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USC Sports

How USC and Mike Bohn managed an unprecedented situation with coronavirus outbreak

USC athletic director Mike Bohn congratulates guard Jonah Mathews during a Senior Day ceremony before the game against UCLA on March 7, 2020.
USC athletic director Mike Bohn congratulates guard Jonah Mathews during a Senior Day ceremony March 7. Bohn says he has made this his guiding principle: “What’s best for the student-athletes?”
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Around 10 p.m. on Wednesday, less than 24 hours before college athletics would pause entirely because of a global pandemic, the senior leadership of USC’s athletic department gathered around a small table in the deserted lobby of the Delano Hotel in Las Vegas.

Immediate decisions needed to be made, and guidance — from the Pac-12 Conference, from the NCAA, from any governing body — was minimal. Earlier in the day, the Pac-12 announced spectators would be kept out of the conference‘s men’s basketball tournament because of growing concerns over coronavirus, and the hours since had rolled by in a flood of meetings and conference calls, all aimed at addressing a crisis heretofore unprecedented in the history of college sports. As USC remained in consistent contact with the Pac-12, there were few answers, and new questions arising every minute.

With so many consequential decisions to be made, USC athletic director Mike Bohn couldn’t wait any longer. The men’s basketball team was preparing to open tournament play the next day, in front of an empty T-Mobile Arena, and whether the games should even be played was only the beginning of his concerns. The track and field team was already at the indoor championships in Albuquerque. The women’s lacrosse team was scheduled to fly to Arizona in the morning. Not long after, beach volleyball would be bound for Florida and women’s water polo headed for Hawaii.

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USC’s first-year athletic director sat with Joyce Bell Limbrick, USC’s new senior women’s administrator, and Paul Perrier, his deputy director. On the phone was Brandon Sosna, his chief of staff, chiming in from the terminal at nearby McCarran Airport, where he’d soon catch the last flight out to manage the chaos from afar.

His administration was only a few months old, but in that short time, Bohn had made his guiding principle abundantly clear: “Every decision was made by a very basic framework,” Bohn said Friday. “What’s best for the student-athletes? When you truly operate that way, with such unbending and uncompromising principles, it’s a liberating sense where decisions become easy.”

Faced with one of the most difficult moments of his career, that notion would be tested on a scale Bohn never could have possibly imagined.

There were 24 chaotic hours between that late-night meeting and the NCAA’s decision to cancel March Madness, as USC’s athletic department and others across the nation reckoned with the new reality that COVID-19 wrought on college athletics.

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Similar decisions were being discussed in every corner of the country, testing the foundations of departments large and small, as overwhelmed administrators tried their best to decide when and how to act.

Exactly one year earlier at USC, a senior athletics administrator was removed by the FBI and later indicted for her role in the Varsity Blues scandal. She was fired by the university, the first step of an overhaul that included, six months later, the resignation of then-athletic director Lynn Swann.

Bohn was hired away from Cincinnati in November. Only four months later, with the department once again in crisis mode, it was his steady hand and his guiding principle, according to administrators and coaches, that helped USC navigate a trying day as seamlessly as it could have hoped.

“There was never any doubt of what we were trying to accomplish,” Perrier said. “We all knew what our role was.”

Even so, the landscape was shifting quickly beneath everyone in the department.

“We were operating minute by minute,” Bell Limbrick said. “I don’t even think we had an opportunity to think about how we feel. We just knew that things needed to happen.”

The next afternoon, as crowds were barred and conference tournaments were canceled and traveling teams across the country awaited word on what was next, a result once unthinkable was announced in a statement, shortly after 1 p.m.

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The NCAA tournament would not be played for the first time since 1938. Other winter and spring sports championships were canceled. College sports were effectively on quarantine.

::

Twenty-four hours earlier, before flying to Las Vegas for a tournament it would never play in, the men’s basketball team, still preening with postseason excitement, stopped at a Burbank strip mall for dinner.

On the walk back to the bus after the meal, Mike Swets, the director of basketball operations, wondered aloud to coach Andy Enfield and Sosna if there was any world in which the NCAA tournament could be postponed.

Truth was, Sosna had already started to worry. The size and rapid growth of the coronavirus outbreak was getting harder to reckon with the tepid response from the sports world. He hadn’t been convinced of the severity at first, but now he could see it no other way. It was simply too dangerous for basketball to be played in front of spectators, and for other student-athletes to travel commercially through public airports across the country.

“I would prepare for significant disruptions to the tournament,” he told them.

The team arrived at its hotel just before midnight. Sosna stayed in his room for most of the next day, poring over data and research on COVID-19. By early afternoon, the NCAA and Pac-12 — which had allowed four games to be played with fans Wednesday — both announced games would continue without fans. He reached out to Bohn soon after.

“There’s simply too much risk,” Sosna texted Bohn at 1:49 p.m. He wondered if USC should propose canceling all Pac-12 events.

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“Please prepare a quick snapshot of where we are as a league and at the NCAA level for me to share with [university President Carol Folt],” Bohn responded.

Bohn and his wife, Kim, arrived in Las Vegas on Wednesday afternoon with the same sinking feeling. “My initial thought was I don’t think we’re going to play any more basketball,” Bohn said Friday.

The Pac-12 athletic directors were set to meet the next morning. But by then, pressing decisions were already made — at USC and elsewhere.

