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Rick George navigating toughest challenge as CU Buffs’ leader

Colorado athletic director guiding Buffaloes through COVID-19 pandemic

Matthew Jonas / Staff Photographer
Colorado athletic director Rick George is looking for a coach that get the most out of a roster that has win-now talent.

Most days, the Zoom meetings start first thing and the morning, and often they run consecutively into the evening.

Colorado athletic director Rick George has been busier than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the college athletics world deals with the uncertainty of the future.

“Having multiple staff meetings, leadership meetings with our team, head coach meetings virtually,” he said. “Then you compound that with Pac-12 meetings talking about all the issues that we’ve been through with COVID, and then the NCAA committees that I sit on.”

Add in meetings with donors, student-athletes and/or their parents and a few calls with media now and then and George has certainly become adept at working from the home office – which is a challenge in itself.

“I’m trying to communicate differently than I ever had,” he said. “I’m more of a hands-on person and not being able to see people face-to-face has been somewhat of a challenge.”

George is no stranger to challenges. Since he was hired as CU athletic director in July of 2013, he’s led the charge for record-setting fundraising and a $168 million facilities overhaul; gone through two football coaching changes and one in women’s basketball; and seen many ups and downs on and off the playing surfaces.

George and the athletic department also dealt with domestic violence charges against a former assistant football coach in the winter of 2016-17. That led to George, former head coach Mike MacIntyre and chancellor Phillip DiStefano being reprimanded for how they handled the situation.

Through it all, George has been widely praised by his peers, his staff and his student-athletes for his leadership in good times and bad.

The past 10 weeks have presented George with his biggest challenge as a leader, however.

“Without question,” he said.

Over the years, numerous aspects of college sports have changed, but the train has kept rolling for about a century. The COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented with its wide-ranging impact on society and the economy.

In 1918, an influenza pandemic led to CU and other state schools shutting down for a few weeks, and the football team had its season pushed later into the fall. The Buffs eventually played a revised and shortened schedule. At that time, however, college athletics was not the big-money machine that it is now.

College sports is a major business – in 2017-18, CU had an athletics budget of roughly $90 million and ranked just 45th nationally in revenue – and that business is being threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic. By March 13, the winter sports championships and all spring sports were cancelled. Within a few days, athletic facilities around the country were shut down.

Nearly three months later, there is no guarantee there will be a fall sports season, which could have a devastating impact on CU and other schools, who all depend on the revenue generated by football.

CU is scheduled to open its football season in 98 days – Sept. 5 at Colorado State – but doesn’t know if the game will take place. And, if it is played, will fans be there to see it?

“A lot of times, the decisions that are made from a campus level, a state and county level, you’ve got to kind of wait for all those things in this environment, so it’s been challenging but  I think we’ve done a good job at keeping this moving in the right direction,” George said. “But, it has been challenging because you’ve got to make a lot of decisions. You’re making them daily, and you’re making decisions not knowing what the future looks like. It’s starting to become a little clearer, but you still don’t know.”

Some of the decisions made by George and other athletic directors around the country have included budget cuts. A few non-Power 5 conference teams have even cut some sports, but George said that’s not on his radar for CU. George and the head coaches have taken pay cuts for the next year, however, while some in the athletic department will be furloughed.

“Our staff and student athletes obviously are important and part of my family,” George said. “I have to make those difficult decisions and it is emotional.”

George has a vision of CU being in better shape a year from now, but knows he and the staff have to deal with tough challenges for the foreseeable future. During this time, they can’t lose sight of their overall mission of putting the student-athletes first.

“We’re into that phase now (of the student-athletes returning to campus) and really focused on making sure that we have the right protocols in place, not only for student-athletes but for our staff and those that surround them and we’ll continue to work on that,” he said. “It’s challenging, but we’ve got really good people working on it and I feel good about our team and what we’re doing.”

Meanwhile, the Zoom meetings continue as George, his peers and the rest of the world try to navigate a unique time of uncertainty.

“People are all over the map as they look at what (the fall season could look) like,” he said. “So we’re planning for a variety of scenarios.

“We’re kind of seeing how this works out and shapes itself out over the next several weeks. A lot of decisions to make and some of them are not easy; they’re difficult and challenging.”