Bryant-Denny Stadium before the Sept. 28, 2019 game between Alabama and Ole Miss.
Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne said during a virtual town hall Thursday night that a decision about whether there will be changes to the upcoming football season will have to be made within the next two months.
“I think when we get into late June and the first week of July, we’re gonna have to make some decisions,” Byrne told a group of ticket-holders and donors. “Coach Saban and I have had a number of discussions about it: what do we need for the safety of our kids to be able to come back and be ready, be football ready at the SEC level?
“That’s four at the very minimum but very likely six weeks of preparation to get ready. And so how you pull that all together when that to comes mid-July to late-July, we’re gonna have to have some decisions made on what that looks like.”
Alabama would typically open fall camp around Aug. 1, with its season opener scheduled for Sept. 5 in Dallas against USC, although Saban has proposed a non-contact teaching period ahead of the start of fall camp that would presumably take place in late July.
The Tide opens its home schedule Sept. 12 and Byrne said the school continues to plan for a full fall sports schedule that includes Bryant-Denny Stadium at full capacity.
“Are we looking at different options on what could potentially take place? Yes, we are,” Byrne said. “We’re not necessarily broadcasting what those are.”
As for potential social-distancing measures that could be implemented at Alabama football games, Byrne suggested that all fans could wear masks.
“It was interesting, I was talking to a fellow AD of mine I think two days ago and he said, ‘Hey, did you see the picture of the Georgia Tech football game from when the Spanish flu took place in 1918.’ I said, ‘No, I haven’t.’ Now I’ve seen it about a hundred times,” Byrne explained. “In this picture, the stands look very full and everybody has a mask on.
“So the medical experts that I’ve been talking to, one of the things they’ve said — early on, I was trying to understand this and say, ‘OK, I’m reading everywhere that the mask doesn’t really protect you, it protects the people you come in contact with.’ I said, ‘What if both people are wearing masks? Doesn’t it protect you both ways?’ And they said, ‘Well, yeah.’
“And so this weekend I was doing some research and reading, and basically if you both are wearing masks, it reducing the transmission of viruses by like 99 percent. Now that can’t be the only solution, I understand that. So please don’t walk away thinking, ‘Oh, that’s what we’re going to do. Everything is gonna be fine.’
“But what I think how we’re gonna find a landing spot that hopefully can work well for the University of Alabama and the health and wellness of our student-athletes and fans is find something that is multiple steps to give us a chance to have a fall sports season where people can come and be a part of it.”
Byrne compared potential game-day changes to the institution of Bryant-Denny Stadium’s clear-bag policy several years ago.
“If I would have said to [his wife] Regina seven years ago, ‘Reg, you can’t bring a purse to a game anymore,’ she would have looked at me like I had three eyes,” he said. “Now nobody blinks an eye. Everybody carries a clear bag to the game. That’s what happens now.
“Our best possible opportunity to have a full fall sports season is we may have to make adjustments to what we do and how we approach our game day. And that’s what it takes to have a successful fall sports season for our teams, our student-athletes, our university, our community — all those things.
“I know how much our fans care about our university. I bet you we’re gonna adjust. I bet you there may be some inconvenience but we’ll figure it out and try to support. I think that’s the attitude we’re going to have to have going forward.”
Byrne said he “did not have to answer yet” which fans would receive access to the stadium if capacity was reduced.
“We would have to create some type of system that would give hopefully a number of people an opportunity to be here and be a part of it,” he said. “Maybe not the same number of games that they have in the past. There are some different models that we have already started looking at. Our hope is not to have to use those models, but if that’s what is deemed as part of the solution and we think that’s the right thing to do, then we’ll execute on that.”
If a football season is not played entirely, Byrne reiterated that fans would be refunded for their tickets but that the department could ask for voluntary waivers of the refunds.
“That’s the right thing to do and we’ll do it,” Byrne said of the refunds. “We may say, ‘Hey, would you willing to donate any of your season ticket revenue to help us manage our department?’ Because we are such a large enterprise. But at the same time, do we want people to do what’s right for them and we will do our best and refund any unused ticket revenue. People can rest assured, you’ve heard it from me, that will be the case.”
Byrne noted the school has already extended its season-ticket payment deadline to May 20 and encouraged fans to contact the ticket office if they need alternative payment plans.
