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Rooney: Tough decisions loom for CU Buffs AD Rick George

Financial dominoes will continue to fall with compromised football season

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The sad and unfortunate reality is this: Colorado athletic director Rick George has a number of painful decisions to make in the future. And whenever NCAA athletics resumes in full force, there is a good chance the CU Buffs athletic department will never look the same.

By July, the football clouds gathering on the horizon are supposed to spark the sort of optimism usually reserved for baseball fans during spring training. Those clouds are growing darker and more ominous with each passing week. The idea the season will unfold as planned is being waylaid by the COVID-19 pandemic that already eliminated the NCAA basketball tournaments as well as the entire spring sports schedule.

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
CU athletic director Rick George is trying to navigate the coronavirus pandemic gracefully, but the financial windfall both on and off athletic fields will dictate even more tough decisions in the coming weeks.

Now the football season is squarely in the pandemic’s headlights.

Even if the football season is delayed for a winter start/spring finale, the financial ramifications likely will be irreversible. Already CU was denied the payout from an appearance in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. CU’s lucrative financial partnership with Learfield IMG College, which brokers CU’s local radio contracts while providing a number of other sponsorship opportunities, remains up in the air. This week the company reportedly gave notice to several athletic departments, including CU’s Pac-12 rivals Cal and UCLA, that they are seeking renegotiated terms that will drastically reduce the funds in those departments’ coffers. CU may be in line to take that hit as well.

Layoffs and furloughs already have struck the athletic department. If, or when, the football season is compromised, George may not have any choice but to consider dropping programs at CU.

To his credit, since the shutdown began and the NCAA cash cow started to squeeze shut, George has been consistent in his stance that eliminating sports is the last thing he wants to do. No doubt, that’s true. Most athletic directors, George included, were athletes themselves, and given the choice most would much prefer to add sports than drop them.

Eventually, however, George may not have an alternative. Personnel can only be trimmed so far. In the past two-plus months, CU has lost three administrators with “associate athletic director” in their title in Ceal Barry (technically the deputy AD), Ben Broussard, and Matt Biggers. It remains unclear when, or even if, those positions will be filled (BuffZone.com reached out to CU to update that particular personnel situation, but was told George tentatively is planning a media teleconference this upcoming week). Those departures each were resignations, on top of four recent layoffs within athletics.

The only logical next step is to start trimming sports.

Any CU program that might meet the unfortunate fate of the chopping block would end a meaningful chapter in Buffs history. It would be irresponsible, and unfair to the student-athletes in those programs crossing their collective fingers, to speculate which sports might be the first to go. Buffs fans probably can do the math to figure which ones might be first in line, while noting a men’s program likely would be at the top of the pecking order due to Title IX considerations.

It should come as no surprise the CU athletic department indulged in a #FaceMasks4FallSports social media campaign this past week. Between Monday and Saturday, the Twitter accounts of George, the athletic department (@CUBuffs), and the compliance department (@CUCompliance) combined to fire off 27 tweets regarding the virtues of wearing masks in public. Obviously it’s a commendable effort, and one perhaps less necessary locally than in the regions the teams on the first half of CU’s football schedule call home.

Yet the campaign underscores a desperate truth. If athletic departments are being forced to beg their fans to wear masks in public nearly four months after a pandemic shuttered everyone in their homes and wiped March Madness off the calendar, then the idea the situation will be safe enough for the Buffs to embark on a schedule that includes pre-November dates in coronavirus hot spots like Texas, Arizona, and California (and perhaps even the men’s basketball team’s mid-November trip to virus-riddled Florida) is wishful thinking.

Wear masks and maybe, just maybe, we’ll still get some semblance of a football schedule. If not, expect more financial dominoes to fall.