‘This has been the hardest three months of my career’
LARAMIE -- Tom Burman is busy addressing a disaster.
What else is new?
The latest one was a wet, unexpected snow storm that hit Laramie two days ago, taking out numerous tress, shutting down highways in and out of the city and power for several hours late Monday night through Tuesday afternoon.
"It looks like a tornado hit Laramie," Wyoming's athletics director said Wednesday to begin a 21-minute phone conversation. "Trees on Ivinson will probably have to come down. They are split right down the middle.
We will get through this. It's just another 2020 issue."
Those 2020 issues were front and center for Burman during our talk Wednesday.
We spoke about the latest on the COVID-19 front, financial issues and civil unrest around the nation. Mostly, how all of those things will impact the athletic programs at UW. It wasn't all bad news. We also touched on optimism, actual football and men's hoops news and what this season might look like from a fans perspective.
7220 sports: So, first and foremost, I think the fans want to know -- what's the latest on football starting on time?
Tom Burman: I would say, as of June 10, we are planning on playing football Sept. 5 versus Weber State and again the next week against Utah. All indications and the direction things are going in college football, we are planning on playing. Will that mean a full stadium? Very unlikely. There will be games and we will have fans.
7220 sports: Some athletes returned to campus June 1. They have all been tested for COVID-19 and are quarantined for 14 days. Has anyone tested positive? Any idea how many players have been tested?
Tom Burman: We've tested 166 people. We will release something probably today. Until legal people go over the results, I can't say how it went. All
I can say is it went well.
7220 sports: Did you get the giant Q-tip test? How did that feel?
Tom Burman: It was miserable, but were going to have to have to get used to it. It's a part of our life now. Is it painful? No. It's uncomfortable. I'm hoping we are making progress on saliva tests. The issues are the cost and accuracy of a saliva test ... The end game and goal is to switch from a nasal swab to a saliva test ... They're less invasive.
7220 sports: With recent protests sweeping the nation, including in Laramie, will players who are engaged in the protests have to start over when it comes to quarantine?
Tom Burman: No. We gave them some flexibility ... They were all wearing masks, and for the most part, stayed six feet apart from those they didn't know. They went there with a group and tried not to intermingle. We are not naive enough to say they didn't do it, but we feel good about it. We think it's important they participate in something they are passionate about.
7220 sports: On Monday, the Division-I Football Oversight Committee drafted a six-week practice plan, allowing coaches to work with players as early as July 6. It is still awaiting approval from the NCAA. Wyoming players would begin workouts July 13, "enhanced training" that is set to begin July 24, and a normal preseason start date of Aug. 7. Are you in favor of that?
Tom Burman: Yeah, I think that model has a lot of merrit ... We'll be getting freshmen here in the next few weeks. We need to get them through quarantine and in a position for a structured, mandatory workout program in early July.
7220 sports: The California State University system announced in May that its campuses would be closed to in-person classes this fall. Three Mountain West teams -- San Diego State, San Jose State and Fresno State -- are in that system. The Cowboys host the Aztecs Oct. 17. In April, MWC commissioner Craig Thompson said there wouldn't be football unless students return to campus. What is the latest on that?
Tom Burman: It looks like all three are planning to play and have fall sports. Most classes will be online, but some students will be on campus ... All states and institutions have autonomy and how they want to do it. It's possible those schools play in front of no fans. I don't know how they make that work -- that's their issue. They are hoping to loosen up regulations and have some level of fans.
7220 sports: Has the pandemic effected season ticket sales?
Tom Burman: Were about 750 to 800 below this same time last year. Most people are taking a wait-and-see approach. In the fall, I can see where we are at last year's numbers and maybe even a bit ahead of it. The first game could be very limited with possibly no single-game tickets available. We will have season-ticket holders and possibly 1,500 students (in the stadium), along with players' families. We hope to move (the number of fans) up each week as the season progresses. Depends on the results and analysis and whether (COVID-19) spikes or doesn't spike in Wyoming.
7220 sports: You've said the stadium needs to be at least 30 percent filled when the season rolls around. Have you even begun to think of how you would iron that out? Season ticket holders get first dibs? Will students get in?
Tom Burman: We've got multiple plans and have had conversations with the state department of health, the governor's office, our board of trustees, our doctors and the NCAA doctors ... As long as there is not a vaccine, we have to be comfortable with some level of risk. The only way to be absolutely safe is to not play. At present, we are planning to play and have access for all season-ticket holders. We are going to try to move some of them. A couple of sections are very crowded. We are going to ask them to move to spread them out a little bit. They can go back to that seat the following year. They will be displaced for a season, and we will start that process immediately. We will have about 5,000 seats set as socially distanced and safe as possibly. If you want to go sit in this section, there is approx six feet between fans and everyone will wear masks. There will be security. If anyone is nervous, they can feel comfortable there. We average roughly 3,000 students per game. We will reduce that and the rest of the stadium 50 percent. We are hoping to grow it every week. Keep in mind, this is all as of June 10. Things could change dramatically. But that's kind of what we are thinking. It will be very restricted. We aren't giving many tickets to visiting fans and they aren't going to give us many, I would suspect.