More from Byrne:
What if some schools in certain states return sooner than others? Byrne: “[SEC commissioner] Greg [Sankey] is talking to his peers almost on a daily basis in the Power 5, and also all the Division I commissioners together too. Because you don’t want the entire enterprise of college athletics to be healthy through this. At some point, we will have to make decisions on what’s right for the SEC, just like we will make decisions on what’s right for the University of Alabama. But the goal is to try to collectively come together and find solutions that work. I was on an NCAA football oversight committee call today for two hours and we’ve got schools from all across the country who were on this call. I can tell you, the collegiality, we want these things to work, but there is a recognition we may be able to have some our kids back on our campus sooner than someone in New York or California. At some point, there’s going to have be an acceptance of that. I think there is that recognition on the national level. I think that’s a positive thing for college sports. I think that’s a positive thing for the University of Alabama and college football. Being on the football committee, that’s what you’re looking through the lens of: how does it affect football programs and student-athletes?
Will any sports or scholarships be dropped as a result of budget constraints? Byrne: “We’re very fortunate at Alabama — and I know some other places are having to go through some very challenging decisions about that — we obviously froze our budgets as soon as all of our activities stopped. We tried to find some savings. We refunded our baseball and softball season ticket holders their money or we’re in the process of doing that right now. We will have the opportunity for a great number of our seniors who lost their spring eligibility will be back next year. Softball has already announced the whole team is coming back. Men’s tennis has done it as well. There’s some kids who have graduated and will have moved on already. There’s some that have decided — obviously we want them all to graduate and we’re going to support them through there. We’re going to be able to go with our full allotment of sports, full allotment of scholarships and that will not be changing.”
Have any student-athletes contracted COVID-19? Byrne: “We have done very well through this. There have been some people that we need to make sure we’re paying attention to, but as of right now, everything that I have been made aware of — and obviously there’s time when people’s health matters are private and they don’t share that — but everything that I’ve been made aware of, our student-athletes, our coaches and our staff are doing very well right now. There have been some whose family members have been impacted by this. Some by a health standpoint and there have been some who have lost their jobs over this. And so we want to support them however we can.”
Will tailgating be affected? Byrne: “I don’t know yet. I’m not sure. And I think ‘I don’t know’ the first week of May is a reasonable response so we’re not rushing to judgment on what it’s gonna look like in July, August, September, October.”
Is Bryant-Denny Stadium construction on schedule? Byrne: “I actually went and toured Bryant-Denny on Sunday. I sent some pictures out over Twitter to share to with people. It’s coming together. It’s coming together well. Things are on time. Knock on wood that they’ll continue that way. They’ve continued to get the materials we need. Mal Moore [building renovations] is on time. I’m back at the office now. There’s just about four of five of us at this point who have access to the office. And so I’ve been going there most days. There’s a lot of construction activity there. The sports science center is coming along very well. The renovations to our locker room and medical treatment center really is gonna be good. We’ve got a long way to go. It’s exciting to see. Our goal is to be back in operation in September and hopefully have a chance for our fans to come and see that.”
What is the latest on Coleman Coliseum renovation plans? Byrne: “The revenue from what we’re doing in Phase I gives us the opportunity to go to Phase II and hopefully Phase III. Coleman Coliseum, to renovate it, to build a new basketball arena, when you do the financial modeling — which we have a financial and fiduciary responsibility to manage our resources — it does not stand alone. The revenue that we generate from a new arena or a renovation can’t pay for the renovation or new arena. It would have a significant, negative financial impact on our department. So that revenue from Phase I of Bryant-Denny Stadium, what we’re doing there is the springboard to allow us to go to Coleman. We said Coleman, we’re planning on Coleman, but as we continue to get — when we introduced everything with the “Crimson Standard,” one of the things I said very publicly, and I’m going to say it again today, this plan is fluid. When we announced [the plan], I said it will look different 12 months from now, just like it looked different from 12 months earlier. And so we have to do something from a basketball and gymnastics standpoint to set our programs up for the next 30 years. That is really important. I’m 48 years old. I really want to retire at Alabama. That’s my goal. I know we have to address this. Now what has happened in the last seven weeks, there’s a lot of unknowns right now. So it wouldn’t be honest on my part if I said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna get this thing going in the next year.’ What I can tell you is that we are actively raising money to address Coleman Coliseum and to help our men’s and women’s basketball programs and gymnastics program for the long haul. It’s really important and we got to make sure we do it in a manner that allows the financial health of our department to stay strong for a long time.”
On railroad track overpass construction adjacent to Coleman Coliseum: Byrne: “They’ve actually started putting up the fence. I don’t know when the actual shovel in the ground is. We’re gonna lose about 350 spaces during the construction period and then I think we’ll get 200 of those back. So it won’t be a net loss of 350, but it’s going to be a year-plus of construction they’ll be going through with that.”