Football: McNeese AD explains decision to not play the Cajuns
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Aug. 15, 2020
For Heath Schroyer, the decision was not a difficult one.
As much of McNeese’s interim athletic director wanted the Cowboys to drive an hour-and-a-half or so east across Interstate 10 and be at Cajun Field on Sept. 5 — they were supposed to be UL’s season-opening opponent then — he simply could not justify it.
“The most important thing for me was the safety and health of our athletes,” Schroyer said, “and I just didn’t think … it was the right thing to do, to put our kids on a bus to go to Lafayette and play a game when it wasn’t safe enough to play two weeks later in a league game.
“To me,” added Schroyer, who also is McNeese’s head basketball coach, “that just doesn’t any sense.”
On Thursday the FCS Southland Conference said it would postpone all fall sports due to the coronavirus pandemic that according to Johns Hopkins University has infected more than 5.2 million and filled more than 167,000 in the United States alone.
But it left open the option for its football teams to play non-conference games.
McNeese’s other scheduled non-conference opponent — Northern Colorado of the FCS Big Sky — had canceled anyway, leaving only one decision for the Cowboys to make.
And not long after the Southland went public, McNeese made it known it would bow out of the game against the Cajuns.
With that, UL lost a chance to face McNeese — which would have received a $225,000 payday for the appearance — for the 39th time in a series that dates back to 1951.
The two teams have not met since 2016, when UL won 30-22 at Cajun Field.
“If the professionals said it wasn’t safe enough for us to go play conference games in the fall,” Schroyer said told a small group of mostly Lake Charles-area reporters in a Zoom conference Thursday afternoon, “I had a really hard time sending our young men — our football team — out to get on a bus and go play a game for a paycheck.
“It’s just not who I am. It’s not the core of whom I am, and it’s not the core of who this university is.
“It obviously was very, very hard. But it was the right decision to make having all the information we had,” Schroyer added. “Finances are really important, but it’s not more important than the health and the protection of your student-athletes.”
It was going to be costly for an already cash-strapped Cowboys athletic department, but — according to Schroyer — McNeese did have all the testing mechanisms, medical procedures and proper protocols in place to prepare to play
“It really came down to, ‘Is it really the right thing to do?’” he said.
“With the rest of the country saying it’s not safe enough to compete in the fall, and we’re talking about other conferences all across the country, and the medical people in our league determining that, I just didn’t think it was the right thing to ignore that.
“It’s obviously risk vs. reward,” he added, “and the risk was way too great for our student-athletes to proceed at this point.”
Several FBS conferences including the Big Ten, the Pac-12, the MAC and the Mountain West already have decided to not play football in the fall.
So add Schroyer, who took on the interim AD job back in June, to the growing list of those thinking it’s better to wait than take a chance.
“I’m gonna err on the side of protecting our athletes,” he said.
“I’ve said all along we’re gonna be student-athlete centered here, and I didn’t want to look those kids in the eye, or those parents in the eye, and have to make a decision like that.”
Instead, it was new Cowboys coach Frank Wilson whose eyes Schroyer found himself peering at Thursday.
Wilson — the ex-Ole Miss, Southern Miss, Tennessee and LSU assistant coach and former Texas-San Antonio head coach — was headed into his first season in charge at McNeese.
His team already had delayed the start of its preseason camp, and it was just finishing up its first practice Thursday when Schroyer arrived to break the news.
Wilson in turn told the Cowboys.
“We talked a little bit about it,” Schroyer said, “then I said, ‘Coach, this is your program; I’m here to support you.’
“I thought it was important for him to give the message to his team before … they all left the practice field and got on their cell phones.”
The message was not one Schroyer wanted to deliver.
“Everyone wanted to play,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re all competitive.
“I wanted to play. I wanted to play football. And I still want to play football. That’s not changed as far as ‘want to.’”
But in this case desire was trumped by the reality of coronavirus uncertainties.
“It really came down to listening to the professionals that we listened to, listening to our conference attorneys, listening to all the medical people across the country, even myself talking to other ADs across the country,” Schroyer said.
“As a league, we were just trying to hang on there as long as we could to see if there was something that could tip it back for us to be able to compete and play. But at the end of the day it just became a health and safety issue, and also a liability issue.
“Some of the things you read and some of the information I was privy to, you know, some of this stuff is scary,” Schroyer added. “There’s obviously different opinions all across the world about it, but some of the things I read are pretty scary.”
Yet, at least at this point, they’re evidently not frightening enough to some — including many in the same basic geographic footprint as McNeese.
The SEC has delayed the start of its season until late September.
The Sun Belt Conference, to which UL belongs, still is planning to play an eight-game league schedule with its teams permitted to play up to four non-conference games starting in early September.
The SBC does not currently intend to alter that plan, nor does it plan to redraw when league teams will meet.
The Cajuns, if their entire season is not eventually nixed too, are slated open Sun Belt play Sept. 19 at Georgia State in Atlanta.
“I do not anticipate us changing our conference schedule format at this time,” UL athletic director Bryan Maggard said Thursday.
But Sun Belt programs including UL have had to search high and low to replace lost non-conference games.
UL lost not only its September home game against McNeese but also one with the Wyoming of the Mountain West, along with trips in October to FBS independent New Mexico State, which also decided to not play in the fall, and in November to Missouri of the SEC.
But on Wednesday the Cajuns did announce they’ve added a Sept. 12 visit to No. 25 Iowa State of the Big 12, which is playing a nine-game conference schedule with one non-conference game allowed, and Maggard is hoping to add at least one more home game to replace the lost McNeese and Wyoming ones.
UL will receive $350,000 for the trip to Iowa State.
Some Southland teams, meanwhile, are moving ahead with non-conference games, many of which serve as big paydays that help fund starving athletic department budgets.
Not McNeese, though, and not any of the other football-playing schools in the Southland — Nicholls, Northwestern State and Southeastern Louisiana.
But Texas-based Stephen F. Austin still plans to play SMU, for instance, and Houston Baptist still intends to play at North Texas, Texas Tech and Louisiana Tech all in September.
Some Southland teams playing and others not
“Obviously there’s a wide range of opinions on the matter,” Schroyer said, “and everyone has to go to bed and sleep at night, and everyone has to make their own decisions.
“And I’m not judging anyone. I personally think a split season – playing some games in the fall, and trying to play some games in the spring – I don’t understand it.
“If our league has determined it’s not safe for student-athletes to play in the fall in league games, I have no idea other teams in our league want to try to schedule each other, let alone go get on planes and play other people,” Schroyer added. “I just personally think that it’s not a great look … but everyone has to make their own decision which they feel is best for their institution.”
It’s bad optics, as Schroyer sees it.
One decision Schroyer had made, however, was an easy call.
That’s the one to proceed with pursuit of a game against the Cajuns sometime down the road to replace the one lost this season.
“I’m sure we’re gonna get on the phone … and start talking about setting up another date and trying to play in the very near future,” Schroyer said of him and UL’s Maggard.
“You know, it’s a great game for us. I think it’s a great game for this community. It’s a great game for southwest Louisiana, and I would shocked and very disappointed if that game wasn’t rescheduled.”