LARAMIE – It’s starting to feel a little more normal around the State of Wyoming. University of Wyoming athletics director Tom Burman got his first glimpse of normalcy last week on the road in Sheridan and Casper.
It’s a been long year for everyone in the UW athletics department, which has had to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic fallout from fewer ticket sales, canceled games and the loss of NCAA Tournament money.
But as he went around the state raising money last week, Burman found himself at ease. People were walking around Downtown Casper like they did in the “before times,” prior to COVID turning life on its head.
Things finally felt right.
“Tthe energy and excitement amongst people, when you would see them, it was very different than anything I’ve felt in the last 12 months,” Burman said. “If this isn’t back to normal, I don’t know what is … it looked like Middle America celebrating a Thursday night in June.”
Burman spoke with WyoSports recently about a variety of topics, including the state of the football program, the transfer portal and the new policies on Name, Image and Likeness (NIL).
The UW football team entered the 2020 season with high expectations, fully expecting to contend for its first Mountain West title. A lot happened between when spring practice was supposed to start and when the season actually began, including a postponement of the season and its restart just a month afterward.
The Cowboys struggled throughout 2020 for various reasons. Starting quarterback Sean Chambers, a redshirt sophomore, broke his left leg on the third play of the season opener at Nevada. Games were canceled and injuries and COVID protocols took their toll as UW limped to a 2-4 record.
There were certainly issues with the Cowboys’ offense, as the team scored just 25 points total over the final two games of the season. But in addition to what was happening on the field, there was a loss of camaraderie off the field, Burman said, because of the pandemic.
Normal team bonding, such as eating meals together at the training table, was gone. Players were spaced out at team activities so as to avoid contact. Getting tested for COVID multiple times per week started to wear on players.
There was also the fact the team played in empty stadiums, or at the very least ones with lowered capacities. UW played just two home games in 2020, and each was with reduced capacity.
It was a perfect storm of negative experiences that likely contributed to UW’s struggles.
“(It was a) cultural challenge that hit. We had to isolate our kids so much,” Burman said. “Our big social hub is our training table … everything was divided, it was broken up.
“I do believe it had an impact on socialization.”
Burman believes 2020 was an aberration, however, and with things expected to return toward normal for 2021, he expects the football program to once again be competitive. He has also been surprised at the high level of season ticket sales thus far and expects War Memorial Stadium’s capacity to “be as it was in 2019.”
During spring practice, Burman said the energy around the team felt different in the best possible way.
“There’s a pep in their step,” Burman said.
Burman estimated that 60-70% of UW’s student-athletes have been vaccinated at this point, though it is up to individual athletes to make the choices for themselves. He expects the vaccination number to be upward of 85% once fall sports begin.
Burman expects COVID to be around “for our lifetime” in a manner similar to the flu, but that the “stigma will change.”
“We are educating them and making sure they understand the facts … there is a lot of misinformation,” Burman said. “If they want to compete … it’s in their best interest to get vaccinated, because at some point they’re going to be exposed.”
Much of the talk in college athletics has centered around the transfer portal and the increase in student-athletes leaving one program for another. The NCAA recently passed legislation that players could transfer once, penalty-free, and not have to sit out a season as was previously customary.
The move has led to an influx of names in the portal. According to VerbalCommits, for example, there have been a whopping 1,659 college basketball transfers this year alone. It has led some coaches to worry about players from smaller programs getting “poached” by bigger schools once they have sufficiently developed.
UW basketball has not been immune to the fear, as the Cowboys lost MW freshman of the year Marcus Williams to Texas A&M early in the offseason.
Burman believes that it won’t just be a negative for a school like Wyoming, as they will conversely be the recipient of transfers from bigger programs. He also noted that right now, the pendulum has turned toward transferring. It’s the popular thing to do. However, that might change in the future when athletes realize “the grass isn’t always greener.”
The days of four-year player development from underrecruited to superstar, however? That might be harder to come by.
“I think it’s going to be hard for our fans to get used to,” Burman said. “The days of Larry Nance Jr. … we may see less of that.”
NIL approaching fast
The NCAA is in conversations to pass universal NIL laws as various states around the country continue to adopt their own legislation. NIL would allow players to profit off their own likeness. As of now, five states are set to start the legislation July 1, according to CBS Sports: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and New Mexico.
Per CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd, athletes in those states, “Will be able to sign endorsement deals, sell autographs, own YouTube channels and more.”
It potentially sets up a disparity in college athletics, as schools where players can profit off their own likeness might be more appealing to recruits than places where there isn’t legislation in place.
A hearing with various NCAA administrators and college coaches took place in front of the senate Wednesday afternoon.
UW has started working on NIL’s intricacies should it come to Wyoming, partnering with brand management company Firestarter to offer courses for student-athletes interested in learning about branding.
“There’s no reason not to (embrace NIL),” Burman said. “(But) I think it’s going to impact very few (UW student-athletes) financially.”