Illini vs ISU canceled: Redbirds to lose at least $450,000

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NORMAL, Ill. (WMBD) — The Big Ten’s decision Thursday to play a conference-only schedule for all fall sports, including football, left local colleges feeling the financial loss as a result.

ISU Athletics Director Larry Lyons confirmed the worst Friday and said the university is still picking up the pieces.

“The guarantee in the contract was $450,000,” Lyons said. “Josh Whitman (University of Illinois Athletic Director) agreed to let the dust settle and we’ll talk about the contract terms down the road, it’s not the time to figure that out now.  How we decide to move on from here in the game cancellation will remain to be seen.  We need to get it figured out.”

Lyons said the loss would leave the players and fans of both universities defeated without a game taking place.

“Purely from a fan perspective, it’s a disappointment,” Lyons said. “Students know each other in these two institutions, fans know each other, it’s 50 miles apart. [Players] wanna play this game. They look forward to playing the FBS game in the years that we’re able to schedule them.”

Lyons said he was unsure whether the Big Ten’s decision wold have any impact on how the Missouri Valley Conference would handle the season moving forward.

“The Big Ten made decisions in their best interest, and the Missouri Valley Conference is probably going to have to make the best decisions in what their interests are in because this is evolving so quickly, so they’ll have to evolve quickly too,” Lyons said.

While the in-state showdown won’t happen this fall, Lyons said another big game may be able to take its place.

“There are some MAC (Mid-American Conference) schools that are not playing these,” Lyons said. “I think the MAC had more contracts than the Valley. I think we had four or five teams against Big Ten or Power 5 schools.  The decision will be, is this the right thing to do is trying to replace the games?”

WMBD spoke with starting Redbird quarterback Brady Davis about how he and his teammates are still practicing during the pandemic. He said while it’s a bummer to not have the ISU vs. U of I game anymore, he and his teammates are keeping the same mindset.

“We’re definitely getting after it the same way in the summer and training really hard in the season,” Davis said.

“It’s been good after months and months being apart from everybody just being able to get back and get to work with your brothers again. It’s been a little different. It’s getting kind of normal, we’re keeping our distance. Everything’s pretty spread out as far as the inside, lifting weights aspect. We’re on our own, lifting weights.”

Davis, originally from Mississippi, said now it’s time to focus on winning the Missouri Valley Conference.

“If we take that same route and just play Missouri valley, gotta be ready for that, because that’s as good of a conference as it gets,” Davis said.

Lyons said he’s confident in how the ISU Athletic Department is handling the pandemic by putting the health and safety of players and staff first.

“Right now we’re in a voluntary period,” Lyons said. “In June, we brought them in three phases, in groups, so we could manage the phases. We’ve taken our strength room and have put half of it in the lower bowl of Redbird Arena and spread them out.  They have access to gyms, football fields, soccer fields, to tracks.”

Lyons confirmed Friday one athlete tested positive for COVID-19 recently and gave WMBD an update on his status.

“We did 160 tests and that was student-athletes across several sports and our strength coaches, trainers, coaching staffs of those sports,” Lyons said. “We had 159 negatives and 1 positive.  That’s a win in my book,” Lyons said.  The young man that was positive was asymptomatic, he went through his quarantine period and now he’s back in his voluntary workout.”

Lyons said the work doesn’t stop now as his department has more student-athletes coming to campus very soon.

“The next phase will be when we bring the incoming freshmen and transfers in, that starts next week,” Lyons said. “We’ll go through a much more extensive process with them. Not just the COVID test, they have to go through physicals, sickle cell tests, concussion baseline testing, compliance work and much more things. Normally we would have gone through those tests by this time now.”

The loss of the U of I vs. ISU game wasn’t the first hurdle the Redbirds have had to get over this year.

“When we lost the men’s basketball tournament, we started to plan for that,” Lyons said.

“We look very closely at our budgets. We did some things differently with summer school. We’re continuing to see how we can tweak budgets. We told all our coaches, keep some things in your back pocket, cause I might have to reach in your back pocket and take those away from you as we go along. We’re gonna plan to play games and we’re gonna play games until we’re told to stop. This is what happened in the spring, we were told to stop. I think that’s the only way you can look at this thing. You can put things in place, do things safely, with their health in the best interest, we’re gonna continue to go down that path.”

Larry Lyons, ISU Athletics Director

While this is a hit to the department’s bottom line, Lyons said he’s still confident they’ll be able able to stay afloat, but he said he hopes this is the last cancellation any team has to go through.

“If we have some other non-conference casualties like this, that’s where you’re gonna have some cost savings,” Lyons said.

The question remains, will there still be a football season this fall? Lyons thinks so.

“I’m not as confident as I was a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “

But I’ve always been pretty confident if we put the right procedures in place, our kids come here healthy, we’ve got a pretty good chance. You can’t anticipate what’s happening in the country as other states have opened up and things have gone in the wrong direction, so that does give me some pause.”

Lyons said ensuring students and staff health is a daily process.

“We did the one initial test, and then every day we do what we call a symptom test,” he says.

“We take their temperature and ask them very specific questions about how they feel. If there was something that would trigger the next level, we would consult with human health services on campus and make that decision what that would be next.  To my knowledge, we haven’t had to go to that next step.”

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