.

The doors at E.A. Diddle Arena are locked and its halls are barren. Western Kentucky University is still open, but it’s staffed like a bad snow day no one is celebrating.

Tucked deep into the administrative offices where lights are shut off except in the office of the building’s boss, Todd Stewart weighs through the hours that have felt like days, days that felt like weeks and the week that has felt like two months.

“Truly unprecedented,” Stewart says in an interview with the Daily News.

Athletics are on hold for the time being. Nothing has been the same since the meeting on the third floor of the Omni Hotel in Frisco, Texas, with Conference USA officials and athletic directors to call off the league tournament and postpone spring sports seasons.

The events since then are unlike any ever in sports. Stewart worked in the NFL on Sept. 11, 2001, and then with the Sun Belt Conference office in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Adjusting to world-shifting and natural disasters isn’t anything new, but this one is different.

Stewart is just one of several WKU officials keeping the university’s objective moving forward amid the global pandemic that is COVID-19. The university has moved all courses online and canceled any resemblance of athletics on campus in reaction to the coronavirus outbreak.

Basketball season was cut short days before the NCAA Tournament. All spring sports were canceled midseason, including spring football. In fact, no formal, informal or voluntary workouts or practices are allowed and in-person recruiting is prohibited.

Coaches are no longer teaching athletic fundamentals. They’re now adapting as distant teachers, now coaching their players to adapt to online learning. It’s their only option until a ban on mass gatherings is lifted.

“Everybody is now in student-athlete support mode,” Stewart said. “We’ve got every sport program and virtually every athlete not here anymore. We’ve just got to be there for them for whatever may come up, whether it’s an academic matter, personal matter, health matter, sport-related matter. We will have to be there for them. We’re all essentially engaged and those that aren’t will have to be on-call for whatever may come up.

“When that decision was made, it led to a whole other set of discussions on essentially helping our people move out and relocate. That’s a pretty involved process when the vast majority aren’t here. That’s really been what our focus has been on right now, helping our athletes through this transition and get them to where they need to be.”

A week has passed since the WKU men’s and women’s basketball teams returned from the C-USA Tournament when the sports world turned upside down. It started with the decision to enact a strict attendance policy for the tournament to the outright canceling of the events less than 24 hours later.

The basketball teams and the WKU softball team – which was scheduled to play a series with North Texas that weekend – and Stewart all flew out of Dallas on Friday morning and returned to days unknown.

WKU’s spring break was extended an extra week for more time to evaluate the spread of the virus and its effect on public gatherings. Stewart said his mornings the past week have been in video conferences with WKU President Dr. Timothy Caboni and his cabinet. Those have lasted from 8 to 10 a.m. every morning, followed (on a few days) with a conference call with C-USA athletic directors from 10 to 11 a.m., then a video meeting with his athletics senior staff at 11:15 a.m.

“By noon every day, I feel like the flow of information has been tremendous between every single group relative to us and it’s really helped us do our jobs much better,” Stewart said. “What’s been really good and given me a good sense of optimism is how well everyone has worked together. I’m talking about the university and the conference ADs and athletics. I give president Caboni a lot of credit, his leadership has been terrific in this.

“Every single person has come in this together and it’s been this tremendous exchange of information and everyone is available to anyone else to answer questions. When I finish the meeting, I feel very good from a standpoint that I’m well-informed and any questions I had specifically to athletics were answered during that.”

While WKU’s campus remains open and students are expected to move out of dorms, Stewart anticipates less than 25 athletes remain on campus for a variety of reasons in their best interest. The decision to move classes online called for the ordering of 18 additional laptops for the student-athletes who previously didn’t have access to their online classes.

Athletic trainers are still available to assist in any medical or rehab needs for both the athletes on campus and those who moved back home.

The two-week spring break will end as classes start online Monday. That will begin what Stewart calls the second phase of this unprecedented event.

“I feel like we’re in a really good place right now, as best as we can be,” Stewart said. “This will be a process. Phase 1 is where we are now and Phase 2, we’re all going to have to be able to adjust and adapt over the next few weeks and months because things will come up and we have to be able to adapt, but the teamwork across the board has really been extraordinary.”{&end}

– Follow WKU athletics beat writer Elliott Pratt on Twitter @EPrattBGDN or visit


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