The university had started forming contingency plans weeks before. Classes were tested online before fully switching over by Wednesday night. As early as Monday, processes were being put into place to run “a virtual school” to keep athletes focused on academics via Zoom. Every student was attached to an advisor who would be their point of contact.

“It’s stressful, in that there’s a lot of uncertainty,” said Denise Kwok, USC’s director of student-athlete academic services. “The antidote to that is communication.”

Those open lines of communication would quickly be tested, as the Pac-12 announced Wednesday afternoon the decision to bar fans from the arena for the remainder of the tournament.

A meeting was called with the team shortly after 6 p.m. to explain the situation and how players would have to restrict their visitor lists. Players were confused and upset. They’d already lamented the idea of playing in empty arenas. Perrier, the deputy director, stood in front of the team, ready to answer questions, when a notification rang out.

The news swept through the room like a dark cloud. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for coronavirus. The NBA had suspended its season. Perrier watched as the gravity of it all finally dawned on the players.

“They were completely disarmed,” he said. “It made us realize this was bigger than just one tournament.”

A few hours later, USC’s top three athletics administrators sat around the table in the hotel lobby, with no choice, as they saw it, but to take decisive action.

Bohn communicated with Folt, whom he said later “helped step in and decide the course of action for the conference.”

“Rather than maintain the status quo, we decided to shut everything down until we had more visibility,” Bohn said.

So they canceled any remaining flights for USC sports teams and switched the lacrosse team, bound for Tempe, Ariz., at 7 the next morning, to a charter bus. They considered keeping the team home altogether, but “had to consult what the Pac-12’s response would be, if we just said our team isn’t going,” Bell Limbrick said.

The administrators left for their rooms around midnight. None of them slept much. Every hour or so, Bohn woke up, jotted down a few notes, then tried to get back to sleep, unsure of what the next day would bring.

By 9:17 the next morning, the bus carrying the lacrosse team was told to turn around.

All conference sporting events were canceled.

“Everyone was still just processing,” USC lacrosse coach Lindsey Munday said. “When we turned the bus around, it was just the Pac-12, announcing that we were suspended indefinitely. It still wasn’t a final, final word. You were still wondering, ‘What if?’ ”

::

The final, devastating answer came shortly after 1 p.m.

Hours before, as the cascade of canceled conference tournaments began, Perrier set up a group text with all of USC’s coaches and a handful of senior leaders in the athletic department. He told coaches to adjust for travel for the coming week. Bohn informed coaches in the thread that recruiting was to shut down for the foreseeable future. Reply with any questions, they told them.

There were plenty. Were all practices canceled? What did this mean for their seasons? What about the student-athletes still on campus? Could they still train in the athletic facilities?

Clarification trickled in slowly, as Bohn and his team did their best to keep open lines of communication with coaches. They scheduled a 1 p.m. conference call, with the intention of answering every question they could.

The call began with Bohn addressing coaches, several of whom praised Bohn for his poise amid such a challenging situation.

“Mike did a great job setting the tone,” Perrier said. “It was so clear how much he cares.”

Perrier took over, going through questions on housing and dining and online academics. Then, Bell Limbrick showed him a message on her phone from the NCAA. Their worst fears were being realized.

UCLA players had more on their minds than basketball after the cancellation of the Pac-12 Conference and NCAA tournaments.

“It is impossible,” Bohn said, “to describe the surreal nature of being on a conference call with all your head coaches, the majority of which compete in the spring, and at the same time, the NCAA announces all winter and spring championships are canceled. It was a devastating moment of stunned silence and disbelief.”

They answered what questions they could. At 1:39, five minutes after the somber conference call ended, the department sent out a message to athletes, informing them of the announcement.

“They deserved to know from us,” Sosna said.

One by one, the coaches faced their players for one of the hardest conversations they could remember.

“Probably the toughest meeting you have with your kids,” Munday said. “They’re heartbroken. You’re heartbroken for them.”

USC’s top-ranked men’s tennis team had just been sized for their indoor national championship rings.

“It was hard for me to get the words right,” coach Brett Masi said. “As a season gets to the end, you start to think, it’s your last match. The back of your mind, you process how to say it, but I didn’t have anything to say. It was such a shock.”

That stunned disbelief surely won’t wear off for some time, as USC’s athletic department faces the reality of a shortened winter and lost spring. That fallout is only just beginning. The NCAA is planning to grant spring-sport athletes, who lost complete seasons, a waiver for an additional year of eligibility, but where they begin to repair the damage beyond that remains to be seen.

“It’s impossible to comprehend that what felt so abstract three days ago is our new reality,” Sosna said.

At USC, plenty of questions still remain. But in the midst of a crisis unprecedented in college athletics, Bohn provided the most important answer of all.

“We haven’t worked together that long,” Perrier said. “And on a day like this, there was implicit trust in everyone, nonetheless. That’s Mike. He was so clear about what our core mission was. That was set in stone. That won’t waver.”

Over the previous 24 hours, Bohn had kept USC athletes, coaches and administrators in the loop as much as he could. So at 9:43 p.m. on Thursday, Bohn sent out one last text.

“As this challenging day is coming to an end,” he wrote, “I want to thank you all for your incredible help, professionalism, wisdom, and poise.”


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