When Jeff Smith took the reins as Plano ISD athletic director in February, he could have hardly foreseen his first couple months on the job turning out like this.
Just over one month after his hiring — still learning the ins and outs of the post — Smith, like every athletic director across the state, was tasked with helping lead his school district through what coaches and administrators have called the most unprecedented circumstance of their careers.
“You’re just excited to get started and meet people, and then all of a sudden something like this happens,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of people around the district whose hands I wasn’t even able to shake and now everything has gone virtual. It’s definitely been an interesting start, to say the least.”
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on teams and student-athletes around the state — from the cancellation of all sports for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year to closure of playing fields and facilities at all high schools. At the top of any athletic department’s leadership hierarchy is the athletic director, setting a blueprint for coaches and administrators to model while discussing and disseminating information on how to cope with a situation that no one could have planned for just a couple months ago.
“It’s unfortunate, but I’m thankful that our district has done such a great job of communicating and working with our kids, teachers, principals and coaches as far as having a plan,” Smith said. “It sure isn’t what I expected in my first 60 days as an athletic director, for sure.”
The result has been a six-week whirlwind for the athletic directors involved, acclimating to different ways of conducting business to developing short-term resolutions with the understanding that plans could change at any moment. That means communication throughout the week with campus athletic coordinators and head coaches, something where administrators have tried to instill some sense of normalcy despite using online conferencing platforms like Zoom or Webex.
“We have our regular coordinator meetings and they pass along information to their head coaches from there,” said Tim Ford, Lewisville ISD athletic director. “The communication is happening, but it takes a little longer to get through the flow of things. … You’re doing it virtually and you’ve got a group, but it just doesn’t flow the same way. The communication has been different and a bit more difficult.”
In some ways, that information highway is even more highly trafficked these days as coaches and administrators seek one another out to exchange ideas and discuss how each district is handling the statewide athletics shutdown.
“You go back to leaning on friends in the business, as well as your kids and coaches, and you all grow a lot closer together as a family of coaches and educators,” Smith said. “You’re all trying to do what’s best, so it pulls you together and you find that you’re communicating possibly now more than ever.”
The fluidity of the 35 days that passed between the initial suspension of high school sports until the UIL announced its official cancellation on April 17 left teams in a bit of limbo, but administrators didn’t lack in resources to help keep their respective schools apprised of any developments and contingency plans being discussed — be it through communication through the UIL, the Texas High School Coaches Association, the Texas High School Athletic Directors Association, and right down to the various district executive committees.
This past week alone offered two crucial outlets for coaches and administrators with the UIL conducting a legislative council meeting at 9 a.m. Friday followed by a spring roundtable conducted by the THSADA.
“That’s a great resource online for us to watch and see what other districts are doing,” Smith said.
All the while, administrators have kept the interests of the student-athletes in mind.
“We talk about that all the time and we want to make sure we’re communicating with the kids and reaching out to them, whether it’s through Zoom meetings, Google Classroom or just form of social media,” Smith said. “We just want to make sure they’re OK. I think out of all this, that’s been the main objective — to take care of the kids and let them know that we’re there for them.
“… We had to shut everything down, so we’ve got to figure out what else we can do — whether it’s give them workouts to do at home or give them character lessons, guidance and things to do while we’re away. That’s where our minds went — figuring out how to take care of our kids and make this situation the best it can be for them.”
Although that means coping with a lost spring, administrators have turned an eye toward the summer and monitoring things like strength and conditioning guidelines, 7-on-7 football and summer camps for young kids around the area, while also getting a head start on things for the fall.
“We’re working ahead a lot and still planning ahead for a lot of things — the procedures are just changed to being virtual. In a lot of ways, that takes more time than normal,” Ford said. “We don’t have games, officials and travel to worry about, but you’re looking ahead to see what happens with everything else. You’re putting together tentative schedules and what not.”
Even though schools remain closed and sports remain on hold, forward movement toward resuming high school competition is coming at some point. When that time arrives, athletic directors want to make sure their programs are ready.
“We have to follow the lead of the state and the UIL, but just like them, we’re making plans and preparing our kids accordingly,” Smith said.