Greg McCullough had just arrived inside MTSU's Murphy Center for the Thursday games at the Tennessee Girls’ State Basketball Championships. But as the Memphis Central principal and TSSAA Board of Control Vice President would soon come to find out, the sports world and society writ large had begun the painful process of shutting down social activities due to the COVID-19 coronavirus. The pandemic was raging and closing in fast on the storied Glass House.
“As things were unfolding, we’re sitting there watching games, and big-time college tournaments were being cancelled,” McCullough said. “It was just really a weird, surreal feeling. Plans would be made, then changed in hours.
“That Thursday, sitting in the stands at Girls’ State, Mr. Childress was even telling us board members that we couldn't come back tomorrow. At that time, teams were going to be playing in this huge arena in front of 100 select people."
Ultimately, the tournament would be halted Thursday night.
"I cannot imagine," McCullough added, "to have worked that hard and not gotten the chance to finish that dream, that’s a tough pill to swallow. But we just try to find the positive we can get out of it.”
Mr. Childress, as in TSSAA Executive Director Bernard Childress, went to great lengths in the weeks after the state tournament was suspended, with input from every corner of the state, in an effort to find a method to salvage the final games of the boys’ and girls’ basketball seasons, as well as scrape together some semblance of a spring sports season.
Greg Wyant, longtime football coach and athletics director at Murfreesboro's Siegel High School, remembers offering a parting piece of advice for students heading home on a cruel Friday the 13th.
“Many kids on the track team were in my weightlifting class that afternoon and I remember telling them before they walked out for the weekend that you need to be mentally prepared to not be here Monday and maybe not run track the rest of the season. Enjoy your meet on Saturday; it might be the last for a while if not for the year,” Wyant said. “The NBA was shutting down, then the MLB, then the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament, you could really see the writing on the wall. I just tried to talk to them and mentally prepare them for what the possibilities could be.
“I think a lot of the kids are a lot like a lot of us as adults, like, ‘Yeah, sure. No way that’s going to happen.’ But nobody’s ever seen anything like this."
Barely one month later, on April 15, those collective efforts were rendered moot when Gov. Bill Lee said the Volunteer State’s school buildings should remain closed through the end of the academic year. The TSSAA immediately followed through with the formal decision to cancel all remaining interscholastic sports for the academic year, an eventuality faced by high school associations across the country.
In speaking to a variety of coaches, administrators and leaders throughout the state of Tennessee, the hope moving forward centers around gradually transforming these unprecedented obstacles into potential life lessons.
“I think that, in the same way that sports provide teaching moments — how to win and how to lose, be respectful to teammates and opponents, how to be responsible and accountable — this experience has provided us with many of the same teaching opportunities and coaches are using it this way,” said Father Ryan Athletics Director Ann Mullins, “We talk to athletes about dealing with obstacles, overcoming adversity, gaining perspective.
“For as important as athletics are to the school community, their importance takes a backseat to the struggles that so many in the community and in the nation are facing. I think that is possibly the most important teaching moment for us as an athletic department and as a coach, period. We follow the lead of our president (Jim McIntyre) and principal (Paul Davis) who do a phenomenal job in helping us face these challenges.”
Fulton’s Jody Wright, the school’s state-title-winning boys’ basketball coach as well as athletics director and assistant principal at the Knoxville school, also said this unprecedented crisis has coerced a refreshed perspective.
“One of the things that I think is a really sound message is that once we get out of this that we as coaches can point to this situation and say: We don’t know what tomorrow holds,” Wright said. “God gives us today. So many times we take for granted our day, the moment we have, we take those things for granted. Seize the day, as the saying goes.
“Coaches have a tremendous opportunity coming out of this to teach cherishing what you have, cherishing the time we have and embracing the moment.”
Coaches and schools throughout the state are finding different ways to honor their students, athletes or otherwise, as this now-digital academic year winds towards its end.
Gatlinburg-Pittman soccer coaches Caleb Keener and Zach Schrandt, for example, led a socially-distanced convoy of cars past the house of a senior player this month to honk happy birthday wishes.
Mullins joined Father Ryan’s entire leadership team in distributing Class of 2020 graduation blankets and yard signs around Nashville on a recent Friday.
In Memphis, McCullough and others are finding as many ways as possible to engage with their now-distanced youths.
“We’re trying in our district to address our kids much as we can,” McCullough said. “This is uncharted territory, scary for a lot of people, and we want to remind them to stay safe and let them know, ‘We miss you.’ The athletic piece is a big part, but right now our seniors don’t get to experience prom, graduation. We just have to live with the hope that everything will get better.
“There are a lot of difficult things about this. I think as humans, we're always sitting back thinking about, ‘I wish I’d known then what I know now. I would have done this or that, or maybe I would have practiced harder.’ But if you’re a competitor you really have to live in the moment. You can only play for so long. Even if you’re LeBron James, you can still only play for so long. You have to live in the moments.”
These hardships are not only teaching tools for the youth. Administrators are wondering what school buildings and classrooms might look like in the fall; coaches are uncertain about summer camps, practices or a reasonable facsimile for their fall schedules.
What is developing through this challenge, however, is a greater coach-to-coach, region-to-region and sport-to-sport camaraderie.
“I have found that we, as athletics directors, are in different email groups with TSSAA, TIAAA, NAIS and different independent schools, and it’s really been awesome,” said Mullins, a former standout volleyball player at Father Ryan, the University of Tennessee and Lipscomb University. “It’s great to see how all of the athletic directors and principals and all of the heads of schools have come together, even over email, to float different ideas about what they’re doing or what their teachers and coaches are doing and how they are staying in communication.
“I think it definitely has hit the reset button for us and I think it has brought us closer together. And I am very much looking forward to working with other schools for the betterment of our students and of our student-athletes.”
“Everybody is affected,” said Wright, a Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame inductee. “I call it the fraternity of coaches. We compete hard against each other, we want to win, but only that other coach across the sidelines knows what you go through before the game and how hard you work.
“There is a little bit of kindred spirit growing because it's not affected just one town, one part of the state, one sport. We’re all not having daily contact with kids in the way we are used to as teachers and coaches, and all coaches are in the same boat and this gives us all some common ground, we can all empathize.”
McCullough eyes a greater horizon.
“We hope that this can bring us together,” McCullough said. “Not only just the state but in the country, we’re such a divided country and everything is so political right now. My thing is we’re all Americans here and we've got to figure this out. We’ve got to help each other, stay safe, and help with finances when it’s bad for this person or that person.
"We have a tendency to leave situations behind. But I think the best teaching is going to come after we get back to some normalcy. We shouldn't forget what has happened, and hopefully we look back and say, ‘We came through this together,’ and if we all come together, we can make it through this and get better and be prepared for it. And we can help kids live in the moment and say, ‘Hey, you never know, this might be your last game. Live in that moment and play hard and represent your school and your community and appreciate the chance to compete.’”