7220 sports: OK, enough of the doom and gloom. Let's pretend the season is a go and Weber State is inside War Memorial Stadium Sept. 5. In your 14 years as the AD in Laramie, have you seen this much excitement surrounding the football program?
Tom Burman: No. I'd say there's more optimism and belief that we have a quality football program and are one of the top teams in our conference. I'm not going to say we are Boise State or San Diego State. I'm not going to say that we are worse, either. It's great knowing that every time teams come to The War, they are going to get a first-class effort from a team that plays cowboy tough football. That's why, selfishly -- and there are a lot bigger issues in the world than University of Wyoming athletics -- Covid-19 and the crash of energy prices could not have hit at a worse time. We were looking at historic attendance with the schedule we have. It is what it is. If things go well, in the country and in Wyoming, if we can have crowds for Boise State and San Diego State, we would be thrilled. (The Cowboys host SDSU Oct. 17 and Boise State Nov. 21)
7220 sports: Craig Bohl returns a pair of young, exciting quarterbacks, one of the top running backs in the nation in Xazavian Valladay, a wealth of experience and talent on both lines of scrimmage and one of the best home schedules in recent memory. What are you looking forward to most?
Tom Burman: Winning. I just like to win. What I'm looking forward to most is we all have to come together to help each other. We will not be able to operate like normal, but at the end of the day, we are coming together to celebrate the university and the state of Wyoming. We see friends from Cody, Powell, Green River and Denver. Maybe you don't hug, but elbow bump. There's still the opportunity to do what we love in the state of Wyoming. If we can pull that off, we will have a great time celebrating the Cowboys. We are getting through this.
7220 sports: Want to jump on a grenade? Who starts under center against Weber State? Sean Chambers or Levi Williams?
Tom Burman: I don't want to touch that grenade. Whoever starts, it will be excellent. They are both great players and I love both as people. It will be exciting to watch them compete and lead Wyoming football.
7220 sports: Let's move on to men's hoops. Last year was rough. The last two years have been rough. Despite all of that, firing coaches, especially one with the character and values of Allen Edwards, has to be the worst part of this job, right?
Tom Burman: Correct. No-brainer. He's a good man with a great family. He tried everything in his power to get Wyoming basketball to where it needed to be. He'll be better for it and someday will get another chance. It is hard, but you've got to remember to separate personal feelings from business. You have to do what you have to do
7220 sports: You bring in Jeff Linder on St. Patrick's Day. Right around the time the world came to a halt. How impressive has it been for you to watch this guy land the top recruiting class in the conference without even stepping foot in a living room or meeting mom and dad -- or the players -- face to face?
Tom Burman: I give a great deal of credit to him and his staff. His plan and what they've accomplished, is amazing. More than just recruiting, the decision making process. You can't hold coaches hands. You can guide them at times, but to micromanage a coach creates an atmosphere where eventually you can't work together. With him, it was what do you do first? Go see Hunter Maldonado in Colorado Springs. Go see Kenny Foster and Kwane Marble in Denver. Go meet up with Hunter Thompson. It's not like, I'll get to it tomorrow. It's, I'm leaving in 15 minutes to go to Colorado Springs. Immediate stuff like that. His decision on staff, keeping Sean Vandiver here. He brings continuity to the old players and gives comfort to all of us in athletics. We love Coach V. He's easy to work with. Then he goes out and finds a Wyoming guy who dreamed of playing for the Cowboys. That didn't work out, he left and become a head coach. He goes out and hires Sundance Wicks. You can't just rely on recruiting Wyoming and Colorado to be successful, so he brings in coach (Ken) DeWeese, who has contacts in Texas ... There's a value of being a head coach. Every time I miss on a coach, 9 out of 10, I should've hired someone who is a head coach. He was at Northern Colorado for four years and that prepared him to do a great job at UW. I'm fired up for hoops. l hoop we can get through football without a flare of COVID and start hoops on time. The players are fired up to be here and get going.
7220 sports: You told me last season, around this time, that you are loving your job more than you ever have. In just a few months you have had to let a coach go, hire a new one, try and secure state funding, see COVID-19 take hold of the world, come up with plan after plan and sit in on virtual meeting after meeting, speak up in the face of nationwide protests, reschedule games last minute, get a giant swab jabbed into your brain and it snowed six inches in Laramie on June 8. Still love it that much?
Tom Burman: This has been the hardest three months of my career, no doubt about it. Do I still love it? Yes. But it's been rough. One thing you failed to mention is one of the biggest single threats to us -- the crash in energy prices. We can't continue to build, watch and develop without state support. I'm concerned about that. I wouldn't say it's gone, but it took a huge hit. I hope and pray we get it